President Barack Obama praised Daniel Inouye as perhaps his "earliest political inspiration" while delivering remarks at a memorial service for the late senator on Friday.
The Hawaii Democrat, the second longest serving senator in U.S. history, died on Monday. He was 88.
"We remember a man who inspired all of us with his courage and moved us with his compassion, that inspired us with his integrity and who taught so many of us, including a young boy growing up in Hawaii, that America has a place for everyone," Obama said at a memorial service held in Washington's National Cathedral.
He continued: "May God bless Daniel Inouye and may God grant us more souls like his."
The president delivered remarks following other high-profile leaders, including former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Raised in Hawaii, Obama recalled growing to admire his senator, who represented the island in Congress for more than five decades--first as a congressman for three years, then as a senator for 50 years.
"Here I was a young boy with a white mom, a black father, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii. I was beginning to sense how fitting into the world might not be as simple as it might seem," he said, adding that he felt inspired by "this man, this senator, this powerful accomplished person, who wasn't out of central casting when it came to what you'd think a senator might look like at the time."
Obama said at the age of 11, he watched Inouye play a central role in the Watergate hearings. "The way he commanded the respect of an entire nation, I think it hinted to me what might be possible in my own life."
Prior to going into public service, Inouye enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Because of his Japanese heritage, Inouye's family was labeled an "enemy alien."
He served in an Army unit made up of Japanese-Americans, and his battalion was the most decorated unit of the war. While serving, he lost an arm charging machine gun nests in San Terenzo, Italy. He was ultimately awarded the Medal of Honor.
Obama described Inouye as "a man who believed in America even when its government didn't necessarily believe in him."
"That meant something to me," he continued. "It gave me a powerful sense--one that I couldn't put into words--a powerful sense of hope."
Had he not followed Inouye's questionings during the Watergate hearings or learned more about his own senator, "I might never have considered a career in public service."
"I think it's fair to say that Danny Inouye was perhaps my earliest political inspiration."
Family, staff, and members of Congress gathered in the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday for a ceremony as Inouye lie in state, a high honor reserved for presidents and other significant civic figures. His final memorial service will take place Sunday at Hawaii's National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
His office said that Inouye's last word Monday evening at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was "Aloha," a word in Hawaii than can mean both "hello" and "goodbye."
Obama, however, said the word can also mean "I love you."
"It's fitting it was the last word that Danny spoke on this Earth. He may have been saying goodbye to us, maybe he was saying hello to someone waiting on other side," Obama said. "But it was a final expression most of all for his love for the family and friends that he cared so much about, for the men and women he was honored to serve with, for the country that held such a special place in his heart."