Column: Norman Mineta on internment, 9/11 and a life spent in the vortex of American politics

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The remarkable life of Norman Y. Mineta has been spent in public service and on behalf of a civic conscience. And it’s been bookended by two events that altered American history: Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Pearl Harbor and World War II meant the 10-year-old, U.S.-born Mineta and his family were sent to an internment camp in Wyoming. The second event gave Mineta the opportunity to change history: His account of the roundup and internment of Japanese Americans moved President George W. Bush to say that he would not allow the same thing to happen to Muslims in the United States.

There’s a lot of Mineta in between: the first Asian American Cabinet member, serving both Democratic and Republican presidents, as Commerce and Transportation secretary. And that’s his name you see on the airport in San Jose – the city he served as mayor. A documentary on Mineta’s barrier-breaking life airs May 20 on PBS. Here’s Mineta on some of the highlights and low points of a life lived in the vortex of modern American history.

You've been in a jillion news clips and news interviews over the years. Now here's this documentary about you. Why do you think it was important to tell your story this way?

I think especially now, given what's happening in immigration, civil rights. And you know it's something I went through as a 10-year-old boy and really didn't think about ever seeing it happen again.

I was secretary of Transportation for President George W. Bush and 9/11 hit, and again [people demanded], “Keep Muslims off airplanes, ban Middle Easterners from flying.” There was even some talk about rounding them up, and I thought, “I don't believe this happening in 9/11/2001,” given what I had experienced in 1942.

And so that really drove home the fact that, you think it won't happen again? Yeah, it can.

President Bush said his talk with you about being in the internment camp really made him want to make it clear that we would not do to Muslims what we did to Japanese and Japanese Americans.

We were having a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, Sept. 13, with the House and Senate Republican and Democratic leadership. The president said we are concerned about all this rhetoric we're hearing on electronic media and the print media, and we don't want to have happen to people today what happened to Norm in 1942.

You could have knocked me off my Cabinet chair when the president said that.

And then on Monday, Sept. 17, he met with a large group of Middle Easterners and Muslims at the Islamic Studies Center in D.C.

And he said: “We know who did that last Tuesday. They weren't loyal Arab Americans, they weren't faithful followers of Islam, they were terrorists and we're going to go after them.”

And that was his mantra.

It is striking to think how you influenced our national policy at a critical time.

In February or March of 2001, my wife and I were invited to Camp David with the president. After dinner one night, he said, “Norm, tell me about evacuation internment.”

He’s one who likes to go to bed relatively early. And we sat there for three hours talking about evacuation and internment.

That little conversation came back to us on the 13th of September.

The world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. The world also changed on Dec. 7, 1941. Your family was taken from everything you knew and had in San Jose -- you had to leave your baseball bat because it might be a weapon -- to be moved to Wyoming to an internment camp there. You were 10 years old living at Heart Mountain camp.

We got there in November of 1942 -- colder than blazes. The wind was blowing. And here we are, Californians with light jackets, no heavy clothing and having to get acclimated to that cold weather.

I’ve always wondered about the Sears catalog and the Montgomery Ward catalog, how much business they did from the camps, given that we had no stores in those camps. I remember I got a pair of ice skates, got warm clothing.

So the California boy learned to ice skate?

He sure did. And then we had no schools when we first got there. Our camp elders were concerned about what do we do with the young people, so they wrote to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts and said, “Please come in, organize troops in our camps.” So they did.

We had eight to 10 Boy Scout troops, and our Scout leaders would write to the Scouts in Deaver, Powell, Cody, Ralston – all the communities surrounding Heart Mountain camp: Come on in for our jamboree.

And they said, “Oh no, no, we're not going to go in there. There's barbed wire around the whole camp. There are military guard towers with searchlights and machine gun mounts.”

Our Scout leaders would write back, “No, no, these are not POWs, they’re Boy Scouts of America. They read the same manual you do, they wear the same uniform you do, they go after the same merit badges you do.”

Finally, a Boy Scout troop from Cody, Wyo., came in. [Their] Scout leaders said, “We need to visit these Scouts in the camp, and it'll be a good experience for you and for them.”

