A Conversation with Senator George J. Mitchell (L'61)
October 17, 2011 —
Senator George J. Mitchell (L’61) is a true American success story. He rose from working-class origins in Waterville, Maine, to serve the nation as senator, chair of peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, special envoy for the Middle East — and the list goes on.
With Mitchell on campus for Reunion Weekend, he and Dean William M. Treanor held an informal conversation in Hart Auditorium, discussing the former senator’s humble beginnings, law school days (he still remembers learning the intricacies of Miami Coca-Cola Bottling Co. v. Orange Crush Co. from Professor “Doc” Jaeger), career as a public servant and thoughts on achieving peace in the Middle East.
“The Israelis have a state … but they don’t have security for their people; they live in fear,” he said, noting that the Palestinians don’t have a state but they want one. “The two parties should be vested in each other’s success.”
There were many people vested in the success of George J. Mitchell, from his parents (who placed a heavy emphasis on education), to those who made it possible for Mitchell to attend Bowdoin College, to the late Charles McKelvey (L’53, LL.M.’59), who encouraged him to attend Georgetown Law’s evening program.
To support himself through school, Mitchell got a day job as an insurance claims adjuster in D.C. (which came in handy years later when, as Senate majority leader, he knew his way around the city better than his driver did). Mitchell also told how, after law school, he joined the Department of Justice’s honors program, served as the U.S. attorney for Maine and as a federal judge before being appointed in 1980 to finish the senate term of U.S. Secretary of State Edwin Muskie.
One role Mitchell did not assume was that of Supreme Court justice — but not because he wasn’t asked. When the call came from President Clinton in 1994, Mitchell was working on health care reform. “I told the president … I would really love to do it, except for we’ve got a shot at health care and that’s really more important.”
As were his later roles as a champion for peace. Noting that peace is indeed possible in the Middle East, Mitchell recalled a moment during his five years of negotiations in Northern Ireland when, holed up at the U.S. ambassador’s house in London, he told opposing parties to find something new to talk about during meals. “I said, talk about your kids, your dog, your vacation, your family, where you went to school,” he said. “Humanizing it is very important, if it can be done, but that requires personal contact.”
-- Ann W. Parks