It is difficult to take the measure of a man in one afternoon, but rarely have I been so impressed with someone as I was the one afternoon I spent several years ago with General Eric K. Shinseki.
It was at the White House, during the Clinton Administration, on the afternoon the President presented Medals of Honor to Asian Americans who had served in the 100/442...the legendary Nisei regimental combat team who were the most highly decorated single unit in World War II. Though the unit was highly decorated, only one man had received a Medal of Honor, posthumously, and many had been denied (or their paperwork was "lost") because of racial attitudes during the War.
On this afternoon, President Clinton presented Medals to 22 heroes - or their surviving relatives - including Senator Daniel K. Inouye. And four star General Eric Shinseki - whose uncle Herbert Ishii was the cook for the 442nd - was the top ranking officer in the United States Army.
I invited a man I very much admired to Washington - Rudy Tokiwa. Rudy was a veteran of the 442nd, he was wounded in the war, and had overcome his spinal injuries to leader a productive life as husband, breadwinner, little league coach, and leader in the human rights movement in his native California. Rudy was a plain-spoken, Harry Truman-type guy, who stood up for his country and for Americans of Japanese Ancestry. He was a giant of a little guy, and an American's American. Frank Capra would have loved him. I sure did.
Rudy flew in from San Jose with his companion Judy, and we all went to the White House for the ceremony that was held in a tent on the White House lawn. I had a press pass, and invited Rudy and Judy into the Press Room where he kibitzed and told stories to the assembled media and technicians. Then we headed out for the ceremony. Rudy walked out - with the help of arm braces.
When General Shinseki arrived, Rudy called out, "hey, Eric!" The General came over, smiling broadly, and gave Rudy and handshake and then a big hug. He gave Judy a kiss. They talked for a few minutes, and at one point Rudy pointed to me - I was a discreet distance away.
Before the ceremony began, Rudy filled me in on Shinseki's work with the 442 veterans. He had attended many of their reunions and events. I had tried to meet with Shinseki prior to this event, but his aides made it clear he had no time for the media and shunned publicity.
I was able to obtain a tape of a speech he made several years earlier to 442 veterans, upon his promotion to Army Chief of Staff. He credited them and their sacrifice for his accomplishment. He said they had carried him on their shoulders, that he was in awe of them, and forever in their debt. The copy of the tape came from the 442 Club in Honolulu. The speech was memorable, and the delivery was magnificent.
After the White House ceremony ended, General Shinseki spent about twenty minutes with me. He talked about how he had known Rudy for many years and what a wonderful character he was. And how he had an unbreakable bond with the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, guys like Rudy, Danny Inouye, Wally Nunotani, and the interpreters who served in the Pacific like Phil Ishio - veterans we both knew and admired.
I told him that I had obtained a copy of his speech to the 442, and he seemed a bit embarrassed. I asked him if he wrote it, and he answered, of course he did. We talked about writing for a while, a subject he taught at West Point after his service in Vietnam.
There is no doubt in my mind that General Shinseki spent that time with me because I was a friend of a veteran he knew and loved. It was a favor to Rudy. Otherwise, he would have continued his practice of avoiding the media.
Rick Shinseki showed that love he had for the men and women he led when he stood up to Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and told Congress that more troops would be needed to secure Iraq than to overthrow Saddam. He spoke truth to political power at a time when others at the Pentagon sought to curry favor. He went into retirement rather than abdicate his responsibility to those he led. And Rummy didn't even attend his Hail and Farewell.
Eric Shinseki fought and bled for his country. He lost part of his foot, and was healed in an Army Hospital, and went on to serve his country at West Point and at the Pentagon. He is an authentic American hero, and is beloved by those who know him.
No doubt in my mind he's the perfect pick for this job - and a twofer, because his advice and experience on military matters will be needed and respected by the Secretary of Defense and the new President.
He's a terrific choice.