The Norman Mineta I Knew
May 6, 2022|Emil Frankel
I first met Norman Mineta in the late spring or early summer of 2001, when he interviewed me for a position in the U.S. Department of Transportation. He had been chosen to be Secretary by President George W. Bush only months before. Of course, I had read and heard a lot about Norm Mineta before I even met him; he was a giant of transportation policy, and he had served in President Clinton’s Cabinet.
Even in that first, and relatively brief, meeting his personal qualities came through so strongly – his directness, his humanity, his humor, and his humility. He was so alive that it is impossible for me to think of him as gone from our world after 90 years of an incredible life. He so profoundly influenced me, as he did so many of those who served with and under him.
Among his many personal and professional qualities, three stand out to me, and I will always treasure –
First, his personal values were those of a decent and caring man. Many have spoken of his special political skills – he remembered everything and everyone. At his annual staff parties he would ask Kathryn and me about our dog, always identifying our dog by breed and name. He was able to do that, I believe, because he cared about everyone he met, served, and worked with.
It is perhaps presumptuous of me, but I believe that the most transformative experience of Secretary Mineta’s life was his internment, as a Japanese-American child, during the Second World War. That inhumane and un-American treatment by the nation he loved and came to serve did not embitter, but rather motivated, him. He was filled with determination and resolve to “right a wrong” and to make sure that no American would ever again be treated, as Japanese-Americans had been in the early 1940s.
To that end, Secretary Mineta argued with passion and success that America should respect, not punish, its Muslim citizens in the days after 9/11, and, despite all the criticism, he would not allow racial profiling to occur at airport gates after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was established under his leadership.
Secretary Mineta put his public reputation on the line in service to his personal values. That is what he was all about.
Second, Norm Mineta was a skilled and effective public official. Once I came to know and serve him, I learned more about his years as mayor of his native city of San Jose, CA. He expanded services to San Jose’s residents and businesses, and he established new transit for the city. And, of course, he had all those years, as a leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, particularly, as one of the driving forces on what is now the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He put his mark on a series of transportation bills, both in aviation and in surface transportation.
Those of us who were at and around DOT on 9/11 and in the days and weeks immediately thereafter witnessed his executive skills and decisiveness, in successfully bringing over 4,000 commercial flights to immediate landings after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was perhaps an even more extraordinary achievement by Secretary Mineta, with the strong support of Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson and others at DOT, to build out of whole cloth TSA, a brand-new agency, employing thousands of trained people, working at every commercial airport in the country, in just a matter of weeks and months.
Finally, in his qualities and his actions in a long public career, Secretary Mineta was true to values and principles that were natural to him, but are so absent from our politics and public life today. So different from our overly partisan and ideological politics today, Norm Mineta was bipartisan, serving Presidents of both parties and a consensus builder across the aisle in writing and enacting legislation.
As a mayor, as a Member of Congress, and as a Cabinet Secretary, he sought to frame and implement policies and programs that would serve and help people. He sought no personal or political gain, in doing so.
For so many reasons, Norman Mineta was a unique and special person in American pubic life, and to those of us, who knew and worked with him, he was a force, in shaping our lives and careers.
He is irreplaceable, and it is hard to realize that he is gone, but his service and example will sustain us. I am proud that I had the chance to know and to be touched by him.