December 13, 2018
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George Mitchell talks about his favorite teacher, Middle East peace

Given the career of former Sen. George J. Mitchell, and the title of his new book, it would be easy to assume that it is a somber read, full of weighty recollections of his career as a politician and globe-trotting mediator.

That assumption is correct, in part. But there is more to “The Negotiator” than his insights on the Good Friday Agreement or, quite literally, inside baseball. The memoir, published by Simon & Schuster and released on May 5, includes many lighthearted and oddball anecdotes not normally associated with high-profile conflict resolution and political debate.

The former U.S. Senate majority leader describes being asked for an autograph by a woman who mistook him for former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, how he briefly met film actress Ingrid Bergman, and how he learned from President Ronald Reagan about drinking hot water before making public speeches. He recounts being astonished, not long after his appointment to the Senate in May 1980, at the sight of senators sleeping through a nighttime filibuster on cots in a large room off the Senate chamber. He recalls going in December 1988 to the tiny Washington County hamlet of Talmadge, the only precinct he lost in that year’s general election, to meet with voters.

Mitchell, who now splits his time between Mount Desert Island and New York City, is planning two appearances in Maine next week to promote the book. He will be at University of Southern Maine in Portland on May 13 and at Left Bank Books in Belfast on May 15.

Now 81, Mitchell told the Bangor Daily News during an interview this week that his childhood in Waterville helped lay the foundation for his career. As one of five siblings, including three brothers, Mitchell learned early on that he had to distinguish himself and make a case for himself in order to not be overshadowed by his more athletically talented brothers. But he also learned a lot from observing his parents mediate the competitive spirits of their children.

“That was to me, in retrospect, very important,” he said. “My father was not an educated man. He left school after the fourth grade. He worked as a laborer and a janitor. But he had a good sense of balance, and he constantly encouraged me when I was down and feeling that I couldn’t compete or succeed. He encouraged me to study.”

Mitchell also credits Elvira Whitten, his English teacher at Waterville High School, with preparing him for later life. Whitten encouraged Mitchell, then a 15-year-old junior, to take up recreational reading beyond the textbooks that were required for school and the comic books he browsed through at home. He said he was not much of a reader at the time.

She gave him a copy of “The Moon is Down” by John Steinbeck, and something clicked. He became a voracious reader of all types of books, which he said has served him well.

“A requirement for any negotiator is to be well-informed about the subject under negotiation. That means a lot of study and reading,” Mitchell said. “I mean it without exaggeration that [Whitten] was one of the transformative figures in my life. I’m certain my life would have been very different, not in positive ways, had Mrs. Whitten not taken interest in me and gotten me interested in reading.”

In addition to his formative experiences, Mitchell provides plenty of stories from his high-profile assignments that lend the book its title. He devotes more than 100 pages to his tenure in the Senate, and more than another 100 pages to the projects he has taken on since his retirement from politics at the end of 1994 — his investigation into performance-enhancing drugs in professional baseball, his role as a mediator in the Northern Ireland conflict, his oversight of distributing Red Cross funds in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and his appointment as special envoy for Middle East peace, among others.

Not surprisingly, Mitchell still keeps a keen eye on the institutions and conflicts in which he once was a key player. The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland is viewed as a success, having brought the decades-long fighting there to an end. Tensions remain high in the Middle East, however, as Israel is still at odds with many of its neighbors and Iran pursues nuclear technology that many suspect is being developed for weapons.

Mitchell said that recent political upheaval in several Arab countries in the Middle East represents a systematic change in the region’s power structure. The Arabs were ruled by Turks for centuries and, in the wake of World War I, became dominated by European countries. The Arab dictators swept from power in recent years had maintained the nondemocratic rule that had been imposed by Europe, he said.

The Arab Spring movement is a struggle to make Arab governments more responsive to their citizens’ needs and aspirations, according to Mitchell. Populations are growing rapidly and demand for jobs and political influence are increasing throughout societies, but there are few democratic institutions in place to address these reforms.

“What is under way is a transition to a new order, and that’s going to take a long time,” Mitchell said. “What we now regard as extraordinary turbulence in the Middle East is going to be the norm over the next several decades.”

Addressing the periodic transition of power in the U.S., Mitchell predicted that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president and that the 2016 general election results will be close. He said he is not familiar with the declared Republican candidates.

As for his own career as a public servant, Mitchell said he doesn’t see himself taking on any more political or diplomatic assignments. He said he still practices law full time and travels a lot around the world on business.

“I don’t rule it out, I just think at my age it’s not likely,” he said.

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