Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has been with the Trump Administration since the end of January. She sat down with C-Span to talk about her goals for the Transportation Department. Her prior work as Peace Corps Director and Labor Secretary, and her marriage to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She also shared early memories as a child coming to the U.S. as an immigrant from Taiwan. This profile interview is thirty minutes.
Steve Scully: Elaine Chao, what are your earliest memories of coming to the United States?
Secretary Chao: They are very vivid memories. I came when I was eight years old, as a young immigrant. And I didn’t speak English. My father had come three years earlier and he left us behind in Asia because he didn’t have the money nor the documentation to bring us. So my mother, my two sisters and me stayed behind. My mother was then seven months pregnant when he left for America. So he did not see his third child until she was three years old in America.
We came aboard a ship. It was a thirty-seven day ocean journey and I remember going through the Panama Canal. For an eight-year-old, it was great fun, but I can’t imagine the trepidation and the anxiety that must have frightened my mother, who was the only woman on board the ship with three young girls, children. But we were surrounded by love and by very secure parents, who really looked out for us, so we never felt any want.
Steve Scully: Do you remember, you were eight at the time, but do you remember what you were thinking or what you thought when you landed in America?
Secretary Chao: I thought American’s roads would be paved with gold. Because that is the typical immigrant folklore. America’s the land of opportunity, the land of hope, it’s a land of where everything is good, and it’s a land of where the roads are paved with gold.
So as a child I thought, gee, I am coming to America, where of course being reunited with our father and that was exciting. But we were coming to a new country, so there was a great deal of excitement.
Steve Scully: Where was home first?
Secretary Chao: Home was in Taiwan. My parents of Americans of Chinese decent. They left mainland China in 1949, during the height of the Civil War there. They relocated to Taiwan. A small island about 90 miles southeast of the mainland. There my father became the first, well the youngest Sea Captain at the age of twenty-nine, which was quite a feat. He was in charge of a ship full of men away at sea most of the time. Being responsible for multimillion dollar cargos, and he was only twenty-nine years old. And when you are at sea in those days, you had to be self-reliant because there was no other way to seek help if anything happened. So my father is incredibly inspirational, a can-do, independent, very forward thinking and creative person.
Steve Scully: And then turning that into a very successful business.
Secretary Chao: Yes. What happened, he became one of the youngest ship captains at the age of twenty-nine and he wanted something more for his family, because he was away at sea for such a long period of time.
So he decided to continue his studies. He took a national examination in Taiwan. This is a long-standing Chinese tradition where you take a national examination, it is given one day a year. It is actually four days, but it is given once a year. You are given one chance to excel or not. And he studied very hard.
He was an excellent student, as well as being an outstanding athlete. He scored number one in the whole country. And broke all the records. And China has a long history. So to break all the records was quite phenomenal. He was written up in the newspapers. And benefactors came forward to offer him scholarship funds. And with that, he was able to come to America. But I want to say, he was allowed to go abroad, but which country do you think he and my mother chose? They chose America, because America once again is the land of opportunity and hope. And that is where they wanted to go. So for a young couple who never really been outside their country very much, they knew about America. It says volumes about America’s influence and how strongly held it is in the minds of so many outside the country, our country.
Steve Scully: How did you learn English?
Secretary Chao: It was dubbed the total immersion method, meaning I entered third-grade not speaking a word of English and I just sat in the classroom. I copied whatever was on the blackboard into my notebook and at the end of every day my father, who would be working three jobs, would come back home very late at night. And he would sit with me and we would pour over my notebook, into which I had scrawled and copied from the blackboard that day’s lesson. But I was very young. I didn’t know any English, so I would transpose the “b’s” and the “d’s” and the “p’s” and the “q’s.” And so it was really hard for him to go through the notebook with me and decipher what that day’s lesson was. But we prevailed and, you know, we went through my notebook and that is how I learned English and within one year, when you are that young, I was proficient.
Steve Scully: Where did you grow up?
Secretary Chao: I grew up in New York City- Queens, New York.
