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George Mitchell

Interview: George Mitchell
Presidential Medal of Freedom

June 7, 2002
Dublin, Ireland

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Tell us about your parents, if you would. Where were they from? What did they do?

George Mitchell: My mother was an immigrant from Lebanon to the United States. She came when she was 18 years old in 1920. My father was the orphaned son of immigrants to the United States from Ireland. My father never knew his parents. His mother died -- we're not sure -- either at or shortly after his birth, and he and all of his siblings were placed in orphanages in the Boston area. So my father grew up in an orphanage in Boston. He was then adopted by an elderly childless couple from Maine, who gave him the name of Mitchell. He moved to Maine, and there he met my mother and was married. My parents had no education. My mother couldn't read or write English. She worked nights in a textile mill. My father was a janitor at a local college in our hometown. But they were part of that generation of Americans who had a very deep commitment to the education of their children. They had, really, an exaggerated notion of the value of education. But their life's goal was to see to it that their children received the education that they never got, and in that, they were successful. They had five children, all of whom went on to graduate from college, and several of us have graduate degrees as well.

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My parents were very poor, but we never felt any sense of need or want. It was a very close, loving, tightly-knit family growing up, and I never felt any sense of deprivation or anything like that. I really owe everything to my parents and their devotion and drive to see to it that their children had the education which led to the opportunities that they never were able to have.

Do you think they also imparted a work ethic, to work hard and go for what you want?

George Mitchell: Yes, a very strong work ethic.

I've worked since I was really a very small boy. Everybody in my family held numerous jobs. I delivered newspapers, shoveled snow, washed cars. I myself worked as a janitor all through junior high school and high school, cleaning the local boys' club, the local government office, the unemployment compensation office, other facilities, and my brother and I ran kind of what we'd now call a janitorial service at night. So after school, we'd go and play ball and then go to all these offices, and as soon as they'd close, we'd go and sweep up and clean up. So I've always worked throughout my entire life, and my parents did impart that to me, a very strong work ethic. My parents, particularly my father, had a profound belief in America. His view was that if you were lucky enough to live in America, and you had an education, and you were willing to work hard, you couldn't possibly fail. Those were the keys to success, and he drummed that into us throughout our whole life.

What kind of student were you growing up? Were you a very serious student? Did you have an interest in sports?

George Mitchell: I had a great interest in sports. I had three older brothers who were great athletes. I was not. I started school at an early age. I graduated from high school when I was 16, and so I was the one member of my family who was not a good athlete. In fact...

One of my older brothers, Johnny, was a very famous athlete and went on to great exploits in college. For years, I was introduced as Johnny Mitchell's kid brother, the one who wasn't any good. So I developed very early a massive inferiority complex, and I've told the story often about how that inspired me later in life to get involved in other things, because I couldn't out-do my brothers in sports, and it's a very competitive relationship. So I got into politics, thinking that I might become mayor of our home town someday.

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I was an indifferent student. And to illustrate the truth of the cliché that one person can make a difference, one woman made a real difference in my life. I was in high school. I had been an indifferent student. I did quite well, but not through any real effort, and I didn't really read much -- comic books and only as much as necessary.

My high school English teacher was an elderly, gracious woman named Elvira Whiting. One day, Mrs. Whiting asked me to come back after class to see her. I didn't have any idea what she wanted. She engaged in a little polite conversation, and then she said, "What do you read? What have you been reading lately?" And I said, "Well, not much." Really, I didn't read anything other than what was necessary to get by in school. And she said, "Well, I'd like you to consider reading a book," and she handed me a book. She made it clear I didn't have to read it. It wasn't part of an assignment. But I liked her and wanted very much to please her, so I said I would do it. And she said, "When you finish, come back and tell me about it." The title of it was The Moon Is Down. It was a short novel by John Steinbeck, a fictionalized account of the Nazi occupation of Norway during the Second World War. I went home, and I read the entire book that night. The next day, I went back to see her. I told her about it, and she smiled, and she said, "Well, here's another one." And this went on for several months, and I read many books that Mrs. Whiting gave me. Then one day in the spring of that school year, she said to me, "I think you're ready to pick your own books now." So she had an amazing effect on me. She opened my eyes to a world of knowledge I didn't really know existed before, and created in me what was the first faint sense of self-worth.
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Do you remember any other books that meant a lot to you?

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George Mitchell: Oh yes. To this day one of the most compelling works of fiction I've read was The Bounty Trilogy by Nordhoff and Hall. Most people think of the book, Mutiny on the Bounty. It later became a movie, and of course is one of the greatest novels ever written based on fact. But it was really part of a trilogy. There were three stories written, one called Men Against The Sea and the other Pitcairn's Island, which traces the effects following the mutiny on the Bounty. I remember reading that in high school and being fascinated by it. I think I spent several late nights reading, with my mother yelling at me to turn off the light and go to sleep and so forth.

