As Washington bid final farewell to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye with a memorial service at Washington’s National Cathedral on Friday, a portrait emerged of the final moments of his life earlier this week.
While the list of those offering reflections included the current president and vice president, as well as a former president, the reflections from Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black offered the insight he gleaned from the Hawaii Democrat’s passing.
“I thought that Sen. Inouye was indestructible, and if I had not been honored to be at his bedside when he died, I still would not believe that he is gone. He was generous to the very end, for he gave me the great gift of instructive closure,” Black said.
That closure came through a remarkable final few minutes of life, explained Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“Fifteen minutes before he passed, he shook the hands of friends and family who surrounded him. He thanked the doctors and nurses for their care and attention. He thanked his security detail for their careful protection over the years,” the Nevada Democrat said at the service. “He wrote notes detailing his last wishes, working until mere moments before his death.”
On Monday, it was revealed that one of those final requests was for Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie to appoint Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to fill out the remainder of Inouye’s term. Both Hanabusa and Sen.-elect Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, read from scripture at the ceremony.
Reid said that another request from Inouye was for the majority leader to speak at the service.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. both spoke, with the Hawaiian-born president recalling watching Inouye during the Watergate hearings from motel room TVs during a trip to tour the mainland. Obama conceded that, being only 11 years old at the time, he didn’t fully understand the situation, but said he noticed Inouye.
“Maybe he captivated my attention because my mom explained that this was our senator and that he was upholding what our government was all about. Maybe it was a boyhood fascination with the story of how he had lost his arm in a war. But I think it was more than that,” Obama said. “Now, here I was, a young boy with a white mom, a black father, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii. And I was beginning to sense how fitting into the world might not be as simple as it might seem. And so to see this man, this senator, this powerful, accomplished person who wasn’t out of central casting when it came to what you’d think a senator might look like at the time, and the way he commanded the respect of an entire nation, I think it hinted to me what might be possible in my own life.”
The service gave everyone in attendance time to reflect, in sharp contrast to other events in the news regarding the fiscal cliff. Word that Obama would nominate Sen. John Kerry as the next secretary of State leaked out just as the service was about to begin, with the Massachusetts Democrat in attendance at the cathedral, seated not far from the president.
Fellow senators were honorary pallbearers, including several senior appropriators, as well as former Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., who honored his friend in the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday. Dole and Inouye met at a hospital in Michigan while recovering from World War II injuries and had been friends ever since.
Black, a retired Navy rear admiral, is known to the Senate community for his clarity and creativity in the daily opening prayer. He recalled the remarks made by Inouye at a memorial service for the man he called his “brother,” the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
“He gave one of the most amazing tributes I had ever heard. I made him promise that he would teach me how to speak like that,” Black said, which drew laughter from a crowd of senators, members, staff, friends and family.
“I said, I want your eloquence of diction. I want your brilliance of metaphor. I — I want your poetry of imagination.”
“I had the opportunity of reminding him at Walter Reed that he still had unfinished work to do with me,” Black said. “I was blessed to be able to hold his hand. I was blessed to be able to recite the scriptures.”
Black said that, in a most fitting way, the final portion he spoke at Inouye’s bedside at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., before he died at about 5 p.m. Monday was Psalm 23, which Black called, “a passage with words that have been whispered by more people in trouble, spoken in more hospital rooms, uttered by more dying lips than perhaps any other words in scripture.”
When Black concluded his remarks, the Aloha Boys, a Hawaiian music group based in the D.C. area, struck a positive note by playing a medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” made famous by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.