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.
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.
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.
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.''
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.''
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.''