Steve Scully: What was that like?
Secretary Chao: We lived in a one bedroom apartment. Looking back, it wasn’t a great environment. But again, because we were so secure in our home and surrounded by you know, with parents who took such care of us, who loved us, we did not really feel like we were needing anything.
We were quite happy. We were reunited as a family and life was good. And as our economic situation improved, we moved to Long Island- Syosset, Long Island. And then we moved to Westchester, where we are today. So it is a wonderful story about what America is all about. That is the important thing.
Steve Scully: And your dad is still alive. How old?
Secretary Chao: He is eight-nine years old. In Chinese terms, he is ninety. He is in great health. He still goes to the office every day. And he swims thirty minutes every day without stopping.
I am very, very fortunate to have him, that he is able to be here and to be able to see the accomplishments of his daughters, so there were three girls. They had three daughters who were born in Taiwan. Then, after we arrived, three more sisters were born. They are all in the Northeast area.
Steve Scully: Are you more like your mom or your dad?
Secretary Chao: I like to think I am a combination of both. My father is very energetic and very forward thinking, very progressive.
You know he loves technology, even today you can text him, email him, he has his iPad and iPhone.
He is terrific with technology. I really admire that. My mother was a very compassionate, very kind person. They came from very disperse backgrounds. And I think that is a lesson in life. Out of turmoil and hardship, can come opportunity and good things. So for example, my father came from a small farming village of ten families outside of Shanghai. 10 families. It was a small, small village. And my mother came from a prosperous, distinguished, well-to-do family in Anhui Province. It was the turmoil of the times, the country was in domestic turmoil. There was civil war going on. So my mother’s family left their ancestral home in Anhui. They went to Nanjing, but there were problems over there. Obviously when the Japanese invasion occurred. And so they went to Shanghai. Under ordinary circumstances, in the social order of old China these two young people would have never had the chance to meet, because they were from such different social economic backgrounds. But in the turmoil of the times, my father and my mother went to a high school and she was able to meet different kinds of people. So they were introduced through mutual friends. And that is how they met.
Steve Scully: Have you been back there?
Secretary Chao: I have been back to Asia regularly when I am out of office, not so often when I’m in office. So I do go back.
Steve Scully: Do you remember the first time you walked through the gates of the White House?
Secretary Chao: I do. It was, it was actually a feeling of awe, of course. But also a kind of loneliness.
I always wished that there were more people who were like me, who were able to enter the White House. I come from a big family so I am used to sharing. And at that time, 1983, it was not a very diverse population at the White House. I think the only Asians who were there were the Filipino stewards in the White House. And I thought, how wonderful it would be if my immigrant community could come with me and to see what is in the White House. And people of different backgrounds to come and see how the government functioned. So when, you know, when I was Secretary of Labor, I actually had appointed a number of different young people to be liaisons to underserved communities. And to communities of color, so that we can reach out to make sure that they feel comfortable entering into the Federal Government. That this is their government. Remember how I met my first cabinet officer at the age of thirty-nine. That was the first time I was so intimidated. I came to the Labor Department at that time to see Secretary Elizabeth Dole and I saw these huge doors. They are beautiful, wooden doors. They are a beautiful color brown. I still remember them.
I was on the outside and I thought, gosh, she must be inside. Thinking she was right inside that front door. And then of course, when I got to the Department of Labor as Secretary, I realized that was only the front door. There was a whole lot of offices back there. So I did not want people who were not part of mainstream America to feel intimidated. And I felt a responsibility to develop leaders for our country for the future that were of diverse backgrounds.
Steve Scully: Let’s talk about the four Presidents you had worked with, beginning with Ronald Reagan. In a sentence or two, describe your interactions with them and what they were like as a boss, beginning with President Reagan.
