WASHINGTON -- With reverential words and warm memories, President Barack Obama Friday led the admirers paying tribute to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a war hero and senator for 50 years who was hailed for his leadership and modesty.

Obama said Inouye was the one who "hinted to me what might be possible in my own life."

"For him, freedom and dignity were not abstractions," Obama said at the National Cathedral service. "They were values that he had bled for, ideas he sacrificed for."

Inouye died Monday of respiratory complications. He was 88. He worked until mere minutes before his death, shaking hands with friends and caressing the hands of family in those final moments, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told the service. Reid said Inouye thanked his security detail and the doctors and nurses, and wrote notes detailing his last wishes.

The tributes from the nation's political leaders were deeply personal.

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Vice President Joe Biden said he remembered thinking of Inouye: "I wish I could be more like that man. He's a better man than I am."

Former President Bill Clinton described Inouye as "one of the most remarkable Americans I have ever known."

Inouye was the first Japanese-American elected to both houses of Congress and the second-longest serving senator in U.S. history. He was awarded a Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor, for bravery during World War II, including a heroic effort that cost him his right arm.

Obama told a story of taking a summer trip across America as an 11-year-old and spending the nights watching the Watergate hearings on TV with his mother. The president said that, as the son of a white mother and a black father, he found it captivating to watch the Japanese-American with one arm and a baritone voice. "To see this man, this senator, this powerful, accomplished person who was not out of central casting . . . and the way he commanded the respect of an entire nation, I think it hinted to me what might be possible in my own life," Obama said.