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Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), leaves a legacy of decency, civility and, above all, a commitment to the common good. He is also the reason contributor Paul Watanabe got into politics. Inouye died of respiratory complications on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. He was 88. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

I teach a course on the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. In the class, I ask my students a simple question, “Who is the most well-known and accomplished Japanese American alive?” Invariably a hand quickly goes up, and a student blurts out, “You, of course, Professor Watanabe.” Although impressed, I don’t fall for this grade grubbing ploy. After several often fruitless attempts to come up with a name, I offer my own answer, “Senator Daniel Inouye.”

With the news of the senator’s sudden passing on Monday evening, I will just change the question, from “who is?” to “who was?”

The media has richly chronicled Daniel Inouye’s extraordinary life and accomplishments. He served Hawaii for seven decades first as a member of the Territorial Legislature and then as a congressman and senator when it gained statehood. At the time of his death, Senator Inouye was the president pro tempore of the Senate, third in the line of succession to the presidency.

Growing up in Utah as an American of Japanese descent, I searched for role models — athletes, movie or television stars, pop singers — who I could identify with and who looked like me and my family.

One might wonder how anyone could manage to remain sane and civil while engaged in the acrimonious battles that now mark the congressional arena. Senator Inouye understood though that the halls of Congress were nothing compared to the hills and trenches of Italy and France in World War II where he witnessed first-hand sacrifice and heroism. It was on that hallowed ground as well that he sacrificed his right arm and became a hero, earning the Congressional Medal of Honor. He served his country on the battlefields of Europe while over 100,000 of his fellow Japanese Americans were behind barbed wire in internment camps in the United States.

Growing up in Utah as an American of Japanese descent, I searched for role models — athletes, movie or television stars, pop singers — who I could identify with and who looked like me and my family. In the 1960s two people emerged — George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu in “Star Trek,” and Daniel Inouye. Since I didn’t want to be an actor, following Takei’s example was out of the question. Inouye’s domain, though, intrigued me — so I applied my attention and pretty soon I was hooked on politics and public policy.

I was proud of and inspired by Senator Inouye, but my feelings were fragile. I will never forget the day during the Senate Watergate hearings when my pride in Senator Inouye, a tenacious and incisive questioner, burst like a bubble when Attorney General John Mitchell’s attorney complained about the “little Jap.” Despite that slap in the face, there is no doubt who got the best of that exchange in the end.

Later on, I had the chance to meet Senator Inouye in person. I will never forget how I reflexively thrust forward my right hand. Embarrassed, I tried to quickly withdraw it, but, before I could do so, the senator unflinchingly grabbed my right hand with his left and gave me a friendly greeting. Since then, I met and worked with Senator Inouye on several occasions. He was usually the most powerful person in the room, but he was much more than that: He was the most candid, direct, and knowledgeable as well.

In Washington these days, all anyone talks about is the fiscal deficit. But there is a very real shortfall of a different kind as well. We have a leadership deficit. Too many of today’s politicians lack basic competence, vision and decency. Too few are inspired by a fundamental commitment to the common good. With Senator Inouye’s passing this deficit becomes deeper at a time when the nation can ill afford it. Hopefully others will step forward to fill his very large shoes.

“Aloha” senator.

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  • massappeal

    Thanks for this lovely and powerful essay. If I recall correctly, when reporters questioned Sen. Inouye about the “little Jap” comment by John Wilson, Inouye was characteristically gracious (noting that Wilson’s remark came after Inouye muttered “what a liar” into what he thought was a dead mic about one of Wilson’s clients) and tough (explaining that most Hawaiians had Japanese ancestors and that “you didn’t call someone a little Jap unless you wanted a punch in the nose”).

    I remember driving across country listening on radio to Oliver North’s testimony before the Iran-Contra select committee chaired by Sen. Inouye. As it turned out, North’s lies and evasions were much more obvious without the visual distractions of his bemedaled uniform and his doe-eyed facial expressions. Sen. Inouye’s voice, by contrast, sounded like the voice of God. So much so that it was utterly shocking when North’s attorney, Brendan Sullivan interrupted Inouye. On one level, I’m still surprised Sullivan wasn’t struck down by a lightning bolt for his behavior. We’ll miss Sen. Inouye.

  • sjw81

    great column. pales in comparison to our supposed icon- late sen kennedy.

    what a diffence-in life, war hero, sacrifice, accomplishment, law abiding…

  • jeffrey moss

    Too bad one of his last moves was to help get the “Monsanto Protection Act”passed.Talk about tainting your legacy!Next election the people are sending all those monsanto shills packing.Hes gone already but he would of been one of them!
    Tsuji,Solomon,you’re outta here!

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