First Hurrah For a Senator
This Down East Democrat made a quick climb from freshman to majority leader. PROFILE: SEN. GEORGE MITCHELL
WHEN Democratic Sen. George Mitchell drove the pine-studded back roads of northern Maine in 1982 campaigning for reelection, he knocked on some ornery doors. Behind one door he found a farmer who had just seen a picture in the local paper of Senator Mitchell standing between two prize Maine cows being shipped to the Soviet Union for display. When Mitchell began unfurling his stump speech, the Republican farmer said, ``Well, Senator, I think we should keep the cows here and send you to Russia.'' Mitchell relishes that story and likes to tell it in his travels, says his longtime friend Shepard Lee, who adds, ``George is good at self-deprecating humor.'' But the joke was not on him. Mitchell didn't get sent to Pinsk but straight up the express elevator of United States politics.Skip to next paragraph
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Mitchell may be the down Maine Horatio Alger of American politics. This low-key Portland lawyer, former Maine attorney general, and district judge went from freshman senator to Senate majority leader in just eight years. His rapid rise to majority leader has been compared to Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson's. But Mitchell is the antithesis of Johnson's kind of political juggernaut. He is a restrained, almost shy man, with a bird-dog determination to fetch the prize that startles his friends and stuns his political opponents.
How did he become majority leader so fast? Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, the Republican whip, has a tongue sharp as a silver spur for misguided Democrats. But he says of Mitchell: ``He did it by being himself, doing his homework.... He's very bright, very articulate, and he works. I admire that.'' Senator Simpson says Mitchell knows how to reach a compromise on issues ``without compromising himself. Those are things you look for in choosing a leader.''
Mitchell's sudden success - his first hurrah - may be a political mystery, but the early clues are there in his Waterville, Maine, childhood. George John Mitchell enjoys talking about that as he basks in the high, bright afternoon sun of the Senate majority leader's office, with its eagle's view of Washington.
He is a temperate-looking man, his appearance as quiet as his voice. He has a quick, winning smile and a casual warmth that make people feel at ease on meeting him. But 40 of Washington's top reporters who quizzed him at a breakfast meeting noted how judicious he was, affable but tough, unflappable, and precise enough to correct a misquote.
Talking one on one in his shirt sleeves, he is more relaxed but still very contained. His gray hair is short and orderly, his pleasant face framed by horn-rimmed glasses behind which are mild, hazel-brown eyes that miss nothing. He is dressed with senatorial circumspection: gray suit, white shirt, navy, red, and white striped tie, black oxford shoes.
``I believe that no American should be guaranteed success in life,'' he says, ``but I believe that every American should have an equal opportunity at success in life - that is, no guaranteed results, but a guaranteed fair chance.''
He speaks from his own life. For Mitchell, it's been up from the slums of an immigrant neighborhood to grasp the American dream his parents believed in.
His father was born Joseph Kilroy in Boston. As the orphaned son of Irish immigrant parents, Kilroy was raised in a Roman Catholic orphanage. Sundays after local church services, the orphans were put on display for adoption. An elderly Lebanese couple from Bangor, Maine, chose Joe, changed his name to Mitchell, then moved to Waterville, where he was reared.
Joseph Mitchell met his wife, Mary Saad, an illiterate Lebanese immigrant, in Waterville. Sen. Mitchell's sister, Barbara Atkins, remembers her mother's hardworking example, doing the midnight shift in local textile mills to help support their family of five. ``She was always there. Father pushed us to read, to do this and that.'' She remembers their father, who had little formal education, bringing home discarded magazines and newspapers from the library of Colby College, where he worked as a janitor, to educate them. But their mother, she says, ``was the real glue in the family. I don't remember her sleeping.''
Senator Mitchell credits his parents with his rise, for giving him a strong work ethic, optimism, and a belief in the value of education. ``I've worked hard at every task I've undertaken and have enjoyed it, think it is part of the successful and meaningful life.''
When he graduated from high school at 16 and went off to Bowdoin College on a scholarship, he majored in history and hard work. He worked his way through college as a fraternity proctor and steward, as well as selling ads for the basketball team's programs and hauling bags of cement as a truck driver. Later he put himself through four years of night classes at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, working days as an insurance claims adjuster.