So you decided on law school at some point. Was there ever any thought of being anything else than a lawyer?

George Mitchell: Yes.

When I went to college, my goal was to be a college history teacher. I majored in history. And in fact, I made applications to graduate schools to try to get a master's or a Ph.D. in history and get back to a small college like the one I attended, Bowdoin College in Maine, to teach. But then I went into the service. I spent two years in the Army. And my older brother, who was also a great positive influence on me, encouraged me to think about law school, and I said -- well, I didn't have any money. My parents had absolutely no money. My parents couldn't contribute anything to my even going to college. I did that all through scholarships and working. I worked all through college. While in the service, in Berlin, Germany, I met a fellow and we became quite good friends. His name was Charlie McElvy. He had just graduated from Georgetown Law School, and he told me that they had a night program there, and I could work days and go at night. So I applied to that program and was admitted. That's how I happened to attend law school.

What was your work during the day in those years?

George Mitchell: I was an insurance adjuster. I had been involved in U.S. intelligence in Berlin, Germany, while in the military and had worked with a contact with the Central Intelligence Agency office there. And the director of that office liked me and made arrangements for me to have an interview at the CIA in Washington when I left the service. But that took quite a long time. It was a very long process, and I literally had no money, so I had to get a job right away. So I went and read the papers, read the want ads, applied for a job, and was hired all in one day. And I spent that time working as an insurance adjuster and going to law school in the evening, and then when I left law school, I joined the Department of Justice in Washington.

You can't have slept a great deal during those years of law school.

George Mitchell: Well, I'd become accustomed to hard work.

I worked all through college. I drove a truck in college. I worked in advertising. From my parents, I learned a very strong work ethic, and all of my brothers and sisters all worked from the earliest days of life right through to the present time. So it wasn't really anything out of the ordinary. It was difficult. It was demanding. But I accepted it as part of life.

What was your earliest memory of wanting to be in public service?

George Mitchell: It happened quite late in my life.

I was not particularly interested in politics as a young man. All through college and law school, my goal was to return to Maine to practice law. I was born and raised in a small town in Maine, Waterville. I enjoyed living there -- still do -- and my goal in life was a fairly specific and focused one of practicing law in Maine. After I graduated from law school, I couldn't get a job with a law firm in Maine. I attended Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., and I went in the evening program. And at that time, there was still somewhat of a stigma associated with what was called night school, and times were tough. But I had done well in law school, and out of the blue, I got an invitation to join the Department of Justice. They have an honors graduate program, and if you finish near the top of your class, you automatically get a job offer. So I got one there, took it. But my goal was still to go back to Maine.

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Then a couple of years later, I received a telephone call from one of the Maine senators, Senator Ed Muskie, who had married a woman from my hometown. He had moved there and practiced law, and he knew of my family. He didn't know me. I had never met him, and I still didn't have any particular interest in politics, but he was looking for someone to join his staff. He wanted someone who was from Maine who was a lawyer to fill a particular need they had, and he offered me the position. I accepted, but I told him that I was doing this to help me get back to Maine to get a job practicing law, and that I took it for a limited time, through his next election. That's what happened. I ended up making contacts through that position that I wasn't able to make previously.

I got a job with a law firm in Portland after a couple of years with Senator Muskie. But by then, my interest in politics had been sparked, through meeting Senator Muskie, through seeing what he did. He eventually became, after my parents, the most influential person in my life, and I learned a lot from him, including an interest in politics and public service. So I was in my late 20s when I first developed any interest at all in politics.

Tell us more about Senator Muskie's influence. What was he like?

George Mitchell: Senator Muskie was a truly great man. First: the smartest person I've ever met, in terms of pure intellect. I've never met anyone as intelligent as he was. He was a great senator, a great legislator. He created what we now think of as the environmental movement in America. He wrote the clean air law, the clean water law, the basic environmental laws which protect our air and water in this country. They are so taken for granted now that people tend to forget that it was an extremely difficult and bitter political struggle to attain enactment of those laws. He was a man of towering intellect and integrity, and he taught me just about everything I know about politics and public service.

It was a different life back then.

This was in the '60s. Senators had small staffs. I did a lot of things, including driving Senator Muskie around Maine. There wasn't much money available, so oftentimes we shared a motel room -- two of us in a motel room in some small town in Maine. And late at night -- I was a young, awestruck kid, and Senator Muskie was a former governor and senator and soon to be a vice presidential and presidential candidate. So he used to talk, and I used to listen, and I really came to admire him, and later in life, we became close friends. For me, he was an employer, a mentor, and ultimately, a close friend -- a truly great man.

You were involved in his campaign in 1968. What was your role in the campaign at that point?

George Mitchell: I was the deputy campaign manager both of his 1968 campaign for vice president and then his 1972 campaign for president.

