George Mitchell’s memoir, “The Negotiator,” is interesting and inspiring. It’s subtitled, “Reflections on an American Life: from Maine to the U.S. Senate, from Baseball to Disney, from Northern Island to the Middle East.” What a career of accomplishment this man had!
And it all started in a very poor section of Waterville, on the banks of the Kennebec River. Mitchell’s father was first generation Irish and his mother was an immigrant from Lebanon. As I read that, I wondered if today she’d have been sent back to Lebanon, depriving us of all that Mitchell achieved for us.
Mitchell was a dreary, defeated candidate for governor who turned into a powerhouse, winning his first campaign for the U.S. Senate over Congressman David Emery by a substantial margin. I was a member of Emery’s congressional staff but had little to do with that campaign, which was driven by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
I would have never predicted the amazing career that followed. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Clean Air Act. At that time, Mitchell was Senate majority leader and the Senate was pursuing major amendments to the Clean Air Act to deal with acid rain and other problems. Mitchell notes that he was “greatly aided” by several senators “who were deeply committed to the passage of strong clean air legislation. Among them were Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, a Democrat, and John Chafee of Rhode Island and David Durenberger of Minnesota, both Republicans.”
As a Republican myself, I appreciated Mitchell’s recognition that “Chafee and Durenberger were following a long tradition, since abandoned, of Republican leadership on environmental issues.”
Perhaps you remember a column I wrote not long ago that made this same point: Republicans used to be strong conservationists.
While Mitchell’s career moved from one major challenge to another, from Disney World’s economic challenges to a serious drug problem in Major League Baseball, his accomplishment in bringing peace to Northern Ireland after 800 years of division stands out in my mind as an astonishing one. He expected to spend a few months at it but ended up enduring five years of difficult work and negotiations.
In his chapter titled, “Andrew’s Peace,” Mitchell recounts his son Andrew’s difficult birth, and how he “started to think about how different his life would be had he been born a citizen of Northern Ireland.” He wondered how many babies had been born in Northern Ireland on the same day. Turns out there were 61. “He couldn’t hear me, but I told (Andrew) that for him and his sixty-one friends in Northern Ireland I was somehow going to get this job done, and when I did I would refer to it as Andrew’s Peace.”
Four months after the agreement was signed on April 10, 1998, a bomb blew up in the city of Omagh, and one young girl named Claire had her eyes blown out. Mitchell immediately went to Omagh to visit with the families there, and talked with Claire, who “reached out for my hand, tentatively and slowly. I placed my hand in hers and she held it tightly through our conversation.”
Fourteen years later, in response to a request to make a documentary of the agreement, Mitchell returned to Ireland with his wife Heather, son Andrew (who was then 14), and 3-year old daughter on a trip focused on meeting with the families of children born on Oct. 16, 1997.
The Mitchell family traveled to Omagh to visit Claire. “Her face still bore the scars of that terrible day of the car bombing in 1998, but her spirit was as strong as ever,” wrote Mitchell. “She was accompanied by her loving husband, Ryan Bowes, and two beautiful small children, Oran, four years old, and Connor, two.”
Claire had refused to give up on life and was working as an eye care liaison officer at the Royal Institute of Blind People.
Claire again reached out to hold Mitchell’s hand and tell him of her 15-year journey to her current life. “Calm, steady, consistent, Claire is a shining exemplar of the strength of the human spirit, an inspiration to me and to many others, in Northern Ireland and the world,” wrote Mitchell. “My admiration for her was one of the factors that led Heather and me to name our daughter Claire.”
Wow. That is a powerful story.
In the introduction, Mitchell writes, “I am fortunate to be an American, a citizen of what I believe to be, despite its many serious imperfections, the most open, the most free, the most just society in all of human history. In America no one should be guaranteed success, but everyone should have a fair chance to succeed. This is the story of how I came to have that chance.”
We are all blessed that George Mitchell had that chance to succeed, and succeed he most certainly did, for all of us.