Secretary Chao: President Reagan, I was a White House fellow, I was so young at the time that if I caught a glimpse of the President that would have made my day. So I didn’t really have that much interaction. But I will say, I think President Ronald Reagan’s presidency was successful for many reasons. Two I will cite, pertain to me. One is I was actually independent. I was not very much involved in politics at all. But President Reagan’s inaugural message and his goals of smaller government, stable monetary policy, less regulations, and peace through strength really resounded with me. That kind of like touched a chord that made me realize I am actually conservative. So President Ronald Reagan was able to reach out to swaths of the population that did not view themselves as Republicans, who nevertheless really connected with his message.
And then secondly, because he had such simple, but clear principles, it was actually relatively easier to be in his administration, because you knew what he stood for, what the administration stood for. And every day when you went to work you knew the four principles that you were supposed to follow as you carry out daily tasks.
Steve Scully: President George Herbert Walker Bush, you had a number of appointments, including Peace Corps Director.
Secretary Chao: I was a Deputy Secretary in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, as well as being the Peace Corps Director.
Let me talk about the Peace Corps Director first, because that was really interesting and it speaks to one of the great strengths of President George H.W. Bush. And that is that he had an incredibly insightful international view.
In the Summer of 1991, he already knew and sensed that the former Soviet Empire was going to collapse. And he knew that People’s of the different Republics of the former Soviet Union were going to need a different kind of assimilation into the rest of the world. So that is what he wanted the Peace Corps to do, is to help develop, send in volunteers with a different kind of skill set. Volunteers who were older, who had more experience and you would be able to help the People’s of the former Soviet Union adjust and assimilate into a new post-Soviet Union world.
Steve Scully: Eight years as Labor Secretary, both terms of George W. Bush. What was he like to work with?
Secretary Chao: He was very, he was a very good boss. He expected his people to do their jobs. And he gave you the ability to do your job, so I thought he was a very good boss. And, you know, his White House was, of course, experienced because he was with his father when President George H. W. Bush was president. And I think President George W. Bush learned a great deal from those four years. And even though his administration transition period was cut short thirty-seven days due to the dispute about who had won the election, on January 20, they were ready.
Steve Scully: How do you prepare to manage an agency or department like Labor, or now Transportation?
Secretary Chao: I think, first of all, it’s important to understand the contribution of the career ranks. So for example, when I came in as Secretary of Labor and as Secretary of Transportation, the first thing I did, on the very first day, was to gather the career acting heads, the career folks, career leadership, and to thank them for carrying on the mission of government in the transition period. It can be very chaotic, the transition can be anxiety-ridden, and we need to thank the career folks for providing a stability in carrying on the mission of the government.
Steve Scully: Why transportation? Why did you decide to take this position, and was it something that you wanted?
Secretary Chao: Actually, I was hoping to get Transportation in 2001 because my whole background is actually in trade and transportation. I was a transportation banker for a number of years for both Citicorp and Bank of America, and I had worked for transportation companies, so my whole background was actually in transportation. So it’s nice now, to be able to return to a field in which I had worked previously, and it’s nice to be able to be back in a department that I’m very familiar.
Steve Scully: And so the fourth Republican president that you’re working with, the current president.
Secretary Chao: President Trump is very social – sociable and social. And he’s very quick. He learns very quickly. And he drills down and he’s interested and curious about everything. So he’s great fun to be with. He has good instincts. He picks good people, present company excluded. So he has good instincts. And he’s also able to connect with the American people. He speaks in a very plainspoken way, and obviously from the results of the election, he connects with people on a very, very real and authentic level.
Steve Scully: If you were to write an opening paragraph describing Elaine Chao, what would you write?
Secretary Chao: I would write, Elaine Chao hopes she made a contribution to her country and society. That she kept her humanity and compassion and humility. And that she helped lots of people along the way. And that she was a good daughter, a good wife, a good sister.
Steve Scully: You are also Mrs. Mitch McConnell. How did the two of you meet?
Secretary Chao: We met through mutual friends in the best Chinese way, we were introduced through mutual friends. So we were introduced by the first Asian-American U.S. ambassador in our country. That’s ambassador Julia Chang Block, who was the ambassador to Nepal. And so her father and our family knew each other. And so through family relations, she introduced Mitch and me.
