May 27, 2018
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George Mitchell’s greatest achievement could be teaching Maine lawmakers how to get things done

Renee Ordway
By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN

He mediated a conclusion to the hostilities that plagued Northern Ireland for generations, actually facilitated a handshake in the summer of 2012 between Queen Elizabeth and former Irish Republican Army Chief Martin McGuinness, chaired an international committee on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even tackled steroid use by professional baseball players.

Former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell clearly is a brave man, a confident fellow undeterred by a sticky wicket, hostile world leaders or rich and spoiled professional athletes.

And of course, having served in the U.S. Senate for 15 years, six as the Senate majority leader, Mitchell is familiar with the science of politics.

So I’m anxious to see what he might say next week when he delivers a speech to a joint session of the Maine House and Senate.

In case you haven’t been paying attention there is some conflict in the hallways of our capitol building — every which way — between Democrats and Republicans and between Gov. Paul LePage’s office and, well, everyone.

Mitchell will be in Augusta for a ceremony unveiling a portrait of himself in the State House’s Hall of Flags on the same day.

According to a news story in this paper, Izzy Forman, the spokeswoman for the Mitchell Institute, couldn’t yet provide many details about what Mitchell might talk about.

Let me take this opportunity to ask you, Sen. Mitchell: please let it involve a lesson about diplomacy. Let it involve a lesson in somehow getting the work done despite problematic circumstances and difficult opponents.

Please, senator, help them find their way.

Last September Mitchell gave a speech at the University of Southern Maine as part of the Muskie School of Public Service’s lecture series on “Politics Then and Now in Maine and the Nation.”

I listened to it broadcast on Maine Public Radio a few months ago.

Here is some of what he said.

“On the day that I was elected as Senate majority leader among the first persons I called was Bob Dole, who was then the Republican leader of the Senate. I asked if I could come see him and he said yes. … I told him I did not think either of us could succeed, or the Senate, if there were not trust between us,” Mitchell recalled.

He proceeded to tell Dole how “I intended to behave toward him and asked if he would reciprocate.

“I then described the most simple, basic principles of fairness and common courtesy. I told him I would never surprise him. That’s important in the Senate. That I would always give him the opportunity to think about his response to any action I was going to take as majority leader. I told him I would never try to embarrass him, I would never criticize him personally and to the extent that I humanly could do so, when we disagreed, which would be often, that I would keep the debate on the merit of the issue and not make it personal,” he said.

To this day, Mitchell announced, “there has never been one harsh word passed between Bob Dole and me — not in public or in private.”

Think back for just a moment on the sound bites that came out of Augusta last year. The session was full of threats, name-calling and unexpected announcements.

A few things got done during Mitchell’s time as Senate majority leader, among them the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If you listen to Mitchell you will hear him speak often about the need for some humility among today’s politicians. You will hear him suggest that politicians need to do a better job at listening to their opponents instead of tuning them out when they talk of ideas counter to their own.

There might, he suggests, be something more to learn about those positions — something that might eventually help pave the way to compromise.

Sen. Mitchell, you are who most any of those Maine lawmakers who will sit before you next week aspire to be.

Seize the opportunity for us, your fellow Mainers.

Remind them that they are not as important as the job they have been elected to do, that it is OK and perhaps admirable to reach across the aisle even when their opponent is being unreasonable and that if you can facilitate that stunning handshake in the summer of 2012 between the queen and the former leader of the IRA, that maybe, just maybe, they can get some work done despite the difficulties put forth by the current administration.

It’s a sticky wicket down there in Augusta for sure, but surely not more complicated than the conflict in the Middle East.

We’ll be rooting for you.

You can reach Renee Ordway at


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