To someone who has known only the modern, troubled U.S. Senate, Daniel Inouye looks like a throwback. He was an entrenched senator—the longest-serving, when he died this week at 88—and had served until the day of his passing, long after people in other job categories would have retired. He was famous for securing "earmarks" for his state of Hawaii, a practice now disdained under the absurd presumption that local projects are what are breaking the federal budget. Inouye used earmarks for what they were intended: to provide services and projects to local communities that would not be done in another way, and to make it possible to collect enough votes to pass appropriations bills.
But in an era when "career politician" has taken on an unfairly negative tone, Inouye represented something sadly lacking in the modern Congress—a sense of duty and service to country. Inouye displayed that service in the most powerful and poignant of ways, volunteering to fight for the United States during World War II when fellow Japanese-Americans were being put in U.S. internship camps. He nearly died during the war, losing his right arm and obliterating earlier hopes of being a surgeon. He then continued his public service in government, becoming a Hawaii congressman in 1959, the year Hawaii became a state. Three years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he remained until his death this week.
Inouye wasn't a ranter or a raver. He didn't use the Senate to push some extreme agenda favored by powerful interest groups. Like colleagues of that generation, Inouye understood that the institution of the Senate was bigger than he was. His service in World War II trained him for a job in a way that is critical to successful lawmaking: He understood that he and his colleagues, however different their backgrounds, were there to work for something larger and more important than themselves. In an institution now tragically populated by people determined to tear each other down, Inouye understood that lawmaking was about building something. He will be missed. And the principles that governed the Senate of Inouye's era are just one more vote towards extinction.