Steve Scully: Did you know right away?
Secretary Chao: I always liked Mitch because he wasn’t your usual politician. He wasn’t your glad-handing, backslapping politician. I actually, I didn’t like – I’m going to cut back on that one. No, but I liked him in the sense – I was going to say I didn’t really like politicians very much because I thought they talked too much. And, you know, Asian culture emphasizes much more humility. So that’s why I liked Mitch. I thought that he was always very thoughtful. He was deliberative. And he was always listening and learning. And I thought that he was a very real person. He was very grounded, very humble, and I liked that.
Steve Scully: Is he a master of the Senate? And does he love the Senate?
Secretary Chao: You know he’s very humble. You’re going to have to ask him that. Obviously that term has a lot of connotation through Robert Carroll’s book with President Johnson. Mitch is a very serious student of American history. You ask him about any aspect of American history, you ask him about any election, House, Senate, whatever – he’ll know the answer probably. He reads all the time. And he values the lessons that history offers.
Steve Scully: So the two of you have a day with nothing on your schedule. What do you do?
Secretary Chao: We talk about really mundane things that are kind of boring. Like, you know, we actually have a private life, so we deal with things that every other couple deals with like who’s going to take out the garbage, and how we’re going to get our schedules to mesh on Saturday. What are you doing this Saturday? I’m going to the gym, and where are you going? Things like that, just like every other couple.
Steve Scully: As you know you’ve made a little bit of news on a podcast with Politico. You said, I prepare so much more than some of my male colleagues.
Secretary Chao: Well I didn’t prepare too much today. It’s been a very busy day. Well, I want to do well. Your listeners are so kind to tune in, and I want to do a good job for your listeners. I want them to feel it was worth their time to tune in and listen. And so I feel that way about everything I do. You know, people are giving me their time, their attention. I have a responsibility to do a good job to justify their trust in me. Every job that I’ve had, I’ve always been so grateful to people who have trusted me, even though they may not have known me, they’ve given me a job. I want to do my best for them.
Steve Scully: So how do you prepare your own learning curve, whether the head of the United Way, or Labor, or Peace Corps, now Transportation?
Secretary Chao: I view preparation as, again, a matter of being thoughtful and considerate. And I, I don’t like it when people come and they’re unprepared. Because the time that you spend with a principal is so precious. When you come and see the Secretary you want her full attention. You want her to know what you’re talking about rather than you having to explain this is “X,” this is “A,” this is “B,” this is “C.” Hopefully, if the principal is well prepared, the discussion can be richer, can be more meaningful, can be more productive, and it will a good use of the visitor’s time as well. So that’s what I always think. I remember when I was on the outside, and I would so disappointed if the person I was seeing didn’t even know who I was, what my background was. So as an example, when I go anyplace there are so many who want to see me, and they’ve been waiting there maybe fifteen minutes, maybe half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes. I always make a point to know who they are, what their names are, at least what their titles are, what they’re doing there. I think they deserve that. I think that’s the respect I can show them when I visit them. So I try to be prepared out of respect for the person I am meeting with.
Steve Scully: Let’s talk about one issue that the President talked a lot about during the campaign, and that’s infrastructure. Specifically the issue of high-speed rail, because you’ve travelled around the world, you’ve seen what Japan has, what Europe has. What would it take for America to get that?
Secretary Chao: We currently do not have high-speed rail expertise. So that brings into question a number of issues which we can discuss. We have high-speed rail projects in the United States. There’s a very promising one between Houston and Dallas. There’s a very promising one, soon to be opened later this year, in Florida. We of course – there’s a couple in California. There’s some in the Chicago area. We of course have Amtrak, which can go up to a hundred thirty-five miles. But basically for high-speed rail to exist, there needs to be a straightaway. When the road curves – so when the track curves – that’s when the rail car has to bank, and thus, slow down. So first and foremost, we need the land, and so that’s restrictive. And there are secondly, as I mentioned, we don’t really have the high-speed rail expertise. The high-speed rail expertise can be found in Spain, Italy, France, Japan, China, and then the question is, you know, when we consider the infrastructure proposal, we need to be careful how these transactions are structured. Because I think there would be some concerns if foreigners were to own parts of our infrastructure, and so we are looking at that very carefully. But the President, actually, is an enthusiast for high-speed rail. So he actually is very interested in how we can achieve a more comfortable experience for passengers, get them from point A to point B in a faster, more comfortable way that contributes to improving the quality of life and that doesn’t despoil the environment. So we’re taking a look at that.
