Rouse is White House’s first Asian American chief of staff

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NEW DUTIES — President Barack Obama meets with interim Chief of Staff Pete Rouse in the Oval Office on Oct. 4. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Oct. 1 introduced Peter M. Rouse, a third-generation Japanese American, as interim chief of staff of the White House. He replaces outgoing Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

The appointment further diversifies the president’s inner circle, which includes an unprecedented three Asian American Cabinet members in Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

“I am very fortunate to be able to hand the baton to my wise, skillful, and longtime counselor, Pete Rouse,” Obama said at an East Room press conference announcing the departure of Emanuel, who is leaving to run for the mayor of Chicago. “Pete, who has more than 30 years of experience in public service, will serve as interim chief of staff as we enter the next phase of our administration.”

Rouse, who was serving as senior advisor to the president, was also the co-chair of the Obama-Biden transition team as well as senior advisor to Obama’s campaign.

“There is a saying around the White House, let’s let Pete fix it,” said Obama. “And he does. Pete’s known as a skillful problem-solver, and the good news for him is that we have plenty of problems to solve.

Congressman Michael Honda (D-San Jose), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, made note of the historic appointment.

“For the first time in White House history, the U.S. president’s chief of staff is Asian American, bringing even more color to a historically all-white house,” Honda said in a statement. “Not only are we witnessing history-in-the-making, we are watching a presidential commitment to diversity materialize in full, at both the Cabinet and collegial levels.

Honda noted that a Japanese American is now the president’s “right-hand man.”

“This is groundbreaking considering that a mere 60 years ago, Japanese Americans were corralled into internment camps at the height of WWII,” Honda added. “As chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, this is exactly the kind of change that I can, and will continue, to believe in. I applaud President Obama’s appointment and applaud Peter for making Asian Americans proud.”

The accolades came streaming in from coast to coast.

“I join Asian Americans in celebrating his selection, which reflects President Obama’s appreciation of our country’s diversity,” Congresswoman Mazie Hirono (D-Hawai‘i) said in a statement. “Mr. Rouse brings a unique background to this critical position and I’m confident he will do a great job as chief of staff.”

According to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, a permanent chief of staff will likely not be decided upon for “several months,” although Rouse is “absolutely” on a short list for a permanent replacement.

Contrast in styles

While Emanuel has at times been a forceful personality who doggedly espoused White House policy in front of cameras, Rouse is known to be a behind-the-scenes operative who is camera shy.

The president himself noted the contrast, jokingly. “I pointed out that Rahm when he was a kid had lost part of his finger in an accident, and it was his middle finger, so it rendered him mute for a while,” the president said to laughter from the press corps. “Pete has never seen a microphone or a TV camera that he likes.”

But people shouldn’t necessarily confuse style with effectiveness, said San Francisco Bay Area-based civil rights attorney Dale Minami.

“In the employment discrimination cases I handled over the years for Asian Pacific Islander Americans, leadership styles which were not aggressive, overtly forceful and usually macho were discounted so many APIs who were very effective leaders were passed over for promotion,” Minami told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “There are many styles of leadership which succeed so I’m glad the president has chosen someone like Peter Rouse, who has demonstrated both his competence, loyalty and leadership in a more subdued style than his predecessor.”

Gibbs noted Rouse’s commitment to mentoring young staff at the Oct. 1 press briefing, recalling that once his employer lost his re-election bid, Rouse committed “to do everything he could to find every kid that worked for him the next job.”

“Pete is selfless,” Gibbs said “… [He] has always put the organization ahead of himself. I think that’s one of the things that the president reveres in him — his loyalty to him. And I think that’s why he enjoys the president’s complete trust.”

Gibbs went on to note that Rouse enjoys a great deal of respect in the White House. “Pete is somebody who is trusted to handle anything and everything, and now he’s got everything,” Gibbs added.

At his parting press conference, Emanuel recognized Rouse’s leadership. “As difficult as it is to leave, I do so with the great comfort of knowing that Pete Rouse will be there to lead the operation forward,” he said. “From the moment I arrived, and the moment he arrived, Pete has been a good friend with great judgment. He commands the respect of everyone in this building and brings decades of experience to this assignment.”

Rising through the ranks

Rouse, who was born in Connecticut, received his bachelor’s from Maine’s Colby College, where, according to USA Today, he was an All-American baseball star.

He received his master’s from the London School of Economics and a master’s in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Rouse, who gained a reputation as the “101st senator” for his extensive knowledge of Congress, has served as chief of staff to political leaders for three decades. Prior to becoming Obama’s Senate office chief of staff in 2004, he had served in that capacity for 19 years to former Democratic U.S. Senate leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. He also served as chief of staff to then-Rep. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) from 1984-85, and Lt. Gov. Terry Miller of Alaska, a Republican, from 1979-83.

Pioneer JA family in Alaska

A look at the Congressional Record memoriam to Mary Mikami Rouse — the chief of staff’s late mother, who passed away in 1999 at age 87 — reveals a fascinating portrait of the White House staff leader’s roots.

His maternal great-grandfather was a vassal of the shogun in Japan, who made him the head of that country’s new naval academy.

Goro Mikami, the fifth son of the samurai family, rebelled against an arranged marriage and set off from Tokyo for America around 1885. Upon settling in San Francisco, Mikami attended the University of California in Berkeley to learn English, and Americanized his first name to George.

During a visit back home in Japan in 1910, Mikami met Mine Morioka, who was a nurse in the Russian-Japanese war. They returned to Seattle in 1911, and in 1912 Mary Mikami was born.

It appears that George Mikami found work on the Alaskan railroad being built between Seward and Anchorage, and by 1918, the family had moved into Anchorage where they established George’s Tailor Shop on Fourth Avenue between B and C streets.

According to the Congressional Record, Rouse’s family was one of the first — if not the first — Japanese families to settle in Anchorage, Alaska.

Until starting public school, the four Mikami children all only spoke Japanese, and Mary was “highly traumatized” when she realized she had to learn English. However, they all would become valedictorians of their respective graduating classes in Anchorage’s public schools.

Mary Mikami would matriculate to Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in Fairbanks — now renamed the University of Alaska at Fairbanks — graduating with highest honors in 1934.

Just prior to World War II, George and Mine Mikami sold the tailor shop and retired to Los Angeles. They, like 120,000 other persons of Japanese descent on the West Coast, were forcibly relocated to a wartime concentration camp, theirs in the desert of Arizona.

Their four kids, however, escaped that fate.

Mary would attend graduate school at Yale University, where she would meet fellow graduate student Irving Rouse, whom she would marry. They both earned their Ph.D. degrees, enjoyed long careers teaching at the university, and raised two sons, Peter and David Rouse.

“All of us who know and work with Pete are aware of the enormous influence his mother Mary had on him,” said then-U.S. Sen. Daschle in the Congressional Record. “His success in life stems from the legacy of his mother — a keen intelligence, unparalleled integrity and judgment, and basic human kindness.”

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