We had a great time with the Scouts from Cody, and did all things Boy Scouts do -- knot-tying contests, woodworking contests, how to start fires without a match.

And we got paired off with kids from Cody troop. This kid and I -- that was [future Wyoming Sen.] Alan Simpson.

I always said that I knew Alan when he had hair and he was roly-poly. That blossomed into a great friendship, and we still have vacations twice a year together, we probably are on the phone five six times a month. We just have a great time.

This became one of the most singular friendships in Washington. You are a Democrat, Simpson a Republican, a friendship of a sort that we don't see anymore. How did yours last?

Well, part of it is because I guess the circumstances under which we met. I think part of the problem today is the schedule of the Congress. Generally, they come in on a Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. for the first vote. And then most members know just to leave early Thursday morning, so they don't get to know each other.

We used to fight in subcommittee, full committee, Rules Committee, on the House floor, and yet we'd get through with the legislation, slap each other on the back and say, “Come on, let's go have dinner, let's go have a drink.” And that kind of social give-and-take just doesn't occur today.

You served under a Republican administration as secretary of Transportation, under a Democratic administration as secretary of Commerce. That wouldn't happen these days. It's more than just scheduling, isn't it?

The big thing I think is the fact that the word “compromise” is a bad word. You can always have debates on whether the program ought to be $250 million, $500 million or $1.3 billion and compromise on the figures. And even from a public policy perspective, there are ways to be able to bridge the gaps and the differences between individuals. But that conversation really doesn't happen today, whereas it was a natural thing before.

And frankly, it was in 1994, when Speaker [Newt] Gingrich took over and that the Republican majority came in. I was the ranking Democrat on what was then called the Public Works and Transportation Committee. The first week, I didn't hear from the new chairman. Second week – no call. So the third week I called him and I said, “When are we going get together and talk about the agenda?” And he said: “Oh no, I should have called you before this. The speaker says we're now in the majority and we don't have to consult with you guys.”

So here I am, in March, April, twiddling my thumbs, and then Sen. Simpson called me up said, “I want to talk to you.”

I said, “Well, I want you come on over tomorrow, Tuesday at 2 o'clock.”

Excuse me? You want me, a U.S. senator, to come over to visit you? And I said, “You imperial bum. OK, I’ll meet you in your office tomorrow.”

Then he said, “Ann [his wife] and I are going out to Cody and I'm announcing that I'm not seeking reelection in 1996.” He said civility is starting to go and I want to get out of here before the civility is totally gone. And that was in April of 1995.

One of your accomplishments in Congress was with a commission and a recommendation about an apology and redress to the people who were in the camps. How important was that to you?

The national Japanese American Citizens League, in 1978, adopted a one-sentence resolution to undertake a legislative program to seek an apology from the Congress and $25,000-per-person redress payments. And [Hawaii Sen.] Spark Matsunaga said, “You know, I have a bill dealing with the Native Hawaiian claims act.” I had a brilliant young legislative director by the name of Glenn Roberts. Glenn took Spark Matsunaga’s commission on Native Hawaiian claims and adapted it to form what became known as the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.

The legislation apologizing for the evacuation, internment, and redress payments of $20,000 per person became the Civil Liberties Act. That was finally signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

Were those apologies issued, and the checks issued as well?

Yes, they were.

What did you do with yours?

I donated the whole thing. And even on the final vote on the Civil Liberties Act, I abstained on the voting. Instead of taking the money, I just donated to the Japanese American National Museum, UC Berkeley, Santa Clara University and to the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation.

Why did you abstain from the vote for something that you thought was right and had worked for?

Just that whole conflict of receiving financial payments, so I just abstained.

Two moments in your life bookend our national history: Pearl Harbor and what followed, and then 9/11, when you were Transportation secretary.

The morning of 9/11, I was having breakfast with the deputy prime minister of Belgium, who is also the minister for transport, and Jane Garvey, who is head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

My chief of staff came and said: “May I see you? We've heard a general aviation [plane went] into the [World Trade Center] building, we've heard the possibility of a commercial airliner into the building, and the possibility of an internal explosion within the building.”

