Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s death last week ended the more than 50-year reign of the Senate “lions” — a select group of iconic, long-serving members whose presence connected the chamber to some of the most important events of the past half-century.
Gone is the last active senator elected in the 1960s or before. Gone is the last senator to have served during the Watergate scandal era.
Only one senator remains who was in the chamber during the Vietnam War: Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, who took office less than four months before United States’ involvement in the conflict ended.
And with Mr. Inouye’s passing, only one other World War II veteran remains in the Senate — Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, who joined the chamber in late 1982, almost 20 years after Mr. Inouye.
“This is pretty close to the end of an era of senators that have this deep commitment right down to their bones and arteries for the Senate, somebody who’s devoted his life to it, where the institution is as important as anything else,” said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.
Mr. Inouye, a Hawaii native and the first Japanese-American elected to Congress, was the last of the so-called “lions.” He was preceded in death by fellow Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 2009 and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia a year later. Combined, the three men had a more than 147 years experience in Congress’ upper chamber.
All three enjoyed a Senate tenure unlikely to be matched soon.
Mr. Kennedy’s successor, Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown, a former Massachusetts state senator, rode an initial tea party wave to win a special election in early 2010. But he lost his re-election bid last month to Democrat Elizabeth Warren, and his political future is uncertain.
Later in 2010, Joe Manchin III, then governor of West Virginia won a special election for Mr. Byrd’s seat after it was occupied briefly by placeholder Carte Goodwin, who was 36 at the time — 56 years younger than Mr. Byrd. Mr. Manchin was re-elected in November, but at age 65, he won’t be able to match Mr. Byrd’s 51 years in the Senate.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie will appoint a replacement for Mr. Inouye, choosing from a list of three candidates selected by the state Democratic Party. Whoever is appointed will serve until a special election in 2014.
The Senate itself also has evolved: With voters more willing to reject incumbents, membership is no longer viewed as a lifetime post.
“For a lot of people coming in (now), the institution is a vehicle for getting policies they prefer, or even a place where you can be a big shot,” Mr. Ornstein said.
Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, for example, announced this month he was resigning to run the Heritage Foundation, saying he will have a greater impact on the conservative movement leading the influential think tank than by staying in the Senate.
And President Obama served less than one term in the Senate before he was elected to the nation’s highest office in 2008.
“People say, ‘Will there be another Ted Kennedy, will there be another Robert Byrd or a Dan Inouye?’ But remember, frankly, when they came to the Senate, nobody saw them as potential giants. They had to prove themselves,” he said.
Mr. Inouye was elected to the House in 1959 — the same year Hawaii became a state. He served in the Senate from January 1963 until his death Dec. 17 at the age of 88 — the second-longest serving senator in history, trailing only Mr. Byrd.
In a sound-bite-hungry political age that rewards oversized hubris and bombastic behavior, Mr. Inouye was a throwback to a more civil — though by no means gentle — era on Capitol Hill. He abhorred self-promotion but was fueled by ambition. He shunned the camera, preferring to work behind the scenes.
“This was not a guy who sought the spotlight, who was eager to go on ‘Meet the Press’ or ‘Face the Nation’ every weekend,” Mr. Ornstein said. “He was an inside player.”
While quiet, he was anything but timid. He gained power as a member of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee, serving as chairman of the panel’s defense appropriations subcommittee before later chairing the full panel.
“He could be forceful when he wanted to be,” Mr. Ritchie said. “He saw what he wanted to do, and he did it.”
And few senators in history exhibited more heroics on the battlefield.
While leading troops during a World War II battle in Italy, his right arm was destroyed by German fire just as it was cocked to throw a hand grenade at the enemy. With his mangled arm barely attached to his body and his hand reflexively still clutching the live grenade, he grabbed the bomb with his other hand and successfully flung it at his German target.
Mr. Inouye was one of 22 Asian-American World War II veterans who in 2000 belatedly received the nation’s top honor for bravery on the battlefield, the Medal of Honor.
A memorial service for the senator was held Sunday at Honolulu’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. About 1,000 people attended, including Mr. Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Hawaii’s congressional delegation and several other senators, Cabinet secretaries and other dignitaries, the Associated Press reported.
“Daniel was the best senator among us all,” Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, told those assembled. He later added: “Whenever we needed a noble man to lean on, we turned to Sen. Dan Inouye. He was fearless.”