Senator Daniel Inouye, R.I.P.

As you may have heard by now, the Senate has lost one of its most distinguished members, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. He was 88.

Inouye, a Japanese-American, broke racial barriers by becoming one of the first Asian-Americans to be elected to the U.S. senate. He first came to prominence during the Watergate era, when he served on the Senate Watergate Committee. After Nixon henchman John Ehrlichman testified, Inouye exclaimed, “What a liar!” into what he mistakenly thought was a dead mic. His disgust echoed the sentiments of a nation. He became a thorn in the side of the Nixon administration, who demonstrated their legendary class by referring to him with racial slurs. According to the New York Times obituary, an attorney for Ehrlichman and Haldeman publicly called him a “little Jap.” (He later apologized).

Inouye was known for his great dignity, and also for his diligent constituent services. Incredibly, the Times reports that up until his death, his Bethesda home phone number was publicly listed in the telephone book. Inouye is also known for his heroism during World War II, which led to the amputation of his right arm. If you don’t know it, it is an absolutely amazing story. I strongly urge you to read the account of Inouye’s military service on his Wikipedia page; it will give you the full measure of the man.

Inouye had been the longest-serving member of the senate. Politically, his death won’t change the balance of power in that body. Hawaii is a strongly Democratic state, and its Democratic governor will select a replacement senator from a list of candidates provided by the state party. The one major area where Inouye’s replacement could make a significant difference is in filibuster reform. It isn’t certain how Inouye would have voted on reform, but as a senate veteran, he would have been less likely to be friendly to reform than a newcomer.

Senator Inouye’s death seems to have genuinely moved his colleagues, and their expressions of loss appeared to go beyond the pro forma. The Times reports that his fellow senators seemed “shocked” by his death, and Senator Patrick Leahy is quoted as saying he is “broken up” about it. Senator Inouye certainly left his mark, and he will be missed. R.I.P.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee