The Legacy Of War Hero And Pioneer Daniel Inouye

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) was known for his military service during World War II and his work to improve Hawaii's infrastructure. When he died on Dec. 17, 2012, he was the second-longest serving senator in U.S. history. Bill Dorman, news director at Hawaii Public Radio, reflects on what made him so influential in Hawaii.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Aides reported that Senator Daniel Inouye's last words as he lay dying was aloha. History rarely hinges on the contributions of any one person. But no one person did more for the state of Hawaii than Daniel Inouye - a witness to the attack on Pearl Harbor as a teenager; a volunteer, awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism for his service in the famous Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team; the first Japanese-American elected to Congress, and by the time of his death last night, second only to Robert Byrd as the longest-serving senator in U.S. history. He played key roles in congressional investigations of two of the biggest political scandals of the 20th century and earmarked many billions for federally funded projects all over the islands.

We especially want to hear from those of you in Hawaii - from Hawaii - on the legacy of Senator Daniel Inouye. The phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And joining us now is Bill Dorman, the news director at Hawaii Public Radio. Nice to have you with us today.

BILL DORMAN, BYLINE: Aloha, Neal.

CONAN: And thanks. And tell us what Senator Inouye is being remembered for in Hawaii today.

DORMAN: You know, there is so much and it's so different for different people. The history of Hawaii as a state and even before that is the history of Dan Inouye here on so many levels. If you look anywhere on any of the Hawaiian islands, you see something that Dan Inouye helped to build, helped to fund, helped to support. Forty-nine years in the Senate, that's a legacy not just about projects that he leaves behind but also the person who he was, and that's what a lot of people are continuing to talk about today and across Hawaii.

CONAN: There are senators who cut important figures on the national scene. Senator Inouye, for all that time in the Senate, worked behind the scenes generally in Washington. Was he well-known in Hawaii?

DORMAN: Oh, absolutely, probably the best known certainly a sense of power but also force of moral nature, almost. The history, again, going back before statehood but representing Hawaii in Washington, D.C., since 1959, from when Eisenhower was in the White House - you know, and you talk about him coming to the Senate in 1963, the first Japanese-American. This was a year before the Civil Rights Act. So again, the context, the history for people here in Hawaii, Senator Dan, as people would call him, just had that legacy, that history, and really leaves a legacy, as I say, not just of projects but also of spirit.

CONAN: That spirit - he had the moral authority of somebody who is there so early, as we mentioned - a witness at Pearl Harbor, a member of that Nisei regiment that he served with in Italy - and it's interesting, I read this morning about, he was recovering in the hospital from his wounds, which were ghastly - he lost his right arm - and he was playing cards with a young lieutenant from Kansas that had also been severely injured, a kid named Bob Dole.

DORMAN: Yes. Exactly. And later on on the Senate floor, across the aisle - but, you know, that also is very representative of what a lot of Senator Inouye's legacy is as well, and that's moving beyond partisanship. He was very much someone who worked behind the scenes, across the aisle, very much someone who believed that the cause is the important thing, partisanship comes secondary to the importance. He was also for - as powerful senator as he was, he was a very humble guy, very much - very keen sense of humor, particularly about himself. But when he would need to summon the voice and that stern countenance - Governor Abercrombie yesterday said that, you know, I don't suppose there's any such thing as the voice of God, but I have an idea that if God had to pick somebody to speak for him, it would have been Dan Inouye.

CONAN: Can you give us any examples of that humor that you could remember?

DORMAN: Well, you know, he was just been here at Hawaii Public Radio last year talking with a group of us and going through various stories about his childhood and about growing up. And we asked him about Pearl Harbor, about when that happened and what he was doing. He talked about being a senior at McKinley High School here in Honolulu and then hearing the bombs, seeing what was going on and getting on his bicycle and riding his bicycle down to Pearl Harbor. In the midst of this very dramatic story, sort of, said in aside of, you know, and I didn't pedal very fast. I wasn't very athletic but I kept going...

