The clock inched toward midnight Thursday on Capitol Hill. Still, an honor guard stood vigil over the late-Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) whose body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda overnight.

Of course, there was there honor guard provided by the U.S. Capitol Police. The officers were decked out in full dress uniform, black strips of cloth strung over their badges. They wore ivory gloves and tight, four-button jackets. Every half hour, even in the dead of night, an officer stationed at the Senate door of the Rotunda clicked the metal heels of his high-glass quarter shoes together twice, signaling a changing of the guard.

The Capitol Police were impressive as they strode solemnly into the Rotunda, walking counterclockwise around Inouye's casket and deliberately saluting.

But what was even more impressive was the honor guard that remained out in the hallway.

The police closed off the Rotunda late in the afternoon after hundreds of people filed by to pay their final respects to the second-longest serving senator in U.S. history. But long after everyone left and the hour grew late, a very special honor guard gathered to stand vigil over the fallen senator.

At a few minutes after 11, a blonde woman leaned against the wall of the passageway that links the Senate wing of the Capitol and the Rotunda. Her Congressional ID was slung around her neck on a lanyard. Her nose was red and puffy as she stood watch. The Capitol Police detail which ringed Inouye's casket, marched out of the Rotunda, the next shift in place.

"Thanks guys," said the choked up woman to the honor guard as she clenched a tissue.

But she wasn't the only one there.

About seventy feet back, another woman viewed the proceedings near the entrance to the Old Senate Chamber. She looked through the corridor, through the columns of the "mini" Rotunda, festooned with a massive chandelier, and into the Rotunda itself. Her vantage point was far removed from Inouye's casket. But her watch was just important.

These unidentified women, Congressional aides both, bolstered the ranks of the U.S. Capitol Police ceremonial guard. They were sentries standing post through the night over the body and the legacy of the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. A man who had represented Hawaii in Congress since statehood until his passing at age 88 last week.

Around the clock, the U.S. Capitol Police snapped their salutes and clicked their heels to guard the body of only the 33rd soul to ever lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. But the silent citadel of the two unidentified, dedicated Congressional staffers who watched in the hallway were emblematic of Inouye's low-key approach to more than 53 years of service in Washington.

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American politics and history lends itself to only a few hallowed locales. The Oval Office. The Eternal Flame at Arlington National Cemetery. The Lincoln Memorial. The battlefields at Gettysburg. Philadelphia's Constitution Hall.

But the only sanctum in the American political experience is the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Despite serving as the focal point of the legislative branch of government, the Capitol Dome and Rotunda feel and look ecclesiastical. A little bit like St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican and St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

And perhaps the feel is why is the Rotunda is so sacred.

Senate Historian Don Ritchie says the incipient American nation immediately adopted a number of British traditions early in the 19th Century.

"But the one they didn't adopt was a national church," said Ritchie, noting that the funerals for many revered British figures are held in Westminster Abbey. "John Quincy Adams wanted to build an American cathedral. Some didn't want it because they didn't want to be involved in religion. Others didn't want to spend the money."

There's a National Cathedral now in Northwest Washington, DC. But it wasn't completed until well after the nation's bicentennial.

Ritchie says Congress often held state funerals and services for prominent figures in the House and Senate chambers. But that all changed when former House Speaker and U.S. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky died in 1852.

"Both the House and Senate claimed him," said Ritchie, noting that while there was no gigantic church the size of Westminster Abbey to hold a service, there was the Capitol Rotunda. "It was as close to a big church as we had. And for a long time, it was the largest space the government had."

Clay's death set in motion the tradition of conducting remembrances for eminent citizens in the Capitol Rotunda. President Lincoln's assassination bolstered the tradition in 1865 as his casket sat atop the catafalque, a pine platform draped with dark fabric and knotted tassels. The casket of every figure who has lain in state since Lincoln has rested atop the same catafalque - including the one for Inouye.

These funereal rituals in the Capitol Rotunda are rare. No one had lain in state since President Ford passed away just after Christmas in 2006. But Ritchie views such services in the Rotunda as the essence of the American system at work.

"All rooms in the Capitol start with an 'H' or 'S,'" said Ritchie, denoting House or Senate, "Except the Rotunda. Congress only functions when both houses can come together. So symbolically they're tied together under this magnificent dome in the middle of the Capitol."

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As the honor guard stood watch over Inouye's body, a steady stream of dignitaries and the public streamed in to the Rotunda during the official viewing hours. An elderly Japanese-American man, walking with a cane and wearing a red and blue garrison hat for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team stood quietly near Inouye's body. The 442nd was Inouye's unit where he fought bravely before losing an arm while taking out Nazi machine gun nests in Italy in 1945. The 442nd is one of the most-decorated in Army history, comprised of mostly Japanese-American service members.

A few lawmakers filtered in. Reps. Jim Costa (D-CA) and Bill Johnson (R-OH). Sen. John Thune (R-SD) arrived with the South Dakota State women's basketball team. They wore blue warm-ups and sneakers, prepping for their game that night against Georgetown. Former Sen. Chuck Robb (D-VA) and his wife Lynda Bird Robb popped in to pay their respects. In fact, her father, President Lyndon Johnson, had lain in state in the Rotunda after his death in January, 1973.

And then an old friend came to say goodbye.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) arrived alongside his wife, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC). Dole and Inouye met while convalescing from their injuries at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a military hospital for America's wounded in World War II. Inouye had planned to be a surgeon before the Nazis mutilated his right arm, forcing it to be amputated. Dole encouraged Inouye to go into politics instead. Inouye did, coming to Washington as Hawaii's first Congressman in 1959, seven months before Dole made it to the House in 1961. Inouye often told people that he followed "the Dole plan" to reach Capitol Hill.

Dole usually uses a wheelchair these days. But as he approached the Rotunda alongside Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Kansas Republican made a battlefield decision. Reid later said Dole told him that "Danny's not going to see me in my wheelchair."

And Dole rose to walk across the Rotunda toward Inouye's casket with help from his wife and another aide, with Reid and McConnell trailing.

Supported by his wife, Dole took a step onto the small platform holding the catafalque so he could touch the field of blue on the American flag draped across Inouye's casket. Elizabeth Dole then kissed her hand and touched the flag as well.

Dole had severely injured his right arm just a week and a hill apart in Italy where Inouye was also wounded.

Dole raised his left hand to salute his friend before departing.

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President Obama, Reid and many other senators gathered in Hawaii as Inouye was buried over the weekend.

"He faced death many times, especially during that awful war," said Reid. "He would often tell us that he had been lucky. Lucky his whole life. But I don't believe that Dan was lucky. I don't believe he was lucky at all. Dan Inouye was a blessed man. He had work to do here among us and stayed until that work was done."

And as Daniel Inouye lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, an honor guard stayed too, watching over him.

Some in uniform.

Some not.

Throughout the night.

Like Inouye, they stayed until that work was done.