I was 11 when I first saw Daniel Inouye, then a member of the Senate Watergate committee. My family, bunch of liberals that we were, took to him immediately, I remember. I couldn’t today tell you a single thing he did on that committee, but he seemed noble and reasonable; like you imagine (when you’re a kid, anyway) a senator should be. He was terrific as chairman of the select Iran-contra committee as well.
He was the last of the senators surviving from the great era, that brief period in its history when the Senate actually worked well. It was full, then, of genuinely committed public servants, men (and a few women) who disagreed on a lot of things but did have the good of the country in mind, because they were raised in Depression and war and most of them saw the United States grow from a largely agrarian nation into the world’s greatest power and they knew in their bones that a certain civic responsibility and faith was demanded of them.
They also didn’t have to spend every spare second raising money, which is a very big deal indeed. But the importance of those galvanizing events, Depression and war, can’t be overstated. Read here, from The Atlantic, how Inouye lost that arm. He was charging a German machine-gun position and had a grenade in his right hand when his right arm was hit by a German grenade, leaving the arm hanging by a thread:
I saw a fellow pointing it at me and I felt the blast and I recall going for my grenade, prying it out of my right hand and throwing it with my left. My arm was dangling by a couple shreds, so when I lifted it up, it was hanging like that. Just shredded. So I knew it was gone. First I was looking all over for the grenade, I thought it fell. And then I looked at my hand and I said, 'Oh, my Lord. It's there.' I had pulled the pin, and my hand was back ready to toss it, so I knew it was armed. The fingers somehow froze over the grenade, so I had to pry it out.
Holy smokes. An experience like that is bound to give you some perspective and understand that political disagreements are only disagreements, a perspective we (myself included) have lost today.
I have always been blown away by the story that Inouye, Bob Dole, and Michigan’s Phil Hart, my favorite all-time senator, recuperated from their war injuries in the same Washington hospital for veterans and got to know one another as soldiers and citizens before they rejoined one another in the Senate years later. They were all great senators, even Dole, until he caught the Gingrich Disease in 1995, ’96.
Will we ever have a Senate like that again? Maybe, yes, but a lot is going to have to change. A civic culture grew out of those cataclysms that enabled America to unite (to a considerable extent, anyway) and create the world’s largest middle class and defeat segregation. Inouye was our last link to that time.