Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, a highly decorated World War II combat veteran who used his status as one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington and the second-longest-serving senator in history to send billions of dollars to his home islands, died Monday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. He was 88.
Peter Boyland, a spokesman for the senator, said the cause was respiratory complications.
Since 2010, Sen. Inouye had been the Senate’s president pro tempore, which put him third in the line of succession for the presidency.
He cut a singular figure in the nation’s capital when he arrived in Washington in 1959 as a representative from the newest state and the first Japanese American elected to Congress.
A methodical behind-the-scenes operator who rarely sought the media spotlight, he was little known outside Hawaii and the halls of the Capitol. But his wartime record, for which he received the nation’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor — coupled with his reputation for a bipartisan approach to politics — helped him gain respect from and influence with colleagues of both parties.
After serving in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 1962 and began a career as Hawaii’s most important patron in Washington. As longtime chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee and, after 2009, of the entire Appropriations Committee, Sen. Inouye ensured that Hawaii, once seen by most Americans as a distant agricultural outpost, received a steady flow of dollars to develop military sites and modern transportation, communications and educational systems.
Proudly describing himself as “the No. 1 earmarks guy in the U.S. Congress,” he was — along with his friend and political ally Ted Stevens, the late Republican senator from Alaska — one of the last unapologetic purveyors of political pork.
Sen. Inouye came to national attention only on occasion, most notably when he helped orchestrate inquiries into the Watergate scandal and the Iran-contra affair, two of Congress’s most politically explosive investigations into alleged White House wrongdoings. But he was a towering personality in Hawaii, where he had been born to working-class Japanese immigrants.
He grew up planning to become a doctor. But in 1942, as a teenager barely out of high school, he joined what would become a revered Army regiment of Japanese Americans.
Two years later, on a battlefield in Italy, he destroyed three enemy machine gun nests even as bullets tore through his stomach and legs. A grenade nearly ripped off his right arm, and it was later amputated at an Army hospital.
Back in the United States, the young lieutenant was wearing his empty right sleeve pinned to his officer’s uniform when he stepped into a San Francisco barbershop for a haircut. “We don’t serve Japs here,” the barber told him.
Memories of such encounters remained vivid to Sen. Inouye, who in his political career spoke eloquently in support of civil rights and social welfare programs.
He was one of a number of Hawaiian-born Japanese American veterans who returned to the islands to lead a peaceful grass-roots uprising that brought ethnic minorities and working people to power in a place long dominated by white owners of sugar plantations.
In 1954, Sen. Inouye was part of a Democratic tide that swept Republicans — who had long run island politics and were closely aligned with the sugar interests — out of office. Hawaii has voted solidly Democratic since.
His war record and his central role in ushering in that era of social change gave Sen. Inouye “an original power and a kind of aura” that he carried throughout his career, said Neal Milner, a retired political scientist at the University of Hawaii.
“He represents the success of Asian Americans in Hawaii beginning to throw off the Caucasian elite control that this place had for a long period of time,” Milner said.
Keeper of traditions
In Washington, Sen. Inouye exercised a taciturn authority as a keeper of fading Senate traditions, including collegiality and bipartisan compromise.
In 1973, he served on the bipartisan Senate panel that conducted investigative hearings on the Watergate scandal.
The hearings, which gathered reams of evidence about the White House coverup of illegal activities by President Richard M. Nixon’s reelection campaign, led to the indictment of dozens of administration officials and helped spur Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
Watched by millions of viewers on network television over the course of three months, the sessions introduced Sen. Inouye to the public as an undaunted questioner of top White House aides, including H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman.
Ehrlichman’s sworn testimony prompted a rare moment of unguarded emotion from Sen. Inouye. “What a liar!” he whispered into a microphone he thought was off.