Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, November 17, 1999

Hawaii’s largest
public figure

WE have been engaged in much stock-taking in these days before the end of the century and the beginning of the new millennium. One of the questions we ask is, "Who counts, who is really important and why?"

We have measured Hawaii by its important events and by its important people. Nationally, the news media have done the same. When the local media and the national media coincide with the judgment of historians, the approval of Hawaii's voters and the respect of colleagues, you have a man of significance.

There is only one person like that in Hawaii today, Daniel Ken Inouye, Hawaii's senior United States senator. He is Hawaii's largest public figure.

On the economic side, last year an ABC news report referred to Inouye as Hawaii's second leading industry. There's something to that because of Inouye's understanding of federal budgets.

But his contributions to Hawaii will not be measured in tax dollars or grants bestowed on Hawaii, nor will he be remembered because of his enduring clout in Congress.

Dan Inouye will be remembered, partially, because he and his generation in Hawaii looked at a time of discrimination, prejudice and outright physical danger and triumphed.

Politicians who are war heroes may be something of a cliche, but men who fought for a chance to fight while relatives and neighbors were being sent to detention camps are remarkable.

"My people were only a generation removed from the land that had spawned the bombers sent to drop death on Hawaii... They had worked so hard. They wanted so desperately to be accepted, to be good Americans," Inouye wrote in his autobiography, "Journey to Washington."

ONE of Inouye's favorite pictures from the book is of him standing in combat fatigues, his right arm cradling a rifle. Sometime after that picture, Inouye lost his arm while attacking a German machine-gun nest.

The famed "Go for Broke" 442nd Regimental Combat Team that included Inouye suffered horrendous casualties. Today military historians debate whether the 442nd was thrown into battles where they would be butchered because they were "expendable" Japanese-Americans.

Back then, what they did was survive with heroism and courage. After the war, Inouye's stories of discrimination and his responses have became part of Hawaii's history.

Along the way there have been questions. Inouye in 1992 denied charges of forcing himself sexually on a woman 20 years before. Later he had to deal with the resurfacing of a story of how he took a ring from a dead woman during the war.

NOW he must listen to the petty name-calling of a minor Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee, Mililani Trask, who was upset about the scheduling of a series of hearings.

Ironically, Trask's slur against Inouye, calling him a "one-armed bandit" was first made jokingly by former Gov. John A. Burns, Inouye's greatest ally and supporter.

According to an oral history given by Democratic Party worker Mike Tokunaga, in 1959, when Inouye was thinking about running for the Senate, when Burns wanted him to first win a U.S. House seat, "I got a phone call from Washington, D.C., and Jack is on the line. He says, 'What is that one-armed bandit doing?' "

Inouye, however, is more than a controversial figure, war hero, defender of the Senate and symbol of American and Hawaiian racial tolerance. Dan Inouye is, as scholar and historian Theon Wright says, "the symbol of Hawaii...and the art of the possible."

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Richard Borreca reports on Hawaii's politics every Wednesday.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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