Norman Mineta always wears an American flag pin on his lapel.
Born in California to Japanese immigrants, the 87-year-old former Democratic congressman and cabinet secretary says there are still moments, more than 75 years after he and his family were relocated to a Wyoming internment camp during World War II, when others view him as a foreigner in his own country. So he wears the pin as a proud symbol of his American identity.
Mineta's life, identity and accomplishments are the focus of Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story, a new documentary airing at 9 p.m. Monday on PBS (check your local listings).
The film, cosponsored by AARP, celebrates Mineta's achievements over five decades of firsts: Mineta was the first Asian American mayor of a major U.S. city, the first Japanese American congressman from the mainland United States and the first Asian American cabinet secretary, serving in two administrations.
But asking him which achievement makes him most proud, he says in an interview with AARP, is like asking him which of his four children he loves most.
Still, a few things stand out. During his time in the U.S. House, where he represented the San Jose, Calif., area from 1974 to 1995, Mineta worked with a coalition of Asian American leaders to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
The bill sought redress for the 120,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II, offering formal apologies and financial compensation to those who, like Mineta's family, were forcibly relocated.
Other landmark legislation followed. Mineta authored the transportation portion of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law in 1990. He was also the driver of a key infrastructure act that helped fund public mass transit projects around the country, and he was an early advocate for same-sex marriage.
His achievements in Washington notwithstanding, Mineta points to his term as mayor of San Jose in the early 1970s, when the city was transforming from agricultural community to Silicon Valley boomtown, as a lasting source of pride.
He recalls one experience in particular: A campaign volunteer who used a wheelchair as the result of a childhood bout with polio urged the newly elected Mineta to try one out for himself. The experience, he says, was “invaluable,” showing him the challenges faced by people with disabilities in everyday life.
As a result, San Jose became one of the first U.S. cities to feature curb cuts, later mandated by the ADA. Mineta also recalls switching the direction of street grates so wheelchair wheels would no longer get stuck.
He says that his hands-on approach to advocacy began when he was appointed to the San Jose City Council in 1967, making him the first nonwhite council member. “At that point,” he says, “I wanted to represent those who were underrepresented or had no representation. I've tried to follow that rule since 1967.”
It's a principle that also stems from his own experiences of discrimination, including his family's evacuation during the war from their home in San Jose to the U.S. concentration camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., in 1942.
There, more than 1,000 miles from home, the 11-year-old Mineta, his parents and three siblings lived in a 20-by-25-foot room, illuminated by a single overhead light bulb, with a potbelly stove for warmth during the harsh Wyoming winters. They would stay there until 1945.
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More than five decades later, while serving as secretary of transportation under President George W. Bush, Mineta's experience in Wyoming would shape his response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. With planes grounded and new security protocols in the works, Mineta worked to ensure that no ethnicity or religion would be singled out for treatment like that faced by Japanese Americans during World War II.
Mineta resigned in 2006, well into his 70s, making him the longest-serving secretary of transportation in history. But, he says, he'll never truly retire. These days, he lives near Annapolis, Md., and keeps busy as a consultant with a handful of clients and ongoing advocacy work. His focus is on strengthening U.S.-Japan relations and guiding the next generation of civic leaders.
Using the lessons of the past to build a better future, he says, is like glancing at the rearview mirror while keeping your vision on the windshield.
"I always used to say, I'm living my bucket list,” Mineta says. Today, his eyes still firmly on the future in the windshield, it seems clear he still is.