What is happening to us?
What passes for public discussion these days certainly is not civil or thoughtful. Nor is it really much of a discussion. If you read the comments from some supposed leaders, you find references to the members of the other political party being our enemies. It’s not just Republicans doing this. It’s Democrats, too. Enemies are those people on the other side of the guns in a war. Our enemies are not the people in our own state, or around the nation, who disagree with us on some issue or another. Nor are these people we disagree with lunatics, morons or imbeciles. They are not crazy, crooked or unpatriotic. We would not think of using terms like these to describe our neighbors, or serving us at the coffee shop or ringing up our purchases at the grocery store. So, why do we think this is acceptable when our political leaders do it?
The growing use of incendiary descriptions of people we disagree with is hurting our nation. It is long overdue for our mothers or grandmothers to grab us by the ear and lecture us about the importance of civility, politeness and the Golden Rule. They need to shake us by the shoulders and tell us to remember we are all in this together. One reader of a recent column offered his assessment of my work. We have never met, but he told me without equivocation, “You are of no good to this nation.” It wasn’t always this way — even during some of the most trying times in our history. An unlikely friendship that sprang up under unlikely circumstances in an unlikely place provides a wonderful example for all of us. Alan Simpson was born in 1931 and grew up during the Great Depression in the rugged remoteness of Cody, Wyo. Norman Mineta was born in San Jose, Calif., also in 1931, and grew up there.
Mineta’s parents came to the United States from Japan in the early 1900s. His father opened an insurance agency in San Jose, and Norm joined the family business after military service and college in the 1950s.
Simpson’s ancestors were living in Wyoming for several decades before it became a state. The family business has always been the law. (His grandfather once prosecuted the outlaw Butch Cassidy.) After military service in the 1950s, Alan became a country lawyer. How did a first generation Japanese-American from California and the member of a pioneer Wyoming family become buddies? Thank the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. government’s misguided response back home to the surprise bombing by the Japanese navy. President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order two months after Pearl Harbor that relocated 120,000 U.S. residents of Japanese descent to protect the U.S. homeland from possible espionage or saboteurs.
Simpson reminded Cowboy State Daily readers recently, “Don’t forget, we were at war with the Germans, but we couldn’t tell who they were. And we were at war with the Italians, but we couldn’t tell who they were. But we could sure as hell know who the Japanese-Americans were, and they came to get ‘em.”
Ten “relocation camps” were built in remote areas of the West to house these Japanese-American families. One camp, called Heart Mountain, was northeast of Cody. It had rows of military-style barracks surrounded by a barbed wire fence and patrolled by armed guards. The camp’s residents included 10-year-old Norman Mineta, his four siblings and their parents, along with about 11,000 other Japanese-Americans.
Families tried to live as normally as possible. Mineta, like other boys at the camp, participated in Boy Scout activities there. Sometimes, Scouts from nearby Cody would go to the camp to participate in those activities.
One who did was a kid named Al Simpson. The friendship between Mineta and Simpson blossomed over knot-tying, camping and other Scouting endeavors in the high country of northeastern Wyoming. The friendship flourished in Washington, D.C., in the halls of Congress 30 years later and lasted right up to Mineta’s death last month at age 90. “It was the oldest friendship I had,” Simpson told the Cowboy State Daily after Mineta’s passing. When Mineta was elected mayor of San Jose in 1971, one of the notes of congratulation came from Wyoming from a lawyer who identified himself as “that fat kid from the scout troop in Cody.” Mineta went on to represent California in the U.S. House for 20 years. He then served as commerce secretary under President Bill Clinton and transportation secretary under President George W. Bush.
Simpson represented Wyoming in the U.S. Senate for 18 years and remembers the phone call he received after his first victory. “When I got elected to the Senate in 1978, Norm called me and said, ‘Boy, this is great. We’ll both be in Congress together.’ I said, ‘It’ll be great for the country and for us.’ ” And it was.
Mineta was a true-blue Democrat; Simpson is a Republican. Together, the two engineered passage of a 1988 civil rights law that provided $20,000 each in reparations to Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated at the relocation camps in the western U.S. Mineta went on to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation through the chaos after 9/11. In 2010, a dozen years after Simpson retired from the Senate, President Barack Obama asked him to co-chair a bipartisan commission to recommend ways to reduce the federal deficit. The recommendations were derailed in Congress, however, by the same political pressures that paralyze us today. Through everything, Mineta and Simpson showed that a friendship built on their shared interests, rather than emphasizing their differences, can last — for 80 years, in their case. Tom Lawrence, a South Dakota journalist, knew them and wrote recently: “Their deep and abiding connection was inspiring. They met in a terrible time in our history, boys who forged a friendship that endured. Al and Norm set an example for all of us.”
Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.