(LAUGHTER)

DORMAN: ...and made it down. And he came in as a medical volunteer and just worked the rest of that day. That's another thing about the senator. You know, he had dreams of being a surgeon before the war. And when his right arm was shattered, his dreams were shattered along with that. But then he just changed course. And that theme of resilience, of overcoming obstacles is something that very much resonated with the people of Hawaii over time and is something that he very much stood for.

CONAN: You mentioned the projects. It was common practice in the U.S. Congress for members to be able to earmark various projects. And, well, as a powerful United States senator, Dan Inouye earmarked more than a few projects.

DORMAN: He sure did. And he made no bones about it and said this is - I am in the Senate for the good of the American people and for the good of the people of the state of Hawaii. And I am here to make sure that some of the federal dollars come this way.

He did - he brought a lot of Defense Department spending to the islands. "The Almanac of American Politics," for example, says he brought $1.4 billion in military projects to Hawaii from '98 to 2003, just over those five years, but other projects as well and things that are specific to Hawaii that are maybe difficult for those outside the state to understand but that are important when it comes to, for example, for invasive species.

There is a famous brown tree snake that is very critical in terms of killing wildlife and birds in particular. It sounds - well, we need millions to combat this tree snake. It sounds as if, oh, that's a boondoggle. But in terms of importance to people of Hawaii, that's something that's very important. And he said that the earmark process gave an area - gave a means for those Hawaii-specific projects to be represented at the federal level.

CONAN: Are you with us from Honolulu?

DORMAN: I am indeed.

CONAN: Can you tell us some projects within just the vicinity of the Hawaii Public Radio studios there of something that Senator Inouye gave to the people of Hawaii?

DORMAN: Sure. I mean, my first thought is infrastructure. You know, Hawaii is not just a tourist destination but also a major port. And the port facilities, the infrastructure generally in terms of highways, in terms of freeways, in terms of not just what is here now but what is planned for the future, that all has his fingerprints all over it. There is a commuter rail project, bit of a controversy, but that is underway and in the works for Honolulu. $1.5 billion in federal funding is part of that project. And just very recently, he announced the approval from the Transportation Department for that money, so just one of many examples of the things that he brought to the state.

CONAN: That waterfront is impressive, not just the ships bringing in all the food and other freight that the people there on the islands need but the looming cruise ships that dwarf everything on the ports. We want to talk with people in and from Hawaii about the legacy of Daniel Inouye. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Ian. And Ian is calling us from Honolulu.

IAN: Yeah. Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

IAN: Sure. I just wanted to, you know, two things. One, and your guest already mentioned it, is that I don't know if history will always necessarily report how much Senator Dan got stuff done behind the scenes. You mentioned it, but I hope some - at some point people are able to sort of delve into that because he worked with people in a way that is pretty much lost now. And even with - even when I didn't agree with what he was doing with like, for instance, Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska on a lot of things, Senator Dan always had a way of not grandstanding, making his positions clear but not taking advantage and making compromise impossible. So I'll miss that.

But the other factor is just that he - in addition to all the infrastructure and all the military spending, you know, his legacy is going to be felt around the world because he brought a lot of things related to like, you know, tsunami warning and the ports were mentioned and just a whole lot of stuff that - work that contributing to working with other nations in the Pacific through Hawaii that's benefited United States and Asia. So he's going to have a long legacy throughout the Pacific Rim.

CONAN: Ian, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

IAN: Sure.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Ricky(ph), another caller from Honolulu.

RICKY: Hi there. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thank you.

RICKY: I'm looking at a beautiful Hawaiian rainbow as I call you. I just wanted to say a couple of very brief things about the senator. I came to Hawaii from Massachusetts and - where Ted Kennedy was revered, and Senator Inouye is revered here. And beyond his tireless long list of notable achievements, the one thing that people here in Hawaii, as part of their culture, really respect about him is how he got business done using the aloha spirit. And the aloha spirit is probably the pinnacle, a very Hawaiian culture.

And the aloha spirit, for those of your listeners that don't know what it is, it would be consciously and deliberately always treating the other person with positive civil regard and making a deliberate decision to do that all the time and treating them honorably even if they didn't agree with your views. And in Washington with the gridlock these days, not only is this way by him considered, I think, a role model but the schoolchildren of Hawaii, what we call our keiki, are taught about him and how he exhibited the aloha spirit. So I think that's really one of his greatest contributions to society.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Ricky.

