I SAW a lot of Mike Mansfield when he was Senate majority leader. Before he left Washington to become the US Ambassador to Japan, the respected Senate chieftain had become our most-frequent guest at Monitor breakfasts - 20 times. The Laconic Sage dispensed his wisdom in small portions, answering often with a simple ``Yep'' or ``Nope.'' He easily set a record for the number of questions he was able to answer in a one-hour session.
The current Senate leader, George Mitchell of Maine, is no Mike Mansfield when it comes to brevity.
Reporters hang on Senator Mitchell's words. The wisdom is there, too. But even George will joshingly concede, as he did over breakfast the other morning, succinctness is not his forte.
The comparison of Mitchell with Mansfield has a much broader application, however. Some old-timers who use the adjective ``great'' in describing the leadership of Mansfield are today saying that Mitchell shows promise of achieving that accolade before he completes his present role.
They particularly like Mitchell's ability to disagree strongly with colleagues and with the administration without being disagreeable. They say that same quality, possessed in abundance by Mansfield, will give Mitchell staying power: His clout will grow instead of diminish as the years go on.
The complaint Mitchell hears the most, he told us, was that he wasn't confrontational enough - that he hesitated to give the president a good roughing up.
``I like the president,'' Mitchell said. ``I've known him for many years. Now what can you say about a guy who chooses to live in Maine when he could have lived anywhere else? That's one excellent example of his good judgment.'' As the 40 or so journalists chuckled, Mitchell continued:
``We don't agree on some issues. This is natural and should be expected. I've discussed this with the president. We both understand that we can disagree on some matters and remain friendly.''
The majority leader registered a complaint of his own: The press hadn't been alert to his attacks on President Bush when they came. ``My most sustained criticism of the president was of the way he handled the Alaska oil spill,'' Mitchell said. ``But it simply wasn't reported - even though I said it over and over again.''
Warming to his adversarial role, Mitchell said that ``Bush's greatest vulnerability lies in the gap between his rhetoric and his actions. He said, `I want to be the education president,' and then made an inadequate education proposal. He proposed an end to chemical weapons worldwide - and then later reserved the right for the US to keep these weapons. Then there was catastrophic health care. There was not a word from this president in support of that legislation.''
Mitchell was particularly unhappy about the president's relentless effort to push through a capital-gains tax cut, which the senator claimed would increase the budget deficit by $67 billion in the next decade:
``I would like to see the president devote as much time to ... the historic events taking place in Eastern and Western Europe as he is to capital gains.''
He added: ``I don't think the capital-gains provision will pass the Senate this year. No one in the Senate is going to offer the plan that was passed in the House. It's a poor plan.'' The prediction of this powerful Democrat now seems to have come true - an important victory for Mitchell, an embarrassing loss for Bush.
Mitchell also countered Mr. Bush on abortion. He said that while Bush's anti-abortion position had served him well politically, the end to that was in sight.
He said that in recent months he had talked to high school students throughout his state and that, when he asked for a raise of hands on this subject, ``about 98 percent indicated they were pro-choice.'' He sees these young people moving into the ranks of Democratic voters and very soon giving the Democrats the political edge on this issue that will be decisive in many elections.