I was rummaging through some boxes in the attic a few weeks back and came across one of the first columns I ever wrote for the Maine Sunday Telegram, in the late 1980s. In it, I urged George Mitchell to run for president. I ended that column by saying that if he ran, I’d drop everything to help him.
As I looked at the faded copy of the column, I felt some sadness that he hadn’t run, but that soon gave way to a sense of gratitude for all he’s done for Maine.
Mitchell’s portrait was unveiled at the Legislature last week, just before he addressed a gathering of both houses. His message was simple and clear: We have to find new ways to work across party lines or nothing will get done. Reflecting upon his time as Senate majority leader, he offered this advice: “We debated hundreds of bills, some of them extremely contentious. We often disagreed, but through it all, we respected each other. Learning to listen, being patient and respecting those with whom one disagrees can help reduce the polarization and hostility that make it difficult to work together.”
As time has passed, I find myself feeling more and more certain that Mitchell would have been a great American president. I don’t say that because he was from my hometown of Waterville, or because he is an obvious source of pride in Maine. I say it because he has embodied exactly the mix of ingredients that produce extraordinary leaders and presidents, and that are so sorely needed today.
He’s intelligent and worldly, but never once forgot where he came from and who he was working for. He’s been unswervingly fair, open and honest. As Senate majority leader, he had the skill and sensitivity to be both the voice of his party and a builder of alliances across the aisle. And he always seemed able to do that with humor and grace.
We learn little about leaders by how they perform in front of friendly audiences, when all the heads are nodding in agreement. The true test is how they operate in a complex and fast-moving world, full of competing ideas and strong-willed people. Mitchell always passed those tests with ease, whether among the muscular egos of the Senate or the endless posturing and repetition of Irish or Middle Eastern antagonists.
America is suffering these days with an over-abundance of leaders who are fueled by anger and determined certainty, arrogance and dogma. And we seem, at times, to be hopelessly stuck. Getting unstuck is going to require that we are lucky enough to find a lot more George Mitchells.
Fortunately, Maine has been sending extraordinary leaders to Washington for decades. It must be something in the water here. What else could explain how a state with a population the size of San Diego or San Antonio could, over just two generations, produce the likes of Margaret Chase Smith, Bill Cohen, Ed Muskie, George Mitchell, Olympia Snowe and Angus King? It defies probabilities.
In our lifetimes, Maine has provided to the country the first woman to ever serve in both houses of Congress, the first woman ever nominated for president by a major party, a vice presidential candidate and a presidential candidate, the chief architect of both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, a Senate majority leader, a secretary of defense and a secretary of state.
These leaders have shared many traits, but foremost among them is that they cared about the people of Maine even more than they cared about ideology or partisan interests. And while they each had a strong attachment to their own beliefs, all of them seemed to understand the simple but immensely important fact that nobody has all the answers.
I still feel some sadness that Mitchell never ran for president and that Maine wasn’t able to share such an extraordinary leader with the rest of the country. In this hyperpartisan world we live in today, I think he could have helped us move in a new direction. Mostly, though, I feel grateful and proud that he’s been our senator and our champion.
So, thank you, George, for letting the people of this state benefit from your mind, your heart and your basic goodness. And just in case you ever change your mind and decide to run, I’m still ready to drop everything to help you win.
Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan Consulting Group, which advises businesses and organizations on strategies for growth and the president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.