Feb. 19, 1942, was not President Franklin Roosevelt’s finest day. Some 10 weeks after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, which violated the legal rights of some 120,000 Japanese Americans. In short order, people of Japanese descent were given just 48 hours to dispose of their homes, their farms, their businesses. Their investments and their bank accounts were expropriated.
Let us listen to the painful memories of a 10-year-old American citizen: “My own family was sent first to Santa Anita racetrack. We showered in the horse paddocks. Some families lived in converted stables, others in hastily thrown together barracks.” That boy and his family were sent for three years to what FDR himself conceded was a “concentration camp” at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
This is the story of Norman Mineta. That 10-year-old youngster would have been forgiven if he had spent the next decades brimming with anger and resentment. Instead, when his family was allowed to return to California, he finished high school, graduated from the prestigious University of California, Berkeley and then served three years as a U.S. Army intelligence officer stationed in, you guessed it, Japan.
He would become the first Japanese American ever elected mayor of a major U.S. city (San Jose, California), the first Japanese American in the continental U.S. ever elected to the U.S. Congress and the first Japanese American ever appointed to the Cabinet (as Bill Clinton’s secretary of commerce), later appointed by Clinton’s Republican successor, George W. Bush, to secretary of transportation.
But this is about a man himself, not the positions he has held, about the way he served. It is said that no man is a hero to his valet and the same can often be said about a politician and his staff.
But not Norm Mineta. John Flaherty, who served him ably in Congress — and later as chief of staff in the Department of Transportation — recalls that almost “every Mineta staffer in Washington was pulled aside by Capitol Police, janitors, women working in the cafeteria and told how lucky we were to work for Mr. Mineta and how he was the only Member who remembered their names and even remembered their kids by name and actually asked about them.” Flaherty shrewdly notes: “You couldn’t fool these folks. They saw every variety of politician every day for years.”
When Mineta was in the House, his office staff formed a softball team with a Democrat from a neighboring district, Leon Panetta, who would himself go on to an exceptional career of national service. When Democrat Jimmy Carter was hosting a state dinner for the Japanese prime minister, Carter’s unsavvy staff did not invite Mineta. They mistakenly thought that he — like Leon Panetta — was the son of Italian immigrants. The name of the Panetta-Mineta staff softball team? The Sign of the Rising Pizza.
In 1988, Mineta redeemed the evil actions of his own country by sponsoring the law — signed by President Ronald Reagan — to right the grievous wrong done to Japanese Americans nearly five decades earlier. Acknowledging Mineta’s own history, Reagan stated: “For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law” — words worth our recommitting to in the summer of 2019.
Documentary “Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story” will premiere on PBS on May 20.