RICKY: Absolutely. And you have a great day.

CONAN: Thank you. We're talking about Senator Daniel Inouye, the second longest-serving senator in the history of the U.S. Senate. He died yesterday in Bethesda, Maryland, not far from Capitol Hill. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And our guest is Bill Dorman, news director at Hawaii Public Radio. And let's see we get another caller in on the conversation. This is Marty(ph), and Marty is with us from Kailua-Kona in Hawaii.

MARTY: Yes. I think it's kind of important that we not just look at the positives of Mr. Inouye's career. He chaired the commission that looked into the Iran-Contra investigation, and a lot of information about the CIA dealing crack cocaine was covered up by Mr. Inouye. Public debate was pushed behind private dollars, you know, so that we didn't get to know very important things. Mr. Inouye was a very big friend of the military industrial complex, and being that in this country means a big friend of imperialism. And I think it's important not to put too shiny a gloss on someone posthumously and ignore the things that they did that were really a detriment to the entire world. Thank you.

CONAN: Marty, thanks very much. He mentions a popularly held theory among some about cocaine smuggling as part of the Iran-Contra affair. That's never been proven, so it's something that people believe. And if there was proof that came to light in the course of those investigations, well, it was never made public. Senator Inouye, as we mentioned, was part of two senatorial or congressional investigations. People remember him first on the Senate Watergate Committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina down the panel, if memory serves, to Senator Ervin's left. Then, of course, as the caller mentioned, the chair of the committee that investigated the Iran-Contra affair back in 1987. He offered a report on the committee's findings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SENATOR DANIEL INOUYE: Inescapably, some facts have been lost to us and have been lost to history. But you do not have to see every grain of sand to recognize a beach. The picture presented, I think, is rather clear. The committees conclude that the officials who participated in the scandal showed disdain for our laws and our constitutional system of government. They ran a government outside government. They conducted a secret foreign policy and concealed it through a concerted campaign of dishonesty and deception. And when the affair began to unravel, they attempted to cover up their deeds.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask, Bob Dorman, as chair of that committee, at the time, Senator Inouye hoped to become the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, majority leader. He did not get that post. He ran for it and was defeated by George Mitchell. Was there resentment in Hawaii that he did not get the top post?

DORMAN: I'd say in Hawaii, two levels on that. One, the - in terms of the Iran-Contra committee itself, there was criticism at the time as you recall that in the testimony of President Reagan was delayed. It was on tape. It was later - it was - there were areas that perhaps could have been explored more aggressively. Again, here, I think the focus was always more local with the senator that it was about Hawaii first and his role in national politics as a secondary part or as a portion of that as how it helped the people of Hawaii. So I think that would be less of an obsession here than perhaps elsewhere in the national politics.

CONAN: Inside the beltway.

DORMAN: Exactly.

CONAN: Let's see we get one more caller, and this is Bob, another caller from Honolulu.

BOB: Aloha.

CONAN: Aloha. We just have a few seconds, Bob. Can you make it quick?

BOB: Yeah. I was there when Senator Inouye told us a very funny story. It's the first White House dinner he attended in 1959. He had just been sworn in as a junior congressman from Hawaii. He said he was pulling up to the White House gates and he could hear the guards whispering because they hadn't seen too many Asian people. Who the hell is that, one guard said. The other one said I think it's the king of Siam.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

That's Bob calling us from Honolulu. Hawaii's other senator, Daniel Akaka, said: Senator Inouye's legacy could be seen in every mile of every road in Hawaii, in every nature preserved, in every facility that makes Hawaii a safer place. He fulfilled his dream of creating a better Hawaii.

And, Bob Dorman, it's going to be interesting times there too as we see the passing of that generation, not just Senator Inouye who died yesterday but Senator Akaka as well is going to be moving on from the political scene and transitions all over the place. Thanks very much for being our guest today.

DORMAN: Thank you and aloha.

CONAN: Bill Dorman, news director at Hawaii Public Radio. Tomorrow, adoption and the Internet. Going online to fill out your family is becoming more prevalent, but there are risks. Join us for that conversation tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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