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If you like George Mitchell's story, you might also like:
Ehud Barak,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
Mikhail Gorbachev,
John Hume,
Shimon Peres,
Alan Simpson,
Desmond Tutu,
Antonio Villaraigosa and Andrew Young

George Mitchell can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

George Mitchell's recommended reading: The Moon is Down

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Mitchell Institute

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George Mitchell
George Mitchell
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  George Mitchell

George Mitchell Interview Photo
Senator Muskie also paved the way for you to replace him when he became Secretary of State. Could you tell us about your decision to do that?

George Mitchell: It was a very difficult decision. I enjoyed practicing law. I was the United States Attorney for Maine for three years, and then was appointed a federal judge. Those are appointments for life, of course, and so I thought this is it for me, and I truly loved doing it. And then just six months later, Senator Muskie was appointed Secretary of State of the United States, and it created a vacancy.

The governor of Maine, Joe Brennan, called me. He was and is a good friend. And to my surprise and to the complete surprise of all the people of Maine, he appointed me to complete Senator Muskie's unexpired term. At the time, most people thought I was crazy, because the record of appointed senators seeking election is not good, and I was considered a dead duck. There were two very popular members of the House of Representatives, both Republicans, who immediately announced plans to run against me, and they both published opinion polls which showed them respectively 36 and 33 percentage points ahead of me in the polls. And one of the Democrats who wanted to run was a former governor. He published a poll showing that he was 22 points ahead of me in the contest for the nomination. So it was an awfully tough couple of years. Most people thought I had no chance, and stories were written about me in the past tense, and for a while it was tough to keep going. But things worked out, and I was fortunate enough to be reelected, and then later to be reelected by a very large margin.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

George Mitchell Interview Photo

I'm glad I made the decision, although the practice of law -- and particularly serving as a federal judge -- was a part of my life that I really enjoyed and treasured and look back on it with fondness. I often think about how my life would have been different had I declined the offer to be appointed to the Senate and stayed on the federal bench. I'm sure I would have enjoyed it, but I left because I thought, "I'm in my early 40s, and 20 years from now I'll think about what would have happened had I gone to the Senate."

Is it true that you turned down a possible nomination by Clinton to the Supreme Court?

George Mitchell Interview Photo
George Mitchell: Yes. In the spring of 1994 I decided not to seek reelection to the Senate. I had made the decision 12 years earlier, Christmas Day of 1982, just after I had been first elected to a full term, that I would do the best I could for a limited time. I didn't want to make it a lifetime thing. I don't believe in statutory term limits, but people can limit themselves if they want to, and that's what I decided to do. In that year, we were deeply involved in the effort to reform the health care system, and I was the majority leader in the Senate at the time.

A vacancy occurred on the Supreme Court, and President Clinton told me that he wanted to nominate me to that vacancy. It was very flattering, and under almost any other circumstance, I would have immediately said yes and been thrilled about it. But I told him that I thought we had a real chance to pass health care reform. I'd been working closely with Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island, a Republican, a close personal friend of mine, a really wonderful man and a great senator, and we thought we might be able to develop a bipartisan package. As it turns out, we were wrong -- we couldn't. And my estimate of the situation proved incorrect, and we couldn't pass legislation. But at that time, in the spring of '94, it looked possible. So I told President Clinton, "I'm flattered, and I think I could do a good job. But you can get plenty of people to serve well on the Supreme Court. What's really important is if we can pass this health care reform. It'll be great for the country."

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

What went wrong with health care reform?

George Mitchell Interview Photo
George Mitchell: A lot of things. First, the American legislative process isn't well suited to large and complex measures. The preparation and presentation of the plan was too long and too complex. You have to do it incrementally. Third, there was a heavy dose of partisanship in it. So a combination of factors: the intense opposition of the insurance industry and the Republicans combined to demonize the effort, to make it seem like some overbearing power grab by the government, which was unfortunate, but that became the perception. The result was, of course, that today, tragically, more than 40 million Americans don't have health insurance, and for many, not having health insurance means they don't have access to good health care.

Could you tell us about your role in the Iran-Contra hearings? You have written that at times even you were bewildered by the intricacies of that case. Looking back, what was the significance of that affair?

George Mitchell: The significance of it is that...

In a democratic society, you have to observe the law, even if you disagree with it. And the alternative is not to engage in secret activities which go around the law, but to try to change it, if you don't believe in it, through the forum of public debate.

That's really the significance. People became imbued with an intense belief that they were right, and that the end justifies the means.

As I told Colonel North in the hearings, people admired his patriotism, his courage, and his loyalty, but he cast the argument in religious and patriotic terms, that if you believe in America, then you must give aid to the Contras, and if you don't, then it's somehow unpatriotic. And what I said to him was that in America people are free to criticize the policies of the government, and that's not evidence of lack of patriotism. In terms of religion, I said that, "Although he's regularly asked to do so, God doesn't take sides in American politics," and that it is possible for one to love America and to love freedom and to honor God, as much as did Colonel North, and still disagree on the policy of aid to the Contras. It is not a case of religion and patriotism on one side and lack of religion and patriotism on the other.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

George Mitchell Interview Photo

It's not unusual. In every society in human history, including the United States, those in power seek to imbue themselves with the attributes of religion and patriotism as a way of getting greater support for their policy and insulating themselves from any criticism. No party or faction has a monopoly on that approach. It's tried and true throughout history. What is good about the United States is the sense that you can disagree with the government and not be seen as unpatriotic, although many in the government will try to make you seem unpatriotic.

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