February 17, 2003
WASHINGTON -- Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has been lying down on the job a lot lately.
It has nothing to do with his work ethic. For most of the past 21/2 months, Mineta has run the 160,000-person department from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he had back surgery.
He works out of a suite once used by President Eisenhower, who spent three weeks at Walter Reed following surgery in 1956. Mineta is regaining the strength in his legs and running the agency by phone, computer and various other electronic tools.
"With 7,000 employees at headquarters, I'm not in touch with every one of them," Mineta said. "But I'm in touch with 50 or 60 of them in the course of a day."
John Flaherty, Mineta's chief of staff, and Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson have managed the department's headquarters in Mineta's absence. Aides say major policy decisions are made by Mineta from his hospital room.
Mineta, 71, is the only Democrat in President Bush's Cabinet. The former 10-term House member and ex-mayor of San Jose, Calif., became the first Asian-American Cabinet secretary in 2000, when then-President Clinton named him to head the Commerce Department.
Mineta has had a series of health problems since joining the Bush administration. He had a hip replaced about a year ago and had surgery in August to relieve persistent back pain, which reappeared after a long plane trip in November.
After checking into Walter Reed on Nov. 29, doctors found the pain was caused by a staph infection and made worse by curvature of the spine.
Mineta received treatment and left the hospital for only brief periods before having back surgery three weeks ago. He hopes to be released Wednesday.
Mineta's staff made no announcement to the media when he was first admitted to the hospital, and consistently played down his condition. Only in mid January was it disclosed that the secretary would have surgery and remain hospitalized for at least several weeks.
Mineta's old friend and successor in Congress, Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., said Mineta simply did not want people to know he was in the hospital.
"It's that streak, that strain of stubbornness," said Honda, who, like Mineta, spent part of his childhood during World War II in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans.
Mineta has had hundreds of visitors while in the hospital, including Bush. Last Thursday, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, brought sushi for lunch.
Save for the Secret Service agent on duty outside his door and the National Guard troops roaming the hall, his accommodations could pass for a luxury hotel suite that happens to be filled with Eisenhower memorabilia.
His friends and staffers know exactly what to expect before they walk through the door: Mineta toiling away amid a ringing phone, stacks of papers, a shredder, fax machine, two computers, a two-way pager, cordless phone and a portable DVD player.
He builds a daily schedule around his Cabinet duties and CAT scans, MRIs and physical therapy.
"It's totally a Mineta room," said Federal Transit Administrator Jennifer Dorn, who met with him 48 hours before his surgery to discuss a new rating system for transit projects.
Though Mineta was bedridden, she said he was thoroughly engaged in the project, allowing Dorn and her staff to litter his bed with charts and maps.
That same day, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and his wife visited Mineta.
Mineta suggested they work together on a project, and Abraham replied that it needed more research.
"He raised himself in his bed and pointed his finger and said, 'You know, Spence, we're well beyond research and into development,' " Dorn said.
The one frustration Mineta will admit to is shared by many people who telecommute. He feels isolated, though he said that does not stop him from seeking to know all that's happening.
"I'm a delegator, but I want to know what the details are," Mineta said.