“There are times when you think about your life in reflection.” Norman Y. Mineta stood before a group of family, friends, former colleagues and Smithsonian staffers Monday evening as his soft eyes gazed at his own likeness sitting across the podium in a regal gold frame. “I don’t know if you should be proud to be hanged, but there’s no question that I’m proud to be hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.”
Mineta—formerly secretary of commerce under Bill Clinton and secretary of transportation under George W. Bush—was painted by New York artist Everett Raymond Kinstler, who has more than 80 portraits already in the Portrait Gallery’s collection, including Yo Yo Ma, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Katharine Hepburn. The portrait was unveiled and hung Monday evening, in a program that included remarks by museum staff, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program that gifted the portrait to the Portrait Gallery, and Mineta himself.
Mineta's is a different American story from most. Having been sent to a Japanese internment camp as a child during World War II, he worked his way up through the ranks of state and federal government. Richard Kurin, Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture at the Smithsonian, praised Mineta as “a true public servant, who instead of becoming embittered by his experiences, learned from them, worked hard and accomplished much.” Kurin read a letter from President Barack Obama, calling “Norm” the “consummate public servant.”
Mineta recounted stories of his siblings facing discrimination when they were younger—of his sister, who wanted to be a school teacher but was told nobody would hire her because of her Japanese heritage—and of his brother, whose draft card in 1942 was marked by the designation “4C,” or “enemy alien.”
But despite what may have been a painful past, Mineta emphasized the positive influences he received throughout his life. “Through these kinds of experiences, you get mentored,” he said. “I’m privileged to be standing on the shoulders of giants of the past. . .I hope to play a small role in encouraging Asian Pacific Americans to go up the ladder of success, and to pull someone else up with them.”
The portrait depicts Mineta, arms folded, in a dark suit with an American flag pinned to his lapel. He stands before an Asian screen, and a small sculpture sits in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. Kinstler, the artist, said he does not believe in “gimmicks,” but in “making use of objects that show something about the character of the subject.” Because the portrait was social rather than political (now that Mineta is no longer a government official), Kinstler felt justified in using vibrant colors for the background and small props to bring a “sense of life” to the painting.
As the portrait was hung in the hall of the museum, Mineta and Kinstler—now friendly after four sittings for the portrait—feigned clamoring for attention from the cameras, one white-haired man leaping boyishly in front of the other. I recall Kurin’s words from earlier in the evening: “In one lifetime, one can embody a great American story.”