Remembering Dan Inouye: Gov. Neil Abercrombie Pays Tribute

Gov. Neil Abercrombie shares his first impressions of the late senator, why Inouye was so effective in office and how he’ll always cherish a congratulatory phone call.

Photo: Courtesy Office of Gov. Neil Abercrombie

It was always his voice, this mellifluous baritone voice, resonant and authoritative. And his calm demeanor; it was always very impressive. But you could not help but notice his arm. In those days, I don’t remember his sleeve being pinned; I know that happened at first when he was rehabilitating himself. As I recall, if he had a coat on, the sleeve would be tucked into the pocket.

He always had this calm and authoritative presence—if he spoke, everyone kept quiet. You could go to rallies and it was raucous, but, if Inouye spoke, everyone stopped what they were doing and paid attention. We thought of senators that way. It seems these days, there’s this pop-culture element among politicians. Do they sing songs? Have a truck? Are they someone you’d want to have a beer with? Apparently these have become some criteria. You didn’t think about having a beer with Sen. Inouye. You thought about Sen. Inouye as a sober and serious individual. You expected to hear serious things from him: policies, proposals, programs and projects, all discussed by a full-fledged adult. He was as political as anybody, in the sense of understanding it. He fulfilled the role in the classic sense of what a senator should be. He was someone who was disciplined, above the roar that comes from the crowd.

Do you know the story of when he first got elected in the U.S. House and met former Speaker Sam Rayburn in 1959? You have to understand the context of the time and the way people spoke. We’d be shocked today. This speaks about the kind of person Sen. Inouye was. Congress, back in the ’50s, post-war, was the world of segregation. This was the old days, when freshman senators kept their mouths shut and didn’t speak unless spoken to. That was the world he was in. He’d been in Washington six months and had never spoken to Speaker Rayburn. One day Sen. Inouye comes around a hallway corner and he says, “Speaker Rayburn, I haven’t had a chance to introduce myself. I’m Dan Inouye from Hawaii.” Speaker Rayburn says to him, “I know who you are, how many one-armed Japs do you think there are in the Congress?!” And he wasn’t being mean. Inouye said, “When I thought about it, ‘not too damn many!’”

He didn’t try to remind anyone that he lost his arm in the war. Instead, he focused on public service. He was committed because he believed that his life had been given to him as a kind of gift. He always gave the impression that it was his duty … because so many others around him had died. He was intent on living every moment he had using his talents.

July 1985 cover of HONOLULU

Photo: Honolulu Magazine, July, 1985

When I came back to Congress in 1990, as a U.S. representative, we would meet up as the Hawaii delegation and, of course, he was the dean of the delegation. Sen. Inouye gave me very good advice. He said, “Look, you’ll have to make decisions and take stands, which people may not appreciate or understand. The important thing for you to remember is let your actions speak for you. Do what is required, do what is necessary, make the right decisions, and people will come to realize that you’re doing your job and they’ll come around. Don’t let the criticism of the moment keep you from the path that you’ve chosen and the program that you’ve outlined for yourself. Your actions will speak for you.” He said it’s been his experience in Hawaii that, in the end, people don’t pay attention to the noise of the moment. In the end, they’ll take a look and see what you’ve done, what your actions are and then make a judgment about those actions. That always guides me now. I never make a decision on the basis of what is good for me at the moment.

He told me, “I’ve been in this a long time, since the Territorial days. Just remember, a lot of people are shooting stars, particularly in today’s world, in the world of social media, the Internet and the 24-hour cable news shows. You know what happens with shootings stars? They’re very bright and they have a very big arc and then they disappear.” Dan Inouye wasn’t going to do that. He wasn’t a shooting star, he was a fixed star in the heavens.

You have to remember one thing about Sen. Inouye: Everybody always thought he was going to deliver. It really worked against him in some ways, because, no matter what we did, no matter how things got fouled up, no matter how desperate it became, everybody always assumed, Well, in the end, Sen. Inouye will deliver. And he always did, so we just got used to it—not so much that we took it for granted, it’s that we counted on it.

In all the years since I first met him in ’59, it never occurred to me, and I don’t think it ever occurred to him either, that I’d run for governor, let alone be elected as governor, a haole boy from the Mainland. Yet, he always encouraged me. The day after I became the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Sen. Inouye called me. It was so hectic and I didn’t hear my phone ring, so he left a message. I still have it. I have two messages I’ve saved on my cell phone, one from my wife and one from Dan Inouye, in that voice of his, saying that he would do everything he could to help me be a good governor, and that I could count on him.