Norm Mineta on Pioneering Career, America's Future In 2001, Norm Mineta made history as the first Asian-American to serve in a presidential cabinet, and bears the distinction of being the longest-serving U.S. Secretary of Transportation. The trailblazing public servant talks about his road to White House leadership, leading the nation through acts of terror on Sept. 11, and his plans for the future.
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Norm Mineta on Pioneering Career, America's Future

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Norm Mineta on Pioneering Career, America's Future

Norm Mineta on Pioneering Career, America's Future

Norm Mineta on Pioneering Career, America's Future

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In 2001, Norm Mineta made history as the first Asian-American to serve in a presidential cabinet, and bears the distinction of being the longest-serving U.S. Secretary of Transportation. The trailblazing public servant talks about his road to White House leadership, leading the nation through acts of terror on Sept. 11, and his plans for the future.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from the NPR News. It's time for Our Wisdom Watch, the part of the program where we speak with distinguished elders from a variety of fields, hoping they'll share not just knowledge but wisdom from years of accomplishment. Today, Norman Mineta, he's been making history his entire career becoming the first Asian-American to lead a major city, San Jose, California. Then again, as the first Asian-American appointed to a presidential cabinet position as President Clinton's Secretary of Commerce. He became the only Democratic President George W. Bush's cabinet when he was named Secretary of Transportation where he served as the longest serving leader of that agency. When Secretary Mineta stopped into our offices recently, he talked about a pivotal day in history that shaped the man he would become.

Secretary NORMAN MINETA (Presidential Cabinet, Former Secretary of Commerce and Transportation): Without a doubt, December 7th 1941 was a very devastating time period.

MARTIN: That of course was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the years following the attack, more than 100,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps. Norman Mineta was no exception. He shared his memories of that experience.

Secretary MINETA: I was 11 years old the day we got on the train, I had my baseball glove and baseball bat and as I got on the train, the MPs confiscated the bat because it could be used as the lethal weapon. So, yes, I can remember getting down to Santa Anita, the race track. The Army had commandeered all the race tracks in the county fairgrounds in Washington, Oregon, and California because they had built in living quarters, namely the horse tables.

MARTIN: I'm thinking about the metaphor of having your baseball bat confiscated. What a metaphor that is. It's the most American game and here you're taking this cherished possession with you, your glove and your ball and your bat and having your bat taken away and I'm just thinking what that must have been a, like as an 11 year-old boy and then what a metaphor that is.

Secretary MINETA: And I had my Cub Scout uniform on.

MARTIN: Do you ever think about what affect that experience may have had on you?

Secretary MINETA: Well, it wasn't so much the impact on me, you know, for me as a kid, oh boy, we're riding a train overnight to Santa Anita the race track, and yet, I remember when we were pulling out of San Jose, I looked across and all these tears were coming down my dad's face, and I've only seen my dad cry three times. Once was on the 7th of December because he couldn't understand why the land of his birth was now attacking the land of his heart. Second time, May 29th 1942, when we're pulling out of San Jose starting on our trip to Santa Anita. And then the third time, in 1956, when my mother passed away.

MARTIN: Where do you think your passion for public service has come from? Sometimes when people have a negative experience with government issue as you did as an 11 year-old with your family being interned, they just don't want anything to do with it. They want to stay as far away from anything that have to do with the government or authorities as possible. Where do you think your passion for public service came from?

Secretary MINETA: My father, all he said that he wanted us to be participating in community activities whatever our outlet might be, church, YMCA, YWCA. When I went on to the University of California and Berkley, I continue to participate in student body activities there, and then right after I graduated, came back to San Jose and joined my dad in his insurance business and kept active in the Japanese-American community. So in 1967, I was appointed to the city council, and then in 1971, the mayor who had been elected in '67 decided not to seek reelection, and by that time, I was vice mayor. And so I did run and always said that unemployment was still bad at that time that there were, I believe, 13 candidates running for mayor. So, but I was able to get elected that year, and then served until 1974 when I then ran for congress.

MARTIN: I know you're being very modest, but I want to know, what do you think has kept you at it all these years? I mean two cabinet positions, 10 terms in the Congress and what do you think has kept you at it all these years?