So I explained to Mrs. [Isabelle] Durant and Jane Garvey what I had just seen on television, and [the chief of staff] came back in about six or seven minutes and said, “May I see you?” So I excused myself [and] went into my office and he said it was an American Airlines [jetliner] that went into the World Trade Center.

By the time I got back into my office, someone from the White House called and said, “Get over here right away.” I took my briefcase and put some government manuals in there and went downstairs to the car and drove over to the White House.

We’re going in West Executive Drive and people are running out of the Old Executive Office Building and they're running out of the White House. Dick Smith, the security advisor to the president, said, “You’ve got to be in the PEOC.” I said, “What’s the PEOC?” Well, that’s the presidential emergency operations center, which is way under the White House.

I got there probably about 9:25, 9:30. The vice president [Dick Cheney] was there already. So I plopped myself in the middle of that table across from Vice President Cheney and I set up one phone to the FAA operations center and keep the line open – don’t hang up! -- and the other to my office, said the same thing: Keep the line open. Don't hang up.

I call the FAA and call ACS, Aviation Civil Security, and I said, “Start putting together a new regimen on which airlines will be allowed to go back up.” On Wednesday, I asked them how they're doing, and they said, “Well, this is what we're doing.” The first one, right at the top of the list, was no racial ethnic profiling.

And I thought, “Oh man, it's going to be a little tough to get through.” But because of what the president had said at that Cabinet meeting, I thought, “Well, maybe there is a possibility we could get it through.”

And it was your office that ordered all the planes down over American airspace.

Yes. There was a military assistant who had told the vice president there's a plane coming towards Washington, D.C. The transponder that would otherwise relay all this information had been turned off on this plane. I'd say, “Where is it?” Somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania. Where is it now? Maybe north of Baltimore. Where is it now? And I keep up this question and [the assistant] would say, “Well, it's probably between Pentagon City and National Airport.”

And then he said, “Oops – we just lost the target.”

About then, someone broke into the phone lines and said, “Mr. Secretary, we just got a call from an Arlington County police officer who saw an American Airlines [plane] go into the Pentagon.”

I said, “That's the third commercial airliner in the last hour and a half that's been used as a missile, and so we don't know what's going on.” The military has something called a stand-down, where they bring everything to a screeching halt. I said: “We're going to have to do our own stand-down. So bring all the planes down immediately.”

He said, “We’ll bring all the planes down per pilot discretion.” I said, “Screw pilot discretion, because I didn't want a pilot over, let's say, Albuquerque, thinking, “Well, I'll just fly on into Los Angeles.” I wanted all the planes down.

We had 6,438 planes in the air at that time over the U.S., and in 2 hours and 20 minutes, they were all down on the ground safely and without incident.

Where do you come down on this -- because language matters, language can be loaded -- were you in an internment camp or concentration camp?

I usually do not refer to it as a concentration camp because I don't want to take away from the severity of what the Jews had experienced in the Holocaust. But there is no question that “internment camps” gives a very marginalized description of the camps. These were prisons. We were not allowed to leave the camp. And so to that extent I guess it's a form of a concentration camp, but when you think about concentration camps, I also think of the atrocities.

I recognize the importance of keeping that focus on the tragedies of those camps, and I don't want to take away from it by referring to the internment camps as concentration camps, because we were without our liberty but it wasn't an atrocity.

You've worn an American flag pin on your lapel before other people started doing that. Why do you do that?

Because my experience as a member of Congress, Cabinet member and still on some occasions today, I get treated more as a foreigner than I do as an American citizen.

So I just continue to wear this flag to say, hey, I'm an American. I'm proud to be an American. But I'm also proud of my Japanese ancestry.

When those placards went up after the executive order [authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans and Japanese] was signed, and it said: “Attention, all those of Japanese ancestry alien and non-alien” – they didn't even call me a citizen.

I said to my brother, “What's a non-alien?” He said, “That's you.” I said, “I'm not a non-alien! I’m a citizen!”

I tell people, “When's the last time you stood up on a chair pounded your chest and said, ‘I’m a proud non-alien of the United States of America.’” I don't think they have.

That's why I cherish the word “citizen” because the U.S. government -- my own government -- would not refer to us as citizens.

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