12/30/2012 03:48 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2013

Sen. Inouye's Message to the 113th Congress

It was 40 years to the day since Daniel Inouye had been elected to represent the new state of Hawaii in Congress and he still couldn't believe his good fortune.

"If I had told someone 40 years ago that this is what I'd be doing now, they would have said, 'You're nuts,'" he said when I interviewed him on July 28, 1999.

Inouye, who was then 74, had just been reelected to his seventh term in the Senate after two terms in the House, and I asked him how much longer he would serve. "If my health holds out, I'd like stick around if the people of Hawaii want me to," he said. "It depends on health concerns, and obviously, the people's will."

Inouye, who died last week at the age of 88, was accorded the highest honors of his country, lying in state in the U.S. Capitol before President Obama spoke at his funeral, and reams have been written about his incredible life as World War II war hero, the first Japanese American elected to Congress, and one of the most powerful lawmakers in Washington.

But it was what he told me that day in 1999 about the lesson he learned when he arrived in Congress that deserves to be told again at a time when Washington is gripped by partisan rancor and legislative gridlock. Here it is, from the article that ran in The Hill on August 4, 1999.

"I got sworn in by myself," Inouye recalled. "I went down to the well and Speaker [Sam] Rayburn said, 'I don't know how to pronounce your name so I'll just call you the gentleman from Hawaii.' Then he said, 'Raise your right hand.' When I raised my left hand, I could hear gasps all over the chamber. I think it was then that some of my colleagues realized there was an empty sleeve."

A few days later, Rayburn called Inouye and invited him to visit him.

I had no idea there was a subway, so I ran up the steps of the Capitol and he took me on a tour. It took over an hour. He took me to the post office, the bank, the men's room. He said, 'See that fellow there. He will shine your shoes, but we don't pay well so I hope you'll tip him at least 25 cents.'

"He took me where the restaurant was. We walked into the room and he said, 'See that table? That's the Texas table. As Speaker, I welcome you. You can sit at that table any time you want.'

When they got back to the Speaker's office, Rayborn told Inouye some things he never forgot. "One, he said, 'In this Congress, we didn't sign a contract. Our word is our bond. If you are likely to break your word and can't keep your promises, I suggest you pack your bags and go home because you're wasting your time.'

"Second, he said, 'We are from all parts of the United States here. We represent people from different regions with different problems. We often differ philosophically, politically. That's to be expected in our system. However, I will respect your views, and I expect you to respect mine. I will not question your honesty or integrity. Don't question mine.'

In the same interview, I asked Inouye about the changes he had seen in the Senate, and his answer, in retrospect, seems all too prophetic since his words apply to the House as well.

"It has changed in some sense," he said. " ... The changes have been, I would say, in the way senators conduct themselves. I think it's too bad that we have fogotten some of the courtesies of the office."

But what I remember best is how Inouye described the conclusion of his meeting with Speaker Rayburn.

"He ended up with a serious look on his face. He said, 'The president of the United States is the best known person in this city. Next is the Speaker. Soon you will be the third best known person in Washington.' I said, 'Why, Mr. Speaker?' He said, 'Because there are not too many one-armed Japanese around here.' Only he said it another way. I was part of his team."

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