Mr. MINETA: Well, I think over the years, because of my own experience being evacuated and interned for that period of time. No one spoke up on our behalf and those who did were called the J-A-P lovers and so it's something that, I think really stuck with me. And so, my sort of basis for public service was to try to speak out for the under represented and to pick up on those issues that weren't being carried by others.

MARTIN: You were able to, as part of your work in Congress, get the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 passed. Did you feel vindicated when that happened?

Mr. MINETA: Well, I think the whole community was vindicated. I think to have your own government think of you as untrustworthy or disloyal, I think the whole Japanese-American population took on the yoke of shame of their own government's thinking of them as un-loyal. And I think they really carried that until August 10th, 1988 when President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

And the law says, and on behalf of the American people, the Congress apologizes. And that whole legislative action came as a result of a commission called The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. And they came to the conclusion after studying what prompted this evacuation and internment was historical racial discrimination, weak political leadership and wartime hysteria.

MARTIN: Did your experience, do you think, your experience and that of your family, influence the way you think about the way the immigration issue is being debated now?

Mr. MINETA: Oh, there's no question that it has an impact, because when I think of the fact that we're building a fence all along our southern border, I wonder why haven't we done that on the northern border? So, it does impact I think, not only on how we just deal with issues, how we deal with people.

I was Secretary of Transportation on that tragic day of September 11, 2001 and then there was all this hue and cry about well we know who did this. We ought to ban Arab-Americans and Muslims from flying planes. That's when I came up with this no-racial profiling. And then you know editorials and everything saying, what's the matter with that dumb Secretary of Transportation. Why is he frisking blue haired grandmothers and 12-month-old children instead of going after the culprits that we know.

But, I remember we were having a cabinet meeting with Republican and Democratic leadership of the House and Senate. Toward the end of that meeting, Congressman David Bonior from Michigan said Mr. President we have a large Arab-American population in Michigan and they're very concerned about all this rhetoric that's going on in the press. And President Bush said David you're absolutely correct, we want to make sure that what happened to Norm in 1942 doesn't happen today. And so that was a very significant statement made at the time.

MARTIN: Did that mean a lot to you, when he said that?

Mr. MINETA: It did. Absolutely and then the following Monday, he then had a large gathering of Arab-Americans when he said we know who the terrorists are. They're not loyal U.S. American citizens, who happen to be of Arab ancestry or faithful followers of the Islam faith and he was very clear about it.

MARTIN: Can we talk about September 11th a little bit more. You were in such a unique position as Secretary of Transportation. Can I ask you, where you were on that day and how you found out about the attacks?

Mr. MINETA: Well, I was having breakfast that morning with the Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium, who was also the Minister of Transport for Belgium and my Chief of Staff John Flaherty came in and said, secretary may I see you. So I excused myself, and I went into my office. At the other end of the office is a TV consol, obviously the World Trade Center, black smoke pouring out and I said, what's that? So I went up to the TV and I was looking at it and all of sudden this grey object came from the right side of the screen and then this white yellow, orange, pillowy cloud from the left side of the screen and I said, holy cow, what was that?

So, I finally went back into the conference room and I said I don't know what's going on in New York but, it's something we're going to have to deal with. So, by the time I got back into the office, the White House called and said - get over here right away. So, I grabbed some papers and manuals and went downstairs, got in the car, we went into the White House from the West Executive drive and people are running out of the White House.

They're running out of the Executive Office building and I said to my driver and security guy, I said, hey, is there something wrong with this picture? We're driving in and they're all running away? Anyway, I went in and they said you've got to be in PEOC. I said PEOC, what's the PEOC? And he said that's the Presidential Emergency Operations Center.

MARTIN: A secure room?

Mr. MINETA: So, it's a bunker way under the White House and it's a secure room.

MARTIN: Was that where you made the decision to bring all the planes down?

Mr. MINETA: It was.

MARTIN: What was it like for you to bring all the planes down, all the commercial airliners and to bring, what is it hundreds, thousands?

Mr. MINETA: Well, no at that point they were 4,638 airplanes in the air and they brought them all down in two hours and 20 minutes, all safely without incident.

MARTIN: What was it like for you to give that order?

Mr. MINETA: Well, I was on the phone Monte Belger, the number two at FAA. And I said Monty what do you have on radar, and he said well we have a plane coming in, the transponders been turned off, so we don't know the identity of the airplane, the speed, the altitude, anything about the airplane, except that every sweep of the radar we know the progress of the dot and this was the third one.

