Washington D.C. and Hawaii are awash in tributes to the late Senator Daniel Inouye, who died last week, in office, at the age of 88. This is as it should be. Inouye was a historic figure in his state, a war hero (a Congressional Medal of Honor recipeient, in fact) , a statesman, in in all respects, from every source I’ve seen, the epitome of an honorable U.S. Senator and a good man.
But he stayed too long at his job. This is an obvious statement, since he dropped dead while still committed to filling his position for four more years. In 2010, Inouye ran for office knowing that he would be 92 when he finished his term. In this he was irresponsible, just as his former colleagues Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and many, many others were irresponsible before him. Senator Inouye even allowed himself to become President pro tem of the Senate, placing him third in line to succeed to the Presidency, after the Vice President and Speaker of the House.
We do not need term limits: if the voters, as they do, choose to keep electing representatives on the basis of nostalgia, or laziness, or fear of change, or loyalty, that’s democracy, just as it’s democracy that they elect officials for no better reasons than the fact that they had popular or successful grandfathers, parents, and spouses. The presumption in democracy is that we elect leaders who are better qualified to assess our best interests than we are, and that means that we should be able to trust them to know when it’s time to take themselves out of the active process of governing, and to remove from us the opportunity to irresponsibly confer power on those who are no longer fit to wield it.
Anyone who watched or listened to Senator Inouye over the past decade could tell that he was diminished in energy, endurance, and vigor. Because I always admired him (and do still), I was disappointed to watch him fall into the centuries-old pattern of refusing to surrender power, position and prestige long after it should have been apparent that his job and his constituency required someone younger, not only with more physical resources, but with a more current perspective. At very least, an 86-year-old man who runs for a six-year term is gambling that mortality will not catch up with him when the odds and common sense say that it will. In this he is gambling with the welfare of the nation, and for selfish reasons.
I am sure, because he was an honorable man, the Senator honestly believed that he was the best alternative for the job. He was wise and smart enough, however, to also know that this was bias, and that virtually no one at 88 is as able as they were, and rather than being better able to serve his state and nation, he was inevitably going to be declining in ability and effectiveness as long as he stayed in his position. He knew, out of respect and habit, his loyal constituency would never remove him from the Senate as long as he expressed a desire to stay. It was therefore his duty to leave on his own…for their sake.
This would have been the final professional act of integrity wisdom, courage and responsibility of a public servant who had many of them during his political career.
It is a pity that Senator Inouye couldn’t bring himself to do it.