While the nation will remember Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, as a great American for many reasons, in southeastern Connecticut he played an especially important role in the arch of its recent history.
Sen. Inouye, who died Monday at age 88 after nearly a half-century in the Senate, was a decorated war hero. He lost his right arm in 1945 while fighting valiantly to help free his Army platoon after it was pinned down by machine guns during the Italian campaign. Sen. Inouye received America's highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Nobly, he risked his life for a country that had stripped his and other Japanese-American families of many of their rights at the outbreak of World War II.
In 1973, as a member of the Senate Watergate committee, Sen. Inouye's patient, unpretentious but persistent questioning of key witnesses played a significant role in revealing for the American people the extent of corruption within the Nixon White House, leading to President Nixon's resignation. In 1987 the Hawaiian chaired the Senate's Iran-Contra investigations, proving that high-ranking officials in the Reagan administration directed a clandestine and illegal program that sold weapons to Iran and used the profits to buy weapons for rebels fighting the left-wing Nicaraguan government.
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Intelligence in the mid-1970s, Sen. Inouye led the effort to create a new charter for the CIA and other intelligence-gathering services, protecting American citizens from domestic surveillance and rebuilding respect within the disheartened intelligence community.
While the late senator will remain best known for these achievements, in southeastern Connecticut his support helped save the region's defense industry and provided the framework for the emergence of its tribal casinos. So important were his contributions that a former senator from Connecticut, Christopher J. Dodd, labeled him "Connecticut's third senator."
In 1991 it appeared the Seawolf submarine program was headed for elimination. The first Seawolf submarine was beset with hull-welding problems and critics saw the submarine as unnecessary given the Cold War's end. But as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Inouye fought successfully to restore the funding. He would continue to provide key support for the program during the 1990s.
While Electric Boat built only three Seawolf fast-attack submarines, Sen. Inouye recognized that production served as a necessary bridge to the Virginia-class program, keeping the critical submarine-building infrastructure in place and preserving jobs at EB facilities in Groton and Quonset Point, R.I. So highly regarded was Sen. Inouye locally that Democrat Joe Courtney brought him to southeastern Connecticut in 2006 to campaign on his behalf. Rep. Courtney won that election to Congress by 83 votes.
On Monday Rep. Courtney recalled the man who supported him at a critical time.
"Sen. Daniel Inouye's death is a tremendous loss not just for Hawaii and the United States Senate, but for the state of Connecticut as well," he said.
As chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Sen. Inouye helped create the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, the federal law that provided a jurisdictional structure to oversee Native American gaming. The act provided protection from the threat that outside sources, including organized crime, could exploit and gain influence over tribal casinos. Its intent was to use gaming as a means of generating revenue and driving tribal economic development. The act played an important part in the development of the Mohegan Sun and Mashantucket Pequot-run Foxwoods Resort casinos.
Native Americans locally and across the country admired his work on their behalf and sponsorship of numerous bills focused on helping Indian Country and maintaining federal support for impoverished reservations.
"Indian Country has lost its greatest champion in the history of the United States Senate," said Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer. "When he started serving in Congress, the federal policies of termination, (and) relocation … hung like a specter over Indian Country. Inouye helped forge an entirely new dynamic, a relationship premised on self-determination, honesty, respect, and cooperation."
The senator's reported last word, used both as a greeting and farewell in his native state, seems most appropriate: "Aloha," Sen. Inouye.