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Documentary About the Life and Legacy of Norman Mineta Skip to content

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Norman Mineta Talks About His Legacy

His life and accomplishments are the subjects of a PBS documentary

Norman Mineta

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Bob Edwards: Hello, I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP Take on Today.

First, an important victory in the battle to lower prescription drug prices. On Tuesday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law authorizing the state to import prescription drugs from Canada and other countries, potentially lowering the price of life-saving medicine that millions of people take every day.

Ron DeSantis: We wanted to find ways to give people cheaper prescription drugs, give them access to cheaper prescription drugs, because it's an issue that we pay so much more in America than any other country, so we wanted to figure out ways where we could change that.

While the state needs approval from the federal government, President Trump has signaled his support by directing HHS Secretary Azar to work with Governor DeSantis. With bipartisan support growing for action on the epidemic of high prescription prices, some states are adding to the momentum with their own legislation. As of this week, more than 20 states have passed or are currently debating legislation to lower drug prices. It's clear that prescription drug companies are on their heels.

Bob Edwards: To contact your state and federal representatives, visit aarp.org/rx.

Norman Mineta has led an eventful life. The now 87-year old's achievements are made even more remarkable by his early years when he and his family were among the Japanese Americans forced to live in an internment camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the U.S. into World War II against Japan. His life, identity and accomplishments are the focus on Norman Mineta and His Legacy, An American Story, a new documentary on PBS, and streaming on pbs.org for a limited time through June 17. The film, co-sponsored by AARP, celebrates Mineta's achievements over five decades of firsts, the first Asian American mayor of a major U.S. city, the first Japanese American congressman from the mainland United States, the first Asian American cabinet secretary serving in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

For over half a century, Mineta has used the lessons of the past to help build a better future. While serving as Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush, Mineta's experience in an internment camp in Wyoming, would shape his response to the terrorist attacks of September 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.

After decades of public service, Secretary Mineta continues to wear an American flag lapel pin. I asked him how someone who was once incarcerated by the United States over his Japanese American ancestry, can bear this pride for his country. It's his way to demonstrate for others that he is as American as anyone else.

Norman Mineta: I get into an elevator and I get the look over, and people think who is he? I remember Spark Matsunaga, Senator from Hawaii, about how he said on a number of occasions where he would be treated as the foreigner, even as a U.S. Senator, people not knowing he was a U.S. Senator, but in the capitol building or wherever he had a meeting he might be, he would still be looked at as the foreigner. I still wear the flag. I'm proud of being an American. I'm proud of being of Japanese ancestry, but it really serves a dual purpose for me just to let people know that I am an American and proud of it. The greatness of this country, also, is that it has the ability to admit a mistake, and under the constitution, it says the citizens have the ability to redress their grievances against the government.

Bob Edwards: There’s a new documentary film about your life which explains the hysteria following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and how Japanese Americans, like your family, were incarcerated in camps on west for the duration of the war. How has that experience shaped you?

Norman Mineta: President Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19 of 1942, delegating to the Department of War, the ability to evacuate an interned persons. Didn't say German, didn't say Italian, didn't say Japanese, but it did say the ability to interned persons. So, General DeWitt took that executive order, and then commandeered race tracks in county fairgrounds, because they had built in living quarters, namely the horse stables. These big placards started going up in communities where there were sizeable populations of people of Japanese ancestry, and it said instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry, alien and non-alien. As a 10-year-old kid, I saw that sign and I said to my older brother who was 9 years older, I said, "Who's a non-alien?" He said, "That's you." I said, "I'm not a non-alien. I'm a citizen of the United States." He said, "Well, in this instance, this means the same thing." I said, "Well, why aren't they calling me a citizen?" He said, "Well, I'm not sure, but maybe it's some kind of a psychological warfare being lodged against us."

That's why, to this day, I cherish the word citizen, because the United States government, my own government, wasn't willing to use that word in describing me. I have said in speeches, how many times have you stood on a chair, beat your chest, and said, "I'm a proud non-alien of the United States of America?" People chuckled because they never have. Yet, to this day, I cherish the word citizen because my own government would not use it to describe us.

Bob Edwards: While you were in the camp in Wyoming, you made a friend who turned out to be a life long friend.

Norman Mineta: That was Alan Simpson. I always say to people, I knew him when he had hair, and he was roly-poly as a 12-year-old kid. But, in any event, out of that time in that tent, we became life long friends. In 1974, I was elected to the House of Representatives. In 1978, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Our friendship went back as if we were still sitting in that pup tent back in 1943. He and I, and our wives, have been dear, dear friends ever since. We've vacationed at least two times a year in the last five or seven years. We talk on the phone probably five, seven to eight times a month. He's just a wonderful, wonderful, dear, dear friend.

