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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday paid tribute to U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War Two hero who represented Hawaii in Congress for more than 50 years, calling the senator who died on Monday "my earliest political inspiration."
Inouye, who lost his right arm in battle and gained national attention during the Senate's Watergate hearings, died at age 88. Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden spoke about Inouye's legacy at a funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral.
Obama, who was born in Hawaii, recalled seeing Inouye, a senator not "out of central casting," ask tough questions during the televised Watergate hearings, which dominated television during Obama's first-ever visit to the U.S. mainland.
"The person who fascinated me most was this man of Japanese descent with one arm, speaking in this courtly baritone, full of dignity and grace," Obama said.
Obama, then 11, said he was beginning to sense that "fitting into the world" would not always be easy as the son of a white woman and black man, and said Inouye captured his attention between visits to Disneyland and Yellowstone National Park.
"It hinted to me what might be possible in my own life," Obama said.
"I think it's fair to say that Danny Inouye was perhaps my earliest political inspiration."
Inouye enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after the 1941 Japanese attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
The U.S. government had declared Japanese-Americans "enemy aliens" as a result of the attack, and Inouye, then 17, was among those who petitioned for the right to serve in the U.S. military to prove their allegiance.
Inouye lost his right arm while charging a series of German machine-gun nests on a hill in Italy in 1945.
At the funeral, former President Clinton called Inouye "one of the most remarkable Americans I have ever known."
"They blew his arm off in World War Two, but they never, ever laid a finger on his heart," Clinton said.
Between Christian hymns sung by the cathedral's choir and Hawaiian songs sung by a ukulele trio, Democratic political leaders lauded Inouye for his humility and ability to find common ground without giving up on his principles.
"Danny Inouye possessed that intangible thing that every leader longs to possess, and that is he would never waver on what he thought was right," Biden said.
Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs and a former U.S. Army chief of staff, thanked Inouye, who he said paved the way for generations of Japanese-Americans in public service.
"I have had the broadest shoulders to stand on," said Shinseki, who is Japanese-American, and was born in Hawaii. "Aloha senator. Aloha and mahalo."
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Vicki Allen