Sunday, July 02, 2006

Mineta and me

A perennial topic of late-night conversation is that of Brushes With Greatness: The celebrities that one has met through life, with points awarded for unlikelihood, personal interaction, etc. While I was in Washington, D.C., on business this past week, I met a political celebrity I've been reading about -- and, occasionally, writing about -- for years. I score no unlikelihood points, though: I happened to be covering a meeting he attended, and during a break I simply walked up and introduced myself to "my favorite Cabinet member." I refer to Norman Yoshio Mineta, U.S. transportation secretary.

During World War II, with the rest of his family, Mineta was incarcerated in the Heart Mountain internment camp for Japanese-Americans in northwest Wyoming. Had he come out of that experience bitter, wanting nothing more to do with the United States, one hardly could have blamed him. Instead, he's pretty much dedicated his life to serving the country that once treated him so shamefully: as a U.S. Army intelligence officer; as a San Jose, Calif., city councilman, and then mayor (the first Asian-American mayor of a major U.S. city); as a member of Congress, representing Silicon Valley in the U.S. House for 20 years; as President Clinton's final commerce secretary, confirmed late in Clinton's second term (the first Asian-American Cabinet member); and, of course, as the only Democrat in President Bush's Cabinet these past five years, and the longest-serving U.S. transportation secretary ever.

On Sept. 11, 2001, when the nature of the day's threat became horribly evident, Mineta safely grounded every aircraft in U.S. airspace -- public and private, domestic and international, passenger and cargo, large and small -- in two hours.

As a member of Congress, Mineta tirelessly argued for, and ultimately achieved, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which the United States apologized for "the grave injustice" done to Japanese-Americans during World War II, and provided reparations. As Joe Hill wrote, at the end: "Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize."

On the floor of the U.S. House, in support of that landmark legislation, Mineta said:

I was one of those interned. I was 10 years old. If someone, anyone, could show me how by any stretch of the imagination, any reasonable person could suspect me to have been a security threat, I would abandon this effort instantly. ...

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. We were then moved to Heart Mountain, Wyo., where our entire family lived in one small room of a rude tarpaper barrack.

Some say the internment was for our own protection. But even as a boy of 10, I could see that the machine guns and the barbed wire faced inward. ...

Yes, it was a time of great national stress. But moral principles and rules of law are easy to uphold in placid times. But do these principles stand up in times of great difficulty and stress? That is the test of a great nation: Can it stand by its laws and codes even while threatened? ...

Chiseled in the marble over the entrance of our Supreme Court, it does not say "Equal justice under law, except when things get sticky."

In that same speech, Mineta quoted Abraham Lincoln: "Those who would deny freedom to others do not deserve it themselves, and, under a just God, they will not retain it long."

In a graceful letter to President Bush, Mineta recently announced his resignation as transportation secretary. I salute him.

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