Bob Edwards: You're a Democrat, he's a Conservative Republican.

Norman Mineta: Right. One time we were having dinner, and this fellow comes up and says, "Senator Simpson, you're a Conservative Republican, Mineta's a Liberal Democrat. Tell me, what's the biggest difference between the two of you?" Alan thought about it and he finally said to the guy, "I wear 17E shoes. He wears 8 and a half D." The guy looked at Alan, sort of mumbled to himself thinking, what kind of a response is that to my question?

Bob Edwards: You went from being incarcerated in the camp because of your race, your ethnicity, then later you were denied housing, discriminated against in trying to get a home. Despite all of this, you are not bitter. How have you turned these experiences into a positive force?

Norman Mineta: A lot of that, really, it comes from my father. My father came as a 14-year-old kid from Japan. Not only did I saw my father cry three times. Once was on the 7th of December 1941, because he really couldn't understand why the land of his birth was now attacking the land of his heart. The second time I saw him cry was on May 29, 1941, while we were on the train pulling out of San Jose to go off to camp. At that point, we didn't know where we were going. It turned out, we ended up at Santa Anita, the racetrack near Los Angeles. The third time I saw him cry was when my mother died. But, he was always a positive person and always tried to look at things. I remember towards the end of January 1942, he had gathered the whole family in the living room of our home, and he said, "You know, I don't know what's going to happen to us," meaning my father and my mother because they were aliens. They were non-citizens. My dad said, "You know, all of you are citizens of the United States. They can't do anything with you. I want you to think of this house, 545 North Fifth Street in San Jose as your home. So, no matter what happens to us, this is your home."

Yet, little did he realize that on February 19, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, delegating to the Department of War, the ability to evacuate an interned persons.

Bob Edwards: 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 September 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 opened up about his relationship with President Bush.

Was it lonely being the only Democrat in the George W. Bush administration?

Norman Mineta: On 9/11, we were having a cabinet meeting on Thursday, the 13th of September with the House and Senate, Democratic and Republican leadership. Towards the end of that meeting, Congressman David Bonior from Detroit, Michigan, said, "Mr. President, we have a very large population of Middle Easterners in Michigan, a very large population of Muslim." With all this new rhetoric in the print media and the electronic media about banning Middle Easterners from flying, keeping Muslims off airplanes, and there was even talk about rounding up Middle Easterners, putting them in camps, the President said, "David, you're absolutely correct. We are equally concerned about all that rhetoric that we're hearing about, and we don't have happen today to people, given what Norm experienced in 1942." When he said that, you could have knocked me off my cabinet chair with a feather.

He really felt that because on the following Monday, he went to the Islamic study center here in Washington, D.C., met with a large group of Middle Easterners and Muslims. He said, "We know who did that last Tuesday. They were not loyal Arab Americans. They were not faithful followers of Islam. They were terrorists, and we're going to go after the terrorists." As you recall, that was his mantra for the balance of his administration to go after the terrorists. I ended up enjoying very much working with the President. Got to know him real well, and got to love and respect President Bush.

Bob Edwards: After a long and distinguished career in public service, you were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What's it like to fly in to the Norman Mineta Airport in San Jose?

Norman Mineta: That was a real surprise when the then mayor and city council decided to change the name to the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. One time, when my grandson was six years old, he said, "Grandpa, do you own an airport?" I said, "No, no. I don't own an airport." But, I always tell people, "Isn't that strange? My parents named me after an airport." It's a great honor to have an airport named after me, and the airlines are pruitt at losing my luggage, and doing everything else."

Bob Edwards: Thank you so much for your many years of public service, and it's been a joy talking to you.

Norman Mineta: Thank you.

Bob Edwards: Check for local listings on PBS to watch The Portrait of Norman Mineta's Life, and stream online at pbs.org for a limited time through June 17. The documentary of Norman Mineta's journey also includes free online educational material developed by Stanford University. To learn more, go to minetalegacyproject.com.

For more, visit aarp.org/podcast. Become a subscriber and be sure to rate our podcast on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. Thanks for listening. I'm Bob Edwards.

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Norman Mineta — a prisoner in an internment camp during World War II and former member of Congress, mayor and cabinet secretary — reflects on the lessons he’s learned over the past five decades to help build a better future. Mineta's life, identity and accomplishments are the focus of Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story, a new documentary on PBS and streaming on PBS.org for a limited time through June 17.

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