GEORGE MITCHELL's election as Senate majority leader could be described as an overnight success eight years in the making. Time was when members of the Senate leadership measured their service in decades rather than years. But this 55-year-old Mainer first entered the Senate (whose average age is now under 50) only in 1980, and then as an appointee. The Democrats' choice - unanimous on the second ballot - represents a generational shift. It also represents a change in style; the television presidency has been joined by the television Congress, and the ability to come across well on television has become an important skill for a senator.
Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the outgoing majority leader, was widely hailed as a master of parliamentary tactics who maintained considerable unity among his ideologically diverse party. But he was also not telegenic.
Senator Mitchell, however, first came to wide public view during the televised Iran-contra hearings of the summer of 1987. He told Col. Oliver North, ``Please remember ... that it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the contras, and still love God, and still love this country as much as you do.'' It was good to be reminded that patriotism and piety are not the exclusive province of one end of the ideological spectrum.
Coming across well on television is certainly not the ultimate test of statesmanship. It is heartening, though, to see that television can pick up not just flash and dash but also the quiet competence and decency of a Mitchell - as it did of a Howard Baker, for instance, during the Watergate hearings.
Moderate of mien but liberal of view, Mitchell projects the gravitas one would expect of a former federal judge, as he is. He seems to understand the difference between having a clear position on an issue, and having a merely loud position.
His selection as majority leader also represents a quiet reassertion that the infamous liberal Northeast is still very much alive and well and part of the United States.
To their credit, his rivals for the leadership post, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, threw their support to him on the second ballot, giving him the unanimous support his minority counterpart Bob Dole enjoyed at his reelection.
The 101st Congress and the incoming Bush administration will have a lot on their plate. The basic issue of split government - Republican executive and Democratic legislature - remains. Americans resist paying more taxes, but they also resist cutting spending. And the unfinished agenda of what are now ``liberal'' social proposals - day care and parental leave, for instance - could, once legislated, very well end up as politically sacrosanct as medicare and social security are today.
Mitchell will command a majority of 55, to the Republicans' 45 - solid, but the alignment will not be filibuster-proof. He will have to work with the Republicans. And of course he will have to work with another George - the man from Kennebunkport, who enters the White House with a solid electoral victory but really not much of a political program.
Both Georges may well find the program set for them, though. We're hearing hopeful noises from both that they will be able to work together. Let's trust that this continues.