Paul Greenberg

Even a conflicted slaveholder like Thomas Jefferson could recognize that, despite all the Great Compromises (first1820, then 1850, and then the terrible pact with the Devil in 1854 that prefaced and presaged The War), once a geographical line had been drawn across the Republic separating free from slave states, a fire bell had tolled in the night. As he put in his "Notes on Virginia": "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever...."

It didn't. And the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword was unleashed. There were not just giants in those days but prophets.

Even lesser figures of that time -- the brilliant eccentric John Randolph of Roanoke and the heroic Charles Sumner -- would put today's nonentities and sonorities in the Senate to shame.

Every institution has its fallow seasons, and the Senate seemed to go into eclipse after The War, as one row of forgettable, indistinguishable, interchangeable portraits succeeded another. But the Senate would rise again in the next century and give birth to a new generation of giants. There was Fighting Bob LaFollete, who bestrode the Senate when Progressive was still an honorable designation, and Robert A. Taft, Mr. Republican -- and Mr. Integrity. Not to mention steely Margaret Chase Smith of rockbound Maine, who wasn't afraid of Joe McCarthy or any other bully. And an ex-Marine named Paul Douglas of Illinois, Land of Lincoln, who would never cease fighting for freedom. At home or abroad.

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Great senators may differ in their ideas, their parties, their passions ... but it is not their causes that are most missed now but their greatness. It's as if a race of giants has been succeeded by one of pygmies.

Maybe that's why the death of Daniel Inouye this dismal December affected so many Americans, and caused us to pause for a moment in the day's petty preoccupations, and the Senate's. He stood out -- like a reminder of the Senate's old ways and old glory. For today's Senate is not that of Webster and Clay, or Robert F. Wagner and Robert A. Taft, or even that of Arthur Vandenberg or Lyndon Johnson, but of small men making small compromises in secret meetings, closeted away from the American people lest we hear too much, and know too much, and realize just how little our "leaders" lead.

It's a different, drab era. Issues are obscured rather than debated. In place of Hayne-Webster exploring great issues and great ideas, we have Boehner-Obama negotiating in some hideaway, concocting stopgap fixes, devising deadlines that always seem to be ignored, and making not great history but passing headlines. In place of open covenants openly arrived at, we get backroom deals and legislation that, to quote the remarkable Nancy Pelosi, must be passed before we find out what's in it. And even then, it can be an ongoing mystery. (See Obamacare.)

A senator named Daniel Inouye didn't have to shout for his every word to matter, as when he served on the Watergate Committee. He didn't speak loud or long during that hour of trial and eventual triumph before our long national nightmare had ended, and the moral bankruptcy of a whole presidency had been laid bare.

When the senator from Hawaii did speak, a hush fell, for he went straight to the essence of things. As he did during the Iran-Contra hearings and tangled web. He spoke softly and carried immense authority. His words bore deep, and that empty sleeve spoke even more eloquently. He wore it like a second, invisible Medal of Honor.

Senator Inouye in his quiet way, like Second Lieutenant Inouye in combat, didn't have to be tall to tower over others. We live in hope that he was not the last of his kind, that once again the United States Senate will know greatness. And that the United States of America will, too. And it will.

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For who could have predicted, on December 7, 1941, that a 442nd Regimental Combat Team ("Go for Broke"), composed largely of Nisei, second-generation Americans of Japanese ancestry, would become the most decorated outfit in the war that was now suddenly upon us in all its fury? Or that a 17-year-old Japanese kid in Hawaii would grow up to become an American hero -- in war and peace. His life is a reminder that America remains America, and a promise that it will.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.