Q&A With Veteran Politician Norman Mineta, Subject of New PBS Documentary “Norman Mineta And His Legacy: An American Story”

Norman and Deni Mineta at the 2016 Northern California Cherry Blossom Parade when he was Grand Marshal, Courtesy Mineta Legacy Project
"Democracy is not a spectator’s sport. It requires everyone’s active participation. You don’t have to be running for office to be in public service." - Norman Mineta

Norman Mineta’s story rejects the narratives that suggest Asian Americans value economic over political power, communalism over pluralism, and staying quiet over loudly demanding justice. The Japanese American politician channeled the trauma of being forcibly interned during World War II into a decades-long career of strategic leadership and principled advocacy. Dianne Fukami digs between the lines of Mineta’s extensive resume in Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story, a new documentary premiering May 20 on PBS.

For the unfamiliar, the film chronicles Mineta’s major professional accomplishments, including: being the first Japanese American mayor of San Jose, or any major city; first mainland-born Japanese American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; co-sponsor of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted apology and reparations to Japanese American internees; and first Asian American member of a presidential cabinet. Throughout his career, he has used this platforms to influence and mentor later generations of Asian American politicians, fight for civil liberties and uplift dignity of people who, like him, didn’t otherwise have many people who truly represented their experiences and needs in national government.

But Norman Mineta And His Legacy: An American Story (CAAMFest 2018 film) goes beyond these career highlights to illuminate all shades of Mineta’s life and character. Testimonials from former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, in whose administrations Mineta served, highlight the acumen that endeared the Democrat to colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Conversely, his ex-wife May Mineta candidly reflects on how his career took a toll on their marriage. Through it all, Mineta, now 87 years-old, discusses the foundational moments and beliefs  guiding his “American Story.”

Mineta spoke to CAAM for over an hour about the documentary, heritage, and life. Here are some excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

– Sameer Rao

“You’ve got two things that you own, no one else does, and you have to protect both of them. One is your name, and the other is integrity.”

How did you decide that you wanted to revisit your past in this format?

I’d been approached by a number of people to write a book or do a film. I really didn’t want to profit from it, or appear that I was patting myself on the back, so I’ve always been reluctant to do these things. Dianne Fukami approached me about six or seven years ago, and I said “no.” Then, at some meeting, we had a chance encounter. She said, “Are you ready to do this?” I said, “I don’t know, what’re the guidelines by which you’re going to do this?” In less than a week, she got back to me with an outline, and I said, “Well, that sounds good, let’s talk more.” We got into a lot of specifics, and then I finally said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

That scene of you in Japan, during which you also visited your parents’ hometown, was so beautiful. It’s pretty remarkable that you were able to do this in your lifetime, considering that you couldn’t openly identify with your Japanese heritage when you were interned as a child.

I always say that I’m proud to be an American, and also that I’m very proud of my Japanese ancestry. But it’s interesting because I was in the military, in Japan, from ’54 to ’56. At that time, the Japanese really thought of us as children of those who couldn’t cut it in Japan and left for the United States. That feeling towards the Issei and Nisei existed until about the early 1980s, when the Japanese realized that those immigrant generations, in general, really had it tough. And this has always been our history of immigration. There were thousands of Chinese who came to help build the Transcontinental Railroad, and a lot of them were experts on dynamite, because that was invented in China. They had to cut through mountains, and some really terrible territory, so the Chinese were up there blazing the trail. Yet the day they drove that golden spike in Promontory, Utah, there was not one Chinese in those pictures. They’d never really been acknowledged, except by Tom Perez, when he was Secretary of Labor and he included them in the department’s Hall of Honor. I was invited to speak at that celebration, and I used the phrase “Chinese American” when describing those workers. Yet, subsequent to their work, they were rewarded with the Chinese Exclusion Act. So it’s a [part of our] history.

Mineta family members and friends at Heart Mountain Relocatio
n Center during World War
II. Norman is in front row in the white shirt.
Courtesy Mineta Family

What have your experiences taught you about solidarity with other Asian American communities, especially since internationally, there’s been so much tension between Japan and other Asian countries?

Justice is applicable across the board. I’ve worked with the Korean American Coalition over the years. When Vietnam fell in April of 1975, I visited [refugee] camps in the Philippines and U.S. to see that they were treated humanely. I’ve also worked with South Asian, Indonesian and Cambodian groups, and the Hmong population. Regardless of what politics may exist within these countries, you can’t bring that into the picture of U.S domestic policy, especially as it relates to equal justice under the law.

This documentary showcases your celebrated ability to work across political ideologies. For instance, you worked with several presidents who have arguably pursued policies that violate other communities of color’s rights, like the Wars on Drugs and Terror. Some people argue that this kind of bipartisan work can compromise marginalized peoples’ rights. Do you think that bipartisan compromise still works?

Part of the problem is that “compromise” is a bad word. I don’t think of it that way. You work with people of different persuasions with the goal of getting something done. Today, the congressional schedule really prevents people from getting to know each other. We used to fight in subcommittees, on the floor, then slap each other on the back and say, “Come on, let’s go have a drink!” They don’t do that today, and like anything else, if you don’t know somebody, you’ll think stereotypically about that person.

Still, one could say that it’s hard to compromise when tons of politicians, especially on the right, are willing to engage in the same xenophobic rhetoric that led to internment, segregation, etc. Do the strategies that worked for you still apply to Asian American politicians today?

Well, not everything is subject to compromise. If you’re dealing with a civil rights issue, and there’s difficulty reconciling someone else’s perspective, you may have to avoid dealing with that person and go on to another one who might be more reasonable. You have to keep digging to see who you could work with. That’s what we were able to do before.

Your reflections on your parents’ struggles and culture reflect a reverence for elders that a lot of Asian cultures find really important. Given all that you’ve accomplished in your life, do you have any advice for young Asian Americans?

Generally, what I say to young people is that you’ve got two things that you own, no one else does, and you have to protect both of them. One is your name, and the other is integrity. If you don’t have integrity, people don’t have trust in you to get things done or advocate. A lot of people try to take shortcuts to quote-unquote-success, and generally speaking, there aren’t any. I think of people who set their eyes on a goal that’s way out there, which is fine, but they’ll keep so much focus on that goal, they’ll stumble over something right in front of them. You have to take things a step at a time. What’s overriding in that whole thing, though, is integrity.

What do you want people watching this documentary to take away?

That democracy is not a spectator’s sport. It requires everyone’s active participation. You don’t have to be running for office to be in public service.

+ + +

Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story, is funded in part by the Center for Asian American Media’s Documentary Fund.