Wednesday February 17th, Norman Mineta spoke at the Whitney Humanities Center as the newest Chubb Fellow to visit Yale. Mineta’s illustrious public service career has spanned over 50 years. During his talk Mineta wove his personal experiences as a Japanese-American living through Japanese internment with his experience at all levels of government. He discussed citizenship and leadership, especially in the face of national security threats posed by groups such as ISIS.
Professor Mary Lui, the Master of Timothy Dwight College and the coordinator of the Chubb Fellowship that brings distinguished public servants to Yale, introduced Mineta to an audience that included many Japanese-Americans from the New Haven area. Lui, who teaches courses in Asian-American history at Yale, highlighted how Mineta’s involvement with the Japanese-American community snowballed into his groundbreaking service as the first Asian-American mayor of San Jose, the first Asian-American cabinet secretary, as well as many other roles in public service.
As the American-born son of two Japanese immigrants, Mineta’s life took a turn with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Mineta recalled how his family’s phone kept ringing as members of the Japanese community looked to his father for guidance. The following February, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, granting the Western Civil Defense Command the power to relocate persons – a vague order clearly targeting the region’s Japanese community. Mineta recalled signs coming up all over his neighborhood alerting all people of Japanese ancestry, “alien or non-alien,” to their imminent relocation. As a ten year-old Mineta faced how the order transformed him from a citizen to an “enemy alien.” Mineta described this language of the signs as psychological warfare. “That’s why to this day I cherish the word ‘citizen,’” he said.
Mineta said goodbye to his dog, “Skippy,” and was forced to leave home with his family, neighbors, and classmates, eventually ending up in a more permanent facility in Heart Mountain, WY. Though he witnessed deplorable conditions in stench-filled stables and other housing used for “relocated” Japanese-Americans, Mineta said that few of the 120,000 interned people harbored resentment. Rather, they came out with the attitude that “this should never ever happen to anyone again,” especially to those not represented by government. To this day, Mineta said that his internment experience serves “not as a driving wedge” but rather as a “backstop that pushes me to make sure that these issues are not ignored.”
From there, Mineta jumped to his experiences as Secretary of Transportation in the Bush administration on September 11, 2001, when he was pulled out a breakfast meeting just as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Summoned to the White House’s underground bunker, Mineta recalled how he sat on the phone with the FAA, periodically asking for updates as a plane got closer and closer to D.C. until it hit the Pentagon. That’s when he made a decision to ground all planes in U.S. airspace, which happened within 2 hours and 22 minutes.
Yet in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Mineta explained that protecting the country’s sizeable Muslim population weighed heavily on the mind of President Bush and his cabinet. Even as the government organized a new security regime to better protect the country and bring terrorists to justice, Mineta claimed that avoiding racial profiling remained at the top of the Bush’s concerns, who said that “we don’t want to have happen today what happened to Norm in 1942.” Increasing anti-Muslim sentiment, displayed by the shooting of a Sikh man in Arizona simply for resembling “the enemy,” only made making a distinction between the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and the Muslim community at large more pressing. Mineta has the same concerns today, with ISIS and others organizations threatening the U.S.
“Things are being said that really bother me and make me think back to December 7, 1941, or 9/11,” said Mineta. He was likely referring to rhetoric from presidential candidates such as Donald Trump, who have proposed bans on Muslims from entering the U.S. among other measures targeting Muslim-Americans.
Having worked in cabinet-level positions in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, Mineta had a lot to say about bipartisanship and the country’s political climate. Mineta recalled how he met Alan Simpson, who would go on to become a U.S. Senator from Wyoming, when another Boy Scout troop from nearby Cody visited the internment camp. Despite their differences, the two continued to write to each other as they developed their careers in the decades that followed. “Even as conservative Republican he was and as liberal Democrat I was, we were the best of friends and continue to be to this day,” said Mineta.
Mineta described how there was a certain bipartisan camaraderie when he served in Congress from 1975 to 1995, where even after a spirited debate on the floor, representatives would clap each other on the back and go out for drinks. However, between a voting schedule that keeps congressmen in D.C. for only a small part of the week and demanding campaigns that cost a minimum of $2.5 million (compared to the $700,000 Mineta spent on his own in 1994), Mineta claims that politicians these days barely know each other personally – leading to more polarization. “Today, the way things operate in D.C. is totally different from even 15 years ago,” he said.
One of the purposes of the Chubb Fellowship is to foster leadership in politics and public affairs, and although there seemed to be few students in the audience, Mineta had some advice for young people just beginning their careers. Mineta recognized that not everyone will run for office, yet he asked attendees to “think about taking time to offer yourself and your subject matter expertise” to public policy on whatever level of government. Mineta also stressed the importance of integrity in leadership, especially in today’s broken political climate. “We should not compromise our integrity or ideals for short term gain or long term gain,” he said.