ASIA WORLD MEDIA Exclusive Interview: Norman Mineta’s ‘Decision Point’: Forever Changing American Air Travels
By Anthony Tran
Asia World Media sat down with the first Asian American to serve in the presidential cabinet, Norman Y. Mineta. Norman Yoshio Mineta was born on November 12, 1931 in San José, California. Mr. Mineta is married to Danealia (Deni) Mineta and has four sons, David and Stuart Mineta, and Robert and Mark Brantner. His parents were Japanese immigrants from Japan and were not allowed to become U.S. citizens at the time due to the Asian Exclusion Act. Mr. Mineta’s father owned and operated a successful insurance company and young Mineta enjoyed the pleasures and pastimes of any other American boy growing up in a prosperous family. This all changed on December 7, 1941, when the country of his father’s birth, Japan, attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor; the attack led the United States’ entry into World War II.
Norman Mineta and his family were among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry forced from their homes and into internment camps (Area 24, 7th Barrack and Unit B) during World War II. While detained in the internment camps, Mineta joined the Boy Scout and met a fellow scout, named Alan K. Simpson, who later in 1979 became the United States Senator from Wyoming. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Business Administration in 1953 with a degree in Business Administration, Mr. Mineta joined the Army in 1953 and served as an intelligence officer in Japan and Korea. He joined his father in the Mineta Insurance Agency after providing his services to the United States military and in 1960’s, Norman Mineta received a beneficiary ticket to the Democratic Dinner, which launched his political career.
Mineta was appointed to a vacant seat on the San Jose City Council in 1967 by Mayor Ron James. After serving on the City Council until 1971, he was elected as mayor, 1971 to 1974, of San José, California, making him the first American of Asian Pacific ancestry to serve as mayor of a major American city. From 1975 to 1995, Mr. Mineta served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. Norman Mineta’s legislative and policy agenda was wide and varied, including major projects in the areas of economic development, science and technology policy, trade, transportation, the environment, intelligence, budgets and civil rights.
From July 2000 to January 2001, Mr. Mineta served as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce and in January 25, 2001, he became the only Democratic to serve in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet as the United States Secretary of Transportation. In nominating Norman Mineta, President George Bush said, “Norm made a reputation in the halls of Congress as someone who understands that a sound infrastructure in America will lead to economic opportunities for all Americans.” As the U.S. 14th Secretary of Transportation, Mr. Mineta oversaw an agency with 100,000 employees and a $60 billion budget. “Transportation is the key to generating and enabling economic growth, determine the patterns of that growth, and the competitiveness of our businesses in the world economy,” said Secretary Norman Mineta. During September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Mr. Mineta orders a temporary grounding of all civilian aircraft for security reasons for the first time in American history and secured the cooperation of the Canadian government in diverting incoming international flights to Canada.
Norman Mineta won widespread praise for restoring public confidence in America’s transportation system. He played a leading role in establishing the Transportation Security Administration, a federal agency responsible for insuring the security of air travel. Norman Mineta committed to upgrading airport security; oversaw the training of 65,000 luggage inspectors, air marshals, other personnel, and the purchase of new screening equipment, the largest mobilization of a new federal agency since World War II. Under Secretary Mineta’s leadership, America’s transportation systems achieved unprecedented levels of safety, changing the way we travel and perceive aviation. In 2002, the city of San José renamed its airport in honor of Norman Mineta, known as Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport.
After more than five years, Mineta announced his resignation as Secretary of Transportation, effective July 7, 2006, making him the longest-serving Transportation Secretary in the Department’s history, since the position inception in 1967.
Norman Mineta’s extensive career in American politics has marked Mr. Mineta with deep understanding, keen insight and wisdom of being an American with Asian heritage. Mr. Mineta conversed with Asia World Media correspondents, Alana Tran and Anthony Tran, about his personal experiences, as an Asian American.
What was your experience like entering into the Heart Mountain internment camp for the first time?