Steve Scully: So do you think we’ll get there at some point?
Secretary Chao: I think we will. I don’t know when, but as I mentioned there are several projects, a number of projects, in the country right now. And so let’s see how they develop. Some of them are funded totally with private funding, but they probably need some help and waivers of some regulatory aspect. And so, as we talk about infrastructure, we are concerned about the regulatory overreach that may have occurred in the past, that may have hampered some of these projects from coming to fruition at a faster rate. And also we’re looking at regulations on employers that may hamper the rate of job creation, which this president is also very concerned about.
Steve Scully: And speaking of regulations, is there any role for the federal government when it comes to airline overbookings? Do you have a view on that?
Secretary Chao: We are very concerned about that, and in fact we have been keeping very close tabs on all the airlines on this issue. And of course, with United, we have been talking to them, asking them what is going on. We have actually looked into this. And we have posted, on our website, a passenger’s bill of rights. We want every passenger to be able to know what their rights are and to be able to protect themselves when necessary. So for people who are interested in knowing what their rights are, I urge them to go on www.dot.gov, and there they will see what their rights are. But more importantly than that, we need to prevent these things from happening in the first place. So I believe the airlines have a responsibility to address this themselves. They need to – and I believe they want to – because having unhappy passengers is not good for them either. This, the recent incidents have hit them right where it hurts, and that’s their bottom line. United’s stock has dropped for example, losing so much money in their market value. So even aside from that, the right thing to do, and they are very much aware of that because we have been in discussion with them, is that they need to do the right thing, and they need to take care of their passengers. And they are the first line of action, and I believe that’s how we should be. But we want to arm passengers with the knowledge of what their rights are.
Steve Scully: Let me conclude with a couple of questions about you. You have five sisters. What do they think about their sister Elaine and what you’ve been doing, a very public life?
Secretary Chao: Well they are all private citizens, and they are all very successful. I’m actually the least impressive. I have five very, very impressive sisters. They’re all doing very well. They all have advanced degrees. They’re all very smart. They’re all very good people. They’re philanthropists. They’re all making very big contributions in their communities and in their life and in their careers, and I’m very proud of them. So, you know, I have one sister who passed away, Janette, so I want to remember her. But I have my sisters May, Kristine, Grace, and Angela. And they’re all doing very, very well, and I’m very lucky to be their sister.
Steve Scully; Have you ever thought about seeking elective office?
Secretary Chao: Oh, heavens no. My husband is an elected official, and I think one in the family is enough. And he’s doing a great job. I’m very proud of him.
Steve Scully: What’s next for you after this? Any thoughts?
Secretary Chao: You know, I’ve never really thought about what the next step would be because I’m so consumed about doing a good job right now. I think the challenges facing our country are great. We need to fix our infrastructure. We need to think about the future. And let me just backtrack a bit. So I have three things. One is safety. We need to make sure that the travelling public is safe. That’s our first priority. Second, I need to help the President, along with my other Cabinet colleagues, implement the infrastructure initiatives, so that our infrastructure can be improved and productivity increases. And then thirdly, let’s not forget the future. The Department of Transportation is involved in regulating emerging technologies, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, drones. And the challenge for the Department is we need to address these emerging technologies and deal with them in a way that is acceptable to the public, that will preserve the innovation and creativity of our country, but will address some of the public’s concerns about these emerging technologies as well.
Steve Scully: Secretary Elaine Chao, we thank you for your time.
Secretary Chao: Thank you.