This past Friday, President Obama delivered a very personal eulogy at the funeral service for Senator Daniel Inouye, the president pro tempore of the Senate and a Medal of Honor recipient.
Obama spent most of the speech describing his own impressions of Inouye, especially the inspiration he drew as a young boy from learning about the Japanese-American senator, describing it as a major development in his political life:
It wasn’t until I was 11 years old that I recall even learning what a U.S. senator was, or it registering, at least. . . . And my mother that summer would turn on the TV every night during this vacation and watch the Watergate hearings. And I can’t say that I understood everything that was being discussed, but I knew the issues were important. I knew they spoke to some basic way about who we were and who we might be as Americans.
And the person who fascinated me most was this man of Japanese descent with one arm, speaking in this courtly baritone, full of dignity and grace. And 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.
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. . . .
And as I watched those hearings, listening to Danny ask all those piercing questions night after night . . . I learned how our democracy was supposed to work . . .
And, somehow, nobody communicated that more effectively than Danny Inouye. You got a sense, as Joe mentioned, of just a fundamental integrity; that he was a proud Democrat, but most importantly, he was a proud American. And were it not for those two insights planted in my head at the age of 11, in between Disneyland and a trip to Yellowstone, I might never have considered a career in public service. I might not be standing here today.
I think it’s fair to say that Danny Inouye was perhaps my earliest political inspiration.
A moving tribute, certainly, but was the president slightly exaggerating the influence of Senator Inouye on his own life and political career? It’s certainly plausible that an American of non-white descent and a senator from the president’s home state was “perhaps [Obama's] earliest political inspiration,” but luckily, we have two memoirs by our relatively young president that document his early political inspirations to see if Obama actually placed such a high importance on the war-hero senator. In their pages, there is only one mention of Senator Daniel Inouye (I’m not going to call him “Danny,” being neither the president nor merely 40 years Inouye’s junior), and it is in a contemporary, not childhood, context. On page 25 of The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes:
One of the first things I noticed upon my arrival in Washington was the relative cordiality among the Senate’s older members: the unfailing courtesy that governed every interaction between John Warner and Robert Byrd, or the genuine bond of friendship between Republican Ted Stevens and Democrat Daniel Inouye. It is commonly said that these men represent that last of a dying breed . . .
Inouye, thus, receives his only mention in Obama’s works when being paired with other senators as an example of senatorial camaraderie that he observed in 2008, and nothing else (Inouye also goes unmentioned in the two most prominent biographies of Obama, by David Maraniss and David Remnick). Not exactly the treatment one expects of someone who Obama claims left a memorable and lasting impression politically, and supposedly, especially struck him on racial issues, which are salient throughout his memoirs.
Obama does mention in Dreams from My Father the summer during which he watched the Watergate hearings, in which Inouye played a part. He explains how, on a summer trip, “we took Greyhound buses, mostly, and stayed at Howard Johnson’s, and watched the Watergate hearings every night before going to bed” (page 144). That is a common memory of Americans from the summer of 1973, but Obama says nothing at all about the hearings’ being what he calls a moment when he first became politically aware, as he claims above. In a book mostly concerned with his confused racial identity and his personal journey to politics, Obama mentions Watergate as an arbitrary period reference, not attaching any political meaning to the events or tying Senator Inouye to his discussion of racial identity and politics — calling into question, perhaps, how seriously he meant his testament to Inouye’s role in his life as a senator or as an Asian American politician.
(In addition, my Lexis Nexis searches did not turn up any instances of Obama referring to Inouye in publicly reported speeches throughout his career, though I’m happy to be corrected in this.)
In his 1994 introduction to Dreams from My Father, Obama explains that “for the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known,” and that various other liberties were taken in the text. While some similar license might be given for convenient symbolism in a eulogy, it appears that the president last weekend may have been indulging in some similar exaggeration, and in a more important, official context.