“One of the important things about Norm’s experience is that sometimes we lose our soul as a nation,” explained former President George W. Bush. “The notion of ‘all equal under God’ sometimes disappears. And 9-11 certainly challenged that premise. So right after 9-11, I was deeply concerned that our country would lose its way and treat people who may not worship like their neighbor as non-citizens. So, I went to a mosque. And in some ways, Norm’s example inspired me. In other words, I didn’t want our country to do to others what had happened to Norm.”
Norm Mineta was serving as U.S. Secretary of Transportation in the Bush administration, after having served as Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration and as a member of Congress for 11 terms. His story, more meaningful than ever in the current political environment, is the subject of a documentary airing on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) this week, including locally on Connecticut Public.
It began as a youth in San Jose, California. And then took a turn – one that President Bush was determined not to repeat – during World War II.
A U.S. citizen by birth, he was imprisoned by his own country for his Japanese ancestry, yet he steadfastly remained a patriot. He and his family were sent to a Wyoming internment camp when he was a child because of his heritage, where they were incarcerated.
During four years there, he struck up what became a lifelong friendship with Alan Simpson, whose Boy Scout Troop in Cody, Wyoming, accepted an invitation in 1943 to have a Scout Jamboree with Mineta’s troop inside the Heart Mountain Relocation Center.
The two pitched a tent together, corresponded with each other and both ended up in Congress three decades later, when Mineta was elected to the House in 1974 and Simpson to the Senate in 1978. Mineta had already been elected and served as Mayor of San Jose before his election to Congress. He had also served as an intelligence officer for the U.S. Army in the Korean War.
In Congress, Mineta led a Congressional effort for an apology from the U.S. government and redress for Japanese Americans, 120,000 of whom were imprisoned during the war. That effort finally came to fruition when the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Simpson, a Republican, provided key support for Democrat Mineta’s signature legislation.
During his 21 years in Congress, Mineta worked to right other wrongs. Retired Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts speaks in the film of the role Mineta played in endorsing same-sex marriage. A co-author of the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act, Mineta pushed to make public facilities accessible after navigating San Jose in a wheelchair and realizing it was impossible to cross the street. Because of the ADA, streets around the country now have cutouts for wheelchair access.
“Norm Mineta spent his life both proving by his own achievements that America was working for more and more people but also trying to give that chance to everybody else,” said President Clinton. “And that’s a worthy life. It should be honored, but more importantly, it should be emulated.”
Mineta was the first non-white member appointed to San Jose City Council, the first Asian American mayor of a major city; the first Japanese American from the mainland to be elected to Congress; and the first Asian American to serve in a presidential cabinet. He earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented by President Bush.
Norm Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story airs on PBS on May 20 at 9PM, during Asian American Pacific Month. (10PM in Connecticut.) The broadcast of the documentary will be accompanied by free online educational curriculum being developed by the Stanford Program for International Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) at Stanford University. The Mineta Legacy Project themes include immigration, justice and reconciliation, civil liberties and equity, leadership and decision-making, U.S.-Japan Relations and Civic Engagement.