Can you talk a little bit about what you were up against in '68 and then '72?

George Mitchell: Well, 1968 was a very interesting election year. Vice President Humphrey was the Democratic candidate. The internal conflict over the Vietnam war raged in the country and within the Democratic Party, and it created a huge burden for the Humphrey-Muskie ticket.

In addition, there was the year of the infamous dirty tricks campaign that the Nixon campaign ran against Senator Muskie, particularly in the primary. And I myself was the direct object of a good deal of that campaign. We encountered what then seemed inexplicable crazy events. Everywhere I went on the road, there would be a bill for $2,000 in the restaurant and bar signed with my name. One day, 15 limousines showed up signed with my name. At four o'clock in the morning 500 pizzas were delivered to the hotel, ordered in my name. Crazy actions to disrupt the scheduling, phony photographs of Senator Muskie, cropped photographs distributed at various events. We couldn't figure out what was happening. We had no idea that it was coming from President Nixon's campaign. We thought it might be other Democrats in the primary. It had a tremendous disruptive effect on the operation of the campaign. And then later events, which got a lot of publicity, involved phony letters to the editor and Senator Muskie's response and so forth, which affected the campaign.

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I'm not certain that the result would have been any different. No one will ever know. But to read about it later, it was really like a light bulb coming on. All of these crazy things that happened that seemed trivial and insignificant and inexplicable at the time suddenly became clear. So it was quite a dramatic time for me, personally, a young guy not really knowing too much about that, thinking, "Gee, I wonder if this is the way all campaigns are run."

The presidential campaign was difficult for Senator Muskie. He was a centrist candidate. The political parties tend to be more extreme than the populace in general in their own parties, and he couldn't generate the enthusiasm to maintain the initial early lead that he had, in part because of these dirty tricks and other things. But he took it very hard when he lost the nomination to Senator McGovern. I remember when we went back to Maine afterwards, I back to my job, and he back to his summer place, we reminisced about it quite a bit. It was tough on him. He would have made a great president, I think, and it's very unfortunate that he didn't make it.

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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.
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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?

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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."

What went wrong with health care reform?

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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.
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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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Our interview is taking place in a land with a history of tremendous pain and suffering over politics and religion. You had a very important role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Can you tell us about your role in that peace process?

George Mitchell: When I told President Clinton that I was not going to seek reelection to the Senate, he first tried to talk me out of my decision. And then when I made clear that I was going ahead to announce that I was not going to seek reelection, he asked if I would be open to doing other things, or was I just turned off on politics? I told him, "I'm not turned off on politics. I love being in the Senate, I love being majority leader, and I'm open to doing other things." So much later, he asked me to go to Northern Ireland as his representative for a short-term and rather limited mission. As they say, one thing led to another, and, ultimately, the British and Irish governments asked me to serve as chairman of the peace negotiations, which ironically began six years ago this week. There had been more than a quarter century of bitter sectarian war, thousands killed, tens of thousands injured. Every previous effort to reach an end to the conflict failed, and there was little prospect of success. Negotiations lasted for two years, during which there was virtually no progress and widespread predictions of failure. In a sense, we had 700 days of failure and one day of success. But through the courage of the political leaders of Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair, and of Ireland, Bertie Ahern, and President Clinton's tenacity and perseverance, we ended up with a peace agreement.

When I announced it to the waiting world, I said that it was an historic step, which it was, but I also said that by itself, the agreement doesn't provide a guaranteed peace or a reconciliation. It makes them possible, but there'll be many difficult decisions ahead, many dark days, and there have been.

Today, there are problems in Northern Ireland. Implementation will take a long time. But the most important thing is that the rate of killing is way down. Commerce and growth are up. The local government created as a result of the agreement is functioning, and people now have a sense of what life is like not in constant war. So I think, on the whole, it has been historic, and it was one of the most difficult, but one of the most rewarding tasks I've ever been engaged in.

Will you be going back to Israel any time soon?

George Mitchell: I was asked to go to the Middle East by Prime Minister Barak, Chairman Arafat, and President Clinton, and chaired an international commission there. The report which we gave to President Bush just about a year ago is one of the few things that the Israelis and Palestinians agreed on, at least rhetorically. President Bush has adopted it as a basis of U.S. policy in the Middle East. But our feeling of surprise and elation at the positive response by the Israelis and Palestinians has created an extra special discouragement at the failure to implement the recommendations in our plan.
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I have been there often. I've spent a great deal of time there meeting with government leaders and ordinary citizens and the victims of the terrible violence that afflicts the area. I think that there will be an end to the violence and a return to negotiations. I hope it's before too many more lives are lost.

You know, the pessimism which exists now in the Middle East existed in Northern Ireland, but we stayed at it. We persevered through violence, through political upheaval, and fortunately an agreement was reached in Northern Ireland, and I think there will be one in the Middle East. I have formed the conviction as a result of my experiences in those two places and in the Balkans, where I also spent a lot of time, that there's no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted, and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.