We now had two New York, and somehow I always sort of thought of if one of something happens it's an accident. If two of the same things happens it's a trend. But if three of the same things happen in a very short period of time, you know it's a plan or an action. And so right after that third plane went into the Pentagon, is when I said Monte bring all the planes down.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, I'm speaking with former Secretary of Transportation and former Secretary of Commerce Norman Mineta. After all the things that you've done what are you proudest of?

Mr. MINETA: Oh that's like asking which of your children do you love the most, you know it's tough. I'm still partial to when I was mayor.

MARTIN: Really? Mayor of San Jose.

Mr. MINETA: It was 330,000 population when I started, 580,000 four years later. And that whole excitement about putting in the sewage treatment plant, building the city so that you have parks, playgrounds, libraries and knowing this was just the start of the Silicon Valley. And so from that perspective I really enjoyed being mayor. As a member of congress, the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, it took us 10 years to get that bill passed.

And then my service as Secretary of Transportation I thoroughly enjoyed. So it's tough for me to be confronted with what's the one thing you're really proud of. And I just always have to blurt out three of those things as tightly as I can.

MARTIN: Is there anything that you, that's eating at you, that you wish you had been able to do that you haven't been able to do?

Mr. MINETA: Oh, I suppose the whole issue of the congestion we're facing today and why were we not able to get better prepared to avoid what's happening across the country. Part of that is the whole funding issue, the gasoline tax, is the not a sustainable revenue source for building the infrastructure. And we've got to find some mechanism to take its place. But I think the whole issue of trying to grow the economy, no matter what you do, it still requires a sound underpinning of a transportation foundation.

MARTIN: You know what I don't understand?

Mr. MINETA: What's that?

MARTIN: Why haven't you written a book? Of all the things that you've done, the first, all the things we've talked about. Why haven't you ever written a book?

Mr. MINETA: Part of it is, I think is because I don't want to appear to be patting myself on the back and...

MARTIN: That would make you the only one in Washington.

Mr. MINETA: But you know, if fact just last week someone asked me the same thing and I said, because I don't want to appear to be patting myself on the back. And they said Norm it's not for you, it's for my kids and their kids, to be able to read about what you did, at a time when it's not like it is today, where there are more opportunities. You were a trailblazer.

MARTIN: So finally, do you have any wisdom that you could share with us today, maybe directed at a younger you, someone just starting out? Mr. MINETA: I guess there - I remember my Dad told me, plan your work and work your plan. One of the things I think I've learned in politics is that you work hard at the job you're at. A lot of people in politics will have their objective or their goal somewhere way out in the distant future and they're wondering what is it that I have to do today to help me to get to that goal. And the problem is they will stumble over something right in front of them, because they're always looking at the goal way out there.

So, I've always said to young people, just work hard at the job you're at and then when you come to the fork in the road, you don't have to follow the advice of that great philosopher Yogi Bear, who said, when you get to the fork in the road, take it. You can make your own decision as to whether you're going to take the fork to the left, or to the right and you're in control of your own life. That will then open up opportunities as you progress forward, and not have to be so programmed that everything is going to lead you to that goal.

MARTIN: Former Secretary of Transportation, the longest serving Secretary of Transportation in history. Former Secretary of Commerce, the former Mayor of San Jose, Norman Mineta was kind enough to join us in our Washington studio. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for coming to talk to us and do write that book.

Mr. MINETA: Thank you Michel. Will you buy it?

MARTIN: I'll pay retail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MINETA: Thanks for the invitation to be here.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Remember, with Tell Me More the conversation never ends. This week on Tell Me More we've been featuring stories about coping with economic turmoil.

Earlier today we talked about getting through a lay-off, earlier this week we talked about preparing the kids to cut back and we want to hear from you. We would like to know how you doing? Have you or a family member lost a home, lost a job? Are you worried about it? Do you own a small business where you are seeing the effects of the turmoil? How are you coping? Do you have any wisdom to share about coping with tough times. To tell us more about what you think and to read what other listeners are saying, go to our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also call our comment line at 202 842 3522, that number again 202 842 3522.

(Soundbite of music)

And that's our program for today, I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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