Why Was Obama’s Eulogy to Sen. Daniel Inouye All About Obama?

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Dec. 21 2012 6:18 PM

Today We Are Gathered … To Hear More About Me

President Obama was supposed to eulogize the memory of Sen. Daniel Inouye. Instead he told us about his favorite summer vacation.

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President Barack Obama speaks during the funeral for Sen. Daniel Inouye on Friday at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Someone needs to tell Barack Obama—it must get particularly confusing this time of year—that his own birth is not Year One, the date around which all other events are understood. His much-noted, self-referential tic was on cringe-worthy display Friday when the president gave his eulogy for the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, who served in Congress for half a century representing Obama’s birth state of Hawaii.

Inouye was a Japanese-American war hero (he lost an arm in World War II, destroying his dream of becoming a surgeon), and as a senator he served on the Watergate committee, helped rewrite our intelligence charter after scandals, and was chairman of the Senate committee that investigated the Iran-Contra affair. It’s the kind of material any eulogist could use to give a moving sense of the man and his accomplishment. But President Barack Obama’s remarks at Inouye’s funeral service were a bizarre twirl around his own personal Kodak carousel.

Obama likes to see events through the lens of his own life’s chronology. Thus we learn that Inouye was elected to the Senate when Obama was 2 years old. Now you could make this relevant by describing how Inouye worked to send federal dollars (you don’t have to call it “pork” at a funeral) to transform Hawaii’s roads and schools, for example, so that the Hawaii Obama grew up in had the kind of facilities people on the mainland had long taken for granted. But no, we simply learn that Inouye was Obama’s senator until he left the state to go to college—something apparently more momentous than anything Inouye did during his decades in office.

Obama acknowledges that as a young person he was unaware of politics, and thus Inouye. But then something important happened that made young Obama pay attention to the first man to be elected to Congress from Hawaii after it joined the union. When Obama was 11 years old he went on vacation with his family, and those paying their respects to Inouye got to hear a long description of this amazing trip, from Seattle to Kansas, from Disneyland to Yellowstone. They heard of the young Obama’s happiness whenever the motel had a pool or an ice machine. And finally, as the people must have been twitching in the pews wondering where this was all going, we get back to the late senator.

It turns out the Watergate hearings were taking place at that time, too, and Obama’s mother watched them in their various hotel rooms. It surprised young Obama to see that a man of Japanese descent was a senator. Little did most people know that the most important thing to come out of the Watergate hearings was that Obama, with his mixed-race background, saw in Inouye a hint of “what might be possible in my own life.” That Obama in some way may have been inspired to a political career by a man who overcame prejudice and later became Obama’s colleague is a fine point to make. But it is an incidental one to the life being celebrated.

Obama never really gives us a sense of the life being celebrated. (He keeps referring to Inouye as “Danny,” which somehow seems inappropriate given the occasion and their great difference in age.) From Obama’s telling, the next significant event in Inouye’s life was greeting his new Senate colleague, Barack Obama. The president says that he got good advice from Inouye on the workings of the Senate. But these insights must not have been too memorable, because Obama doesn’t cite any. He then wraps up with some generic praise, none of which has the specificity, the detail, the sense of life lived as his description of that summer trip that was so meaningful to the man standing before us.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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