Longest-serving Transportation secretary discusses career

Norman Mineta lists establishment of TSA in the aftermath of Sept. 11 among his proudest accomplishments.

Norman Mineta left the Transportation Department on July 7 as the longest-serving secretary in that department's 40 years.

His introduction to the government began inauspiciously: As an 11-year-old boy, Mineta was interned in the World War II relocation camps, along with 120,000 other Americans of Japanese descent and Japanese immigrants who lived on the West Coast. By the time of the Korean War, Mineta had graduated from the University of California, and he joined the U.S. Army.

Afterward, he took over his family's insurance business in San Jose before joining the City Council, serving as mayor, and winning election to Congress as a Democrat in 1974. In the House, Mineta carved out an expertise in transportation issues. He served as Commerce secretary in President Clinton's last year in office and was recruited by Vice President Cheney, with whom he had served in the House, to join the Bush Cabinet, the only Democrat selected to do so.

As he rejoins the private sector at the age of 74, Mineta was interviewed by National Journal White House Correspondent Carl M. Cannon, a fellow Californian, who has covered Mineta since 1982.

NJ: Is this your last stint in government?

Mineta: I think so. I've had a varied and rewarding experience in local and federal government, but I'm really looking toward this new chapter.

NJ: What will you be doing?

Mineta: My title is vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton, and I'll be reporting to CEO and Chairman Paul Taaffe, who's in New York City. I have essentially been the CEO of an entity with 60,000 employees and a $62 billion budget dealing with large companies such as Airbus, General Electric, and Boeing. I'll now be doing strategic consulting with these Fortune 500 firms and seeing how we can advance their agenda.

NJ: What are you proudest of having accomplished in your career? Let's start with Congress.

Mineta: That's a little like asking, "Which one of your children do you love the most?" I would say three things: H.R. 442, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, would be one. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) is another, and the Americans with Disabilities Act -- I wrote the transportation piece -- would be a third. When first putting the ADA together, people thought the most difficult part of the legislation was transportation, but we wrote legislation and it was signed by George H.W. Bush in 1990.

My interest in that subject dates back to my campaign for mayor in San Jose. I had a friend working on my campaign named Bill Poole, who'd been in a wheelchair all his life. One day he asked me whether I would consider spending my first week as mayor in a wheelchair. After I won the election, I did that. I put a wheelchair in my trunk each morning, and quickly realized how difficult things were for Bill and people with disabilities. I couldn't get up the stairs to City Hall. I couldn't go to the bathroom. I couldn't get a drink from the public fountain. As a result, we were one of the first cities to have curb cuts -- in 1971. That experience just stuck in my mind over the years.

NJ: How did H.R. 442 come about?

Mineta: It started out with a resolution by the Japanese American Citizens League at their convention in Salt Lake City in August of 1978 as a simple, one-line resolution committing the JACL to educate the public on the need for redress relating to the WWII relocation and mentioning a dollar figure: $25,000 per internee. When Congress came back in September, [Hawaii Democratic] Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga and Congressman Bob Matsui [D-Calif.] and I got together, and we set up the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which completed its work in 1980. Glenn Roberts -- brother of [Washington journalist] Steve Roberts -- was my legislative director, and he took that commission report and put it into legislative language. The report identified three reasons for the internment -- historic racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and weak political leadership -- and concluded that those evacuated and interned should receive redress of $20,000 per person. So of the original 120,000 evacuated, about 88,000 people were compensated. It was long overdue.

NJ: What was it like in the Clinton administration, having to take direction from Leon Panetta, your old buddy from the California delegation?

Mineta: Well, you remember how much fun we used to have with that "Mineta-Panetta" schtick. When we were both on the Budget Committee together, we were always getting each other's phone calls. We just went with it. On the back of our two offices' joint softball team T-shirts we had "The Sign of the Rising Pizza." Everybody wanted to be on that team just to get the T-shirt. But seriously, he was great to work with in the delegation, and at the White House -- and even now. He's a great friend, and all this time I've called him when I needed to for his wise counsel.

