First Hurrah For a Senator
This Down East Democrat made a quick climb from freshman to majority leader. PROFILE: SEN. GEORGE MITCHELL
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The senator from Maine feels he had a happy, normal childhood although he grew up in what would now be called a slum neighborhood. It was bordered by the polluted Kennebec River, the deafening noise of a textile mill a few hundred yards away, and a railroad track whose trains shook their first house.Skip to next paragraph
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His sister, Barbara, and New England basketball-star brother John (Swisher) Mitchell say he was a frail child. ``He was a little special, precocious,'' says Barbara. That made him ``very caring, sensitive to other people's needs. You feel he's really listening to you.''
As a boy, he read avidly - first comics like ``Batman'' and ``Flash Gordon,'' later books like John Steinbeck's ``The Moon Is Down,'' with which his early mentor, ninth-grade English teacher Elvira Whitten, put him on the path to reading serious books.
Mitchell's family sees him as a funny, energetic guy who likes nothing better than to beat them at cribbage around a family table in Waterville. And to give and take a lot of family ribbing. His father had encouraged him as a child to study hard and ``star'' at schoolwork, since he didn't have the athletic prowess that had won his brothers scholarships and fame as athletes. For years he was known as ``the other Mitchell,'' says his brother Swisher.
Asked about the contrast between the judicious senate majority leader and the warm, relaxed family kidder, Swisher says they are both his brother. Mitchell's brother and sister mention that the press of politics is always there in the background, though.
``Politics played an important part in his marriage breaking up ... Sally [Heath Mitchell] did not enjoy politics,'' says Swisher. Mitchell, divorced, has one child, a grown daughter named Andrea.
RIGHT from the start, Mitchell has had a quality that tugged at people and made them want to help him. When his parents couldn't afford college, a supervisor at the utility where his father then worked saw promise in the 16-year-old graduate. He arranged for an interview at Bowdoin, where the admissions director accepted him and lined up the jobs that put Mitchell through college.
Perhaps the best example of this is his political mentor, Edmund Muskie, former senator and governor of Maine. It has been suggested that Mr. Muskie was instrumental in Mitchell's being named to three top jobs: Maine attorney general, district judge, then US Senator, to fill out Muskie's term when he was appointed secretary of state.
``He wasn't instrumental,'' says Mitchell, ``he was responsible,'' for Mitchell getting those jobs. ``You can see why I'm deeply grateful to him,'' he adds, ``because without his help and effort, my life would have been far different.''
Mitchell had joined Muskie's staff as an aide in 1962 after a liberal education: separating refugees from spies in post-war Berlin for the US Army; a law degree from Georgetown University; and lawyering at the US Justice Dept. Mitchell had been an Eisenhower Republican long enough to vote for Ike, then later recanted. Firmly back in the Democratic party, he later became Muskie's legislative assistant before joining the Republican law firm of Jensen and Baird in Portland, Maine.
``He was the house Democrat,'' says Muskie. ``They liked him. Everybody likes George. They respect him first. Then they learn to like him.''
Mitchell worked on Muskie's vice-presidential campaign in '68 and managed his run for the presidency in l972. Muskie says, ``I saw him in action: knowledgeable, bright, a quick study, with analytical ability in not only working for me but beginning to generate his own political steam.''
Mitchell, by then chair of the Maine Democratic Committee, ran for governor of Maine and had a large lead in the polls close to election day. He lost, says Muskie, when he refused to take on his Republican opponent about the issue of running ``against government.'' ``George said, `I don't want to rock the boat, I'm ahead,''' says Muskie. ``But losing the governor's race did develop his sense of humor. He learned to be more relaxed, poised, didn't panic. He learned a great deal about running as a candidate.''
Muskie, proud as a father of his political son, says it wasn't charisma that made Mitchell majority leader. ``Not unless you consider that the ability to attract your confidence is charisma. Then George Mitchell has charisma. ... He attracts and inspires confidence and trust.''