What does the American dream mean to you?

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George Mitchell: I developed more understanding of it as I became an adult. I think the most dramatic illustration for me came many years later when I was a federal judge. I enjoyed it very much. It was a position of great power. But...

The power I most enjoyed exercising was when I presided at naturalization ceremonies. They were what we would call citizenship ceremonies, where a group of people who had come from every part of the world, who had gone through the required procedures, gathered before me in a federal courtroom in Maine, and there I administered to them the oath of allegiance to the United States, and by the power vested in me under our Constitution and law, I made them Americans. It was always a very moving ceremony for me, because of my own personal experience, my mother having been an immigrant from Lebanon, and my father being the orphaned son of immigrants from Ireland, and I enjoyed very much those ceremonies. And after them, I made it a point to speak personally with each of the new citizens, individually or in family groups. I asked them where they came from, how they came, why they came. The stories were all inspiring. I wish that every American youngster had been with me to hear people talk about their experiences. Most of us are Americans by an accident of birth. Each of these people became an American by an act of free will, often at great risk and cost to themselves. Their answers were different, reflecting their different countries of origin. They literally came from every part of the world. But there were common themes, and they were best summarized by a young Asian man who, when I asked him why he came, replied in very slow and halting English, "I came," he said, "because here in America, everybody has a chance." And you think about the fact that a young man who had been an American for just a few minutes, who could barely speak English, was able to sum up the meaning of our country in a single sentence: In America, everybody has a chance. That is, of course, the distinguishing characteristic of the United States in all of human history, the first true meritocracy, the place where people can move forward, get ahead, whatever their background or family status, if they are willing to work hard and if they're lucky enough to get a good education. So, for me, that young Asian man's words stand out as a symbol of the meaning of our country. America is freedom and opportunity.
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After the events of September 11, 2001, these words sound even more poignant, because we've been wounded. We have a deep wound, yet the dream continues.

George Mitchell: Of course, September 11th means many things to our society and our people. But it also points out the paradox of America, an open society, with open arms.

No matter how many times you hear or read the words that are at the base of the Statue of Liberty, the famous poem by Emma Lazarus -- "Give us your tired and your poor..." -- you get goose bumps, and you think about the fact that the United States has been the place of hope and opportunity for people from its very beginning to the present day.

And yet that long, historic and valuable tradition, which undoubtedly is one of the major factors in the success of American society, collides directly with the realities of life in the 21st Century.

We don't like to think about it, and we don't even speak about it much, but the reality is that while we live in a very advanced technological age, from which we benefit greatly -- that television camera is one of the most amazing inventions in all of human history, one that is transforming most societies -- the advances in technology are more rapid and significant in warfare than in any other aspect of human activity. The art of killing advances faster than anything else. So now, in the 21st Century, it takes fewer people with much less skill, much less in the way of resources, to kill very large numbers of other human beings than ever before in history.

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And that makes it very difficult to maintain the open society and democratic values and open policies of immigration that we've had throughout much of our history. I think about the irony of it. My mother came through Ellis Island in 1920, on one of the last ships coming in, because the unrestricted immigration ended in 1921, when we recognized that we simply couldn't accept unlimited numbers from around the world. There were further restrictive acts in 1924, and we've had a number of others, but we still take in more people than any other country in the world. It's been a great asset to us, a great source of new blood, new ideas, new energy, but it does collide with the reality that has come about since September 11th, and I think it will produce a different policy and a different country in the future.

Different because we have to be realistic about the threat?

George Mitchell: We have to be very careful, very mindful. We decided 80 years ago that we couldn't take unlimited numbers any longer. We could during the period when we settled the great continent that makes up the United States, and we encouraged them to come. Then we reached a point where we couldn't take everybody. Now, we have to be more careful. I do favor continued immigration, but I think we obviously have to recognize that it does create a problem of security, and it must be reconciled with the other competing demands in our society.

Do you see an open-ended war on terrorism? Does that seem like a rational process to you?

George Mitchell: It's a change in our way of life to which we are adapting. There have been many dramatic changes in life, and this is a new one. It will challenge our commitment to an open society and democratic values -- always difficult to reconcile in the best of circumstances, now more difficult, but I think possible.

We will not succeed in ending evil everywhere. That, I think, is a notion that simply cannot be realized. But I think we will succeed in effectively eradicating these specific organizations that were responsible for the horrific attacks of September 11th and making it more difficult for others who follow them to succeed in their criminal actions. But in the end, we'll have to address the problems that give rise to the violence, and the irresponsible, immoral, and seemingly inexplicable actions that have taken place.

Thank you so much.

George Mitchell: Thank you.

This page last revised on Sep 21, 2009 10:33 EST