NJ: So how did a good liberal Democrat wind up working for George W. Bush?

Mineta: I was first approached by Dick Cheney on the 29th of December 2000. My stepson Bob Brantner had said to me that morning about 10 o'clock that President-elect Bush had said he'd put a Democrat in the Cabinet, adding, "And I see that the Department of Transportation is still open. Do you think he'll be calling you to fill that spot?"

I said, "Bob, what are you smoking and drinking? There's no way."

Then, three hours later, the phone rings. Bob answers it. "Yes, sir, he's right here." And as he hands the telephone to me, he cups the phone and, whispering, mouths the words, "It's the vice president."

I take the phone and say, "Al?"

"No, Norm, it's Dick Cheney."

I said, "I'm sorry."

He says, "That's OK. I'm calling you to see if you would come aboard as secretary of Transportation."

I was worried -- and I told Dick this -- that I didn't want to be diminished as a Democrat, or considered a turncoat. Deni [Mineta's wife, Danealia] knew this, too, and said, "You have to call President Clinton." So I did, expressing the same concerns. He called back on Sunday from Camp David and said, "We can give you cover on that. And my inclination is that you ought to do this."

Then I called Al Gore, who said the same thing. "Norm, I want to encourage you to do this," he said. "I didn't like the outcome of the election, or the Supreme Court decision. I'm still chafing from this experience. But you can help in the healing process."

In the end, I talked to over a hundred people, including [then-Defense Secretary] Bill Cohen, the lone Republican in the Cabinet of the incumbent Democratic administration; Marlin Fitzwater, the press secretary for George H.W. Bush; and most of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is a friend, said, "We can't slam the Bush administration for not having any Democrats in the Cabinet and at the same time dissuade any Democrats from accepting offers." And she reminded me that when I was on the Public Works and Transportation Committee, I used to say that there were no such things as Democratic highways and Republican bridges.

NJ: What are you proudest of doing at the Department of Transportation?

Mineta: Two things. One would be the establishment of the Transportation Security Administration after the tragedy of 9/11. Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, and the president signed it on November 17, 2001, and they had 36 mandates in there as to what we had to do, including timetables. The two biggest targets we had [were] to have screeners at all 429 commercial airports by November 19 of 2002, and have explosion-detection devices by December 31, 2002. We started with six or seven people from the Federal Aviation Administration and put TSA together, and met the deadlines -- except for having explosion-detection systems at a few airports, which we granted extensions for. We went from six or seven employees to 65,000 employees in a one-year period.

I'd also like to mention Hurricane Katrina. Our employees responded quietly, but, I'd say, courageously, to open all the roads, bridges, pipelines, airports, and seaports in a relatively short period of time. The weekend before the storm made landfall, we were surveying all the airports on the East Coast to see how much jet fuel they had left. We also had to commandeer these big generators to get them to Collins, Miss., from Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and by Friday night we had 40 percent of the pipeline capacity restored. By Monday we had 100 percent. So the Eastern Seaboard airports didn't run out of jet fuel, and people didn't run out of gasoline.

NJ: What is your fondest memory of working with President Bush?

Mineta: Right after 9/11, there was a Cabinet meeting with the joint leadership of the House and Senate, and during the course of that meeting, Congressman David Bonior [D-Mich.] said, "Mr. President, we have a large Arab-American population in Michigan, and they are very concerned about what will happen to them."

There was already a lot of invective about Arabs, and the president listened to Bonior and said, "David, you are absolutely right -- we are concerned about what's being said -- and we've got to remember what happened to Norm in World War II. We're not going to let anything like that happen again!" He said that forcefully, and on September 17, he went to the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue and met with leading Muslims and explained that he knew that those who committed acts of terror weren't loyal Arab-Americans or faithful followers of the Islamic faith.

NJ: Did Bush have a nickname for you?

Mineta: Yes, "Footsteps." I think it came from the expression "Footsteps in the sand." I'm not sure what it refers to.

