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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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Muskie gives a final, fatherly caution to Mitchell from his own experience as senator: ``I never asked him whether he wants to be President. People I talk to around the country raise that possibility. As that talk rises, people will say he is more interested in being president than senator from Maine.''

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It is difficult to find a politican who wants to roast Mitchell on or off the record. He is after all, following the disarray in the House that led to Speaker Tom Foley replacing Jim Wright, one of the two top-dog Democrats in Congress. One of Mitchell's chief rivals for the job of majority leader was Sen. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, who treads softly: ``I think he's doing very well indeed. He's set a very good tone with the Senate, sort of enhancing a relationship of trust between both parties.'' Mr. Johnston, a longtime senator, pointed out that he had handled a lot of major bills, and Mitchell hadn't, but added that Mitchell had said ``that's not necessary'' in his campaign for majority leader.

Republican Sen. William Cohen of Maine is coauthor with Mitchell of ``Men of Zeal,'' their first-hand account of the Iran-Contra Committee hearings.

``I think most Republicans would give him an A at this point,'' says Senator Cohen. ``He's been very cooperative with [minority leader] Bob Dole, works closely with him, trying to alert the minority in order to keep us apprised of scheduling, so that there are no surprises.'' Cohen adds that Mitchell is a good friend who ``votes differently on many issues. He's well respected, intelligent, reflective, open to argument.... He says what do you think? That's vital for a majority leader.''

The outspoken Senator Simpson says that under Mitchell's majority leadership, ``We know that we won't be closed off, back to that `abused minority' which is the root cause of everything that's happened in the House [this spring]. Whatever mistakes he's made, we have not yet felt the lash, or any kind of trickery or intentional abuse. There are no lurking hostilities here. That's not George Mitchell's style. Or Dole's.''

Harold Pachios, a Portland lawyer who is Mitchell's close friend, says, ``Here's a guy who's the antithesis of arrogance. He has a very fine sense of who he is, what he is, and can make the distinction between high public office he now holds and himself.''

Mr. Pachios says Mitchell didn't become a trial lawyer so he could be a federal judge, didn't become a federal judge so he could run for the Senate. ``He never looked at any job as a stepping stone.''

Mitchell's longtime friend Shepard Lee, owner of a series of Maine car dealerships, says, ``I always used to tell George he lives his life the way he plays tennis: thoughtful, conservative, doesn't throw away any shots. Nothing brilliant, or colorful, doesn't have to make the grand slam. He puts it where the other guy isn't.''

Mr. Lee also notes that having dinner in a restaurant with Mitchell is a time-motion study, clocking not more than 25 minutes from soup to dessert. Mitchell tastes run from tabouli, kibee, and the other Lebanese foods he grew up on to pasta and lobster. He doesn't drink, reads history and biographies but no thrillers, swims, and rarely watches TV except for sports (as a Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics fan).

The new majority leader unwinds in his spacious, cream-colored office with a red and purple Persian rug and a serene Fitz Hugh Lane seascape facing his desk. He says he has three priorities in his job:

``I think we have to deal with the deficit in a responsible and fair way. I think that we have to help make this a kinder, gentler nation, which means that we have to do something about the shame of homelessness, about the threats to the health of our citizens in the environment in which we live, in terms of pollution.''

He also stresses the importance of education and job opportunities for the young, in addition to doing ``something about the terrible scourge of drugs, particularly among minority youth in our inner cities.

``The third area of priority for me is to reestablish a bipartisan foreign policy, to restore the relations between the executive and legislative branches, in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy....''

It is the conventional wisdom in Washington that Mitchell's calm, apparently bipartisan handling of the Tower nomination, in columnist Mary McGrory's words, ``earned him his spurs as Senate majority leader.'' Mitchell smiles judiciously at that phrase. Was the Tower nomination the big hurdle as majority leader, or just the first hurdle?

``It was just the first hurdle. ... I have a long way to go. I'm still learning to be majority leader.''