Norman Mineta (NM): The internment camps were actually county fair grounds and race tracks, with already build-in facilities and horse stables, so called “living quarters.” When the U.S. government ordered us to go into the internment camps, they put up huge signs saying, “Attention all those of Japanese ancestry, alien and non-alien…” As a 10 year old, I read that sign and thought who’s a non-alien? At first, I didn’t understand, then I realized it meant ‘citizen.’ The government wasn’t willing to acknowledge us as ‘citizens’ and that’s why I cherish the word ‘citizen’ because my own government wouldn’t use that word to describe me and those of us who was born in the United States. When was the last time we hear anyone says, “I am a proud non-alien.” I cherish the word ‘citizen’ until this day.
The hardest thing I had to do was to give away my dog terrier, Skippy. For my parents, brother, sister and their peers, it was more difficult for them since they lost all their possessions, including their homes, farms and businesses.
What were your memorable experiences in being a part of President George Bush’s Member of Cabinet?
NM: The biggest challenge was during the morning of September 11, 2001. We had three commercial airplanes used like missiles on 9/11 and I had to order all planes to be grounded. At the time, we had about 4,638 planes over the United States. I called the Minister of Transport in Canada, David Collenette, to help take planes from Europe and Asia to Canada that is heading to the United States. Collenette acted swiftly to shut down Canadian airspace in order to take in all diverted U.S.-bound international flights (255 flights carrying 44,519 passengers diverted to 15 Canadian airports), launching Transport Canada’s Operation Yellow Ribbon.
Lately we hear so much about the threat of ISIS from the Middle East, from your experience on 9/11 and the attack on America, what should our country be doing to prevent another incident?
NM: We have the technology and the intelligence to give early warning of potential threats to the United States but whatever we have, we should exercise that as much as we can. We know hundreds of Americans with U.S. passports are being recruited into ISIS. By detecting those passports that are being used to join ISIS, we can prevent them from boarding planes and entering the United States. We also know ISIS finance much of their war through oil interests, we have to figure out how to cut off this money stream to ISIS. With America’s capability, we should be able to prevent any more 9/11 incident.
Many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders may struggle with identifying between being Asian and being an American. When you were growing up, did you feel you were different?
NM: I do not think of myself as Japanese, Vietnamese, or Chinese but we each have a background and an interest in Asia. We are all basically American, American citizens. We are the tapestry of America, each yarn represents a country, including heritage, religion, language and culture that our forebears brought to this country. Each yarn is beautiful and strong on its own but when they are woven together, it makes even a stronger hold. For example, every four year when the Olympic Games open, you know what the team from China would look like, what the team from Nigeria would look like, what the team from Norway would look like, but when the team from the United States of America walks in, you have every color, height and size, representing a diverse gathering of talents. It is such an amazing sight that gives me great pride in being an American. We have people with different origins coming together, working together and making a strong hold. I want us to be proud of being an American but to also remember their heritage and share this with others.
From your personal political experiences, what advice can you offer to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in mobilizing, in being more active in civil duties, or in politics?
NM: Many think they have to run for office but that’s not the case. I would like to see people pursue their careers or jobs, the best they know how and at the same time; there are many divisions of the government that we can participate in, especially if you have some expertise on a particular subject matters, in your field. You can be active by serving some of your time to a public service or be a community activist; serving on the city and county, state or federal government, like planning commissions, police commissions or even the mayor’s office. It’s important to focus on your career but also ideal to devote some time to be a part of the government. For example, when President George Bush called me, he said I want you to be my Secretary of Transportation because of your subject matters and expertise in transportation. I know there are so many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who are really knowledgeable about certain subjects that could really benefit our government, including healthcare, planning, high-tech, business and various industries. We should be volunteering and serving our country.
What lessons would you offer for our younger generations?
NM: The opportunities are so broad, don’t hold back. It used to be if you were a doctor or a lawyer, you had to practice by yourself but now, you can be a part of a big firm or a corporation. Never feel like you have to be restricted in any way. Your ability will carry you forward. As you make your path in life, there will be others who will follow behind you, seizing the opportunities. I like to see everyone venture out and explore as much as possible.
Norman Yoshio Mineta is a strong supporter of giving back to America through civic duties and volunteering work. Currently, Mr. Mineta accomplishes this by giving his time and sharing his knowledge to various organizations and non-profits around the country.