NJ: Did you ever feel Home Alone in the Bush administration?

Mineta: No, not really. But I will say this: Having a "D" or an "R" after your name didn't really matter, but I was chided more for being a Californian in a sea of Texans.

NJ: OK, but you're a lifelong Democrat, and Karl Rove is the Republican many Democrats love to hate. How did you get along with him?

Mineta: Very well. I think of him as a brilliant strategist and very effective tactician. That's one reason Democrats don't like him -- because he's good at what he does. Of course, there are times, from a public policy perspective, that I would consult with him. But it was just like when I was chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee -- the ranking Republican was Newt Gingrich [of Georgia]. He was good to work with, too. Newt's job at the time, as he saw it, was going after [Speaker] Jim Wright [D-Texas]. So he didn't have a lot of time to interfere with what I was doing. He'd say, "Just keep me informed about what you're doing if anything comes up about the city of Atlanta or Delta Airlines." And I would. As for Karl, he is a very bright guy, and Deni and I got to know him and his wife, Darby, and we found we really like them.

NJ: But you still consider yourself a good Democrat, don't you?

Mineta: Oh, absolutely, and they respect that as well.

NJ: If you could do one thing to change the way we conduct politics in this country, what would it be?

Mineta: To try and restore some civility back into the political quotient. I'm not sure what it would take. But what's happening is a shame because there's a growing cynicism in the political process that's been leading to lower participation in terms of voting and volunteer activities. This sentiment is echoed by many people of both parties, including my great philosopher friend [former Sen.] Alan Simpson [R-Wyo.], who has been espousing this since he left Congress in 1997.

NJ: You've known Simpson since boyhood, haven't you?

Mineta: I met him in 1943 at the Heart Mountain relocation center in Wyoming. We were Boy Scouts -- but on different sides of the barbed wire. Our camp elders had written to the Boy Scouts of America headquarters in New York to come into the camps to organize Boy Scout troops at Heart Mountain. Our scout leaders then invited the Boy Scout troops from the local communities to come into our camp for a jamboree. [The locals] thought, "Wait a minute, they are POWs; we are not going in there." But cooler heads prevailed. They pointed out that these are Boy Scouts of America. They read the same manuals, wear the same uniforms, pursue the same merit badges. Finally, a Boy Scout troop from Cody came in.

So there we were, carving, knot-tying, starting fires without matches, doing what scouts do, and we were paired off into tents. So I'm paired off with this boy named Alan from Wyoming, and while we were building a moat around our tent the way you're supposed to do in case it rains, he says to me, "There's a kid in that tent downhill from me, and I don't care for him. Do you mind if we dig our moat for the water to go that way -- so it drains into his tent?" So we did it. As luck would have it, it started raining. Our moat worked perfectly, both protecting our tent and draining all the water into theirs -- practically washing it away. So that night Alan is sitting in our tent laughing. He couldn't stop laughing. Finally, I said, "Alan, would you please shut up so we can get some sleep?" That boy was Alan Simpson. He was as funny and ornery -- and as loyal a friend -- as he is today.

NJ: If you had to do it all over, would you go into government again?

Mineta: Yes, I would. My dad encouraged all his kids to be involved in community activities, but he was a little unsure when I was being considered for appointment to city council. He said, "I've always encouraged you to be in activities, but never thought you'd be in politics. There's an old Japanese adage that says, 'When you're in politics, you're like the nail sticking out from the board. What happens to that nail? It always gets hammered.' " There are so many times I look up to the sky and say, "Papa, you were so right." But I don't regret it. When I think about where I've been and what I've done, I'm amazed. That's the beauty of this country, the strength of this country. In 1942 to get rounded up, held behind barbed wire by men guarding us with machine-gun mounts, and then to go on to being mayor of my hometown -- the town we were taken from -- to being a member of Congress, and then serving in the Cabinets of two presidents, one a Democrat, the other a Republican. That is a heck of a ride.