We can only hope that today’s political candidates read Doug Rooks’ wonderful biography of George Mitchell. They will definitely learn a lot, and perhaps be inspired to provide the leadership we desperately need in Maine and in Washington D.C.
We all know that George Mitchell had an amazing career with major accomplishments for Maine and our country and world, but I still learned a lot from “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” published by Down East Books. Years of research went into this book, and I especially enjoyed the level of detail Doug was able to include, from Mitchell’s key staff members to projects and programs I had no idea he’d led and/or influenced.
For example, I’ll bet you didn’t know that Mitchell led the successful effort to return passenger rail service to Maine or that he secured, through tough negotiations, the funding for many improvements in our interstate highway system. I think one of the best things he ever did was create the child care tax credit, which certainly benefited my family when Linda and I were raising our children.
I certainly didn’t know Mitchell saved the higher standards for maple syrup maintained by Maine and Vermont, after lower standards were adopted at the federal level for all other states.
Nothing of importance to Maine escaped his attention. For example, I loved the story of Mitchell at a luncheon of Democratic senators, when he noticed that there was no Maine water. He had his staffer call all of Maine’s bottling companies and make sure that never happened again!
I was especially pleased to hear that Mitchell, after learning that the Coast Guard was decommissioning lighthouses along the East Coast, replacing them with automated beacons, sponsored the Bicentennial Lighthouse Fund that successfully moved many of the lighthouses to nonprofits and individuals who restored and protected them.
This is only a fraction of what George Mitchell accomplished in his illustrious career. And once he left the U.S. Senate, his achievements continued, from his negotiation of an amazing resolution to the Irish political struggles, to important roles in resolving issues and problems from Disney World to professional baseball. And you probably know that, after leaving the political arena, he established a fabulous college scholarship program for students in every Maine high school.
Throughout the book, we see how collaboration, respect, and hard work produced many accomplishments by our political leaders, just what we need today. For example, in a chapter on Democrat Ed Muskie, we learn that, as governor, knowing he needed Republican votes, he’d find some good in a bill and invite Republican leaders to his office to suggest changes that were often accepted.
In a chapter about the Maine Action Plan that George Mitchell helped Governor Ken Curtis create, Mitchell quotes Joshua Chamberlain, the Civil War hero who came home and was elected governor. “A government has something more to do than govern, and to levy taxes to pay the governor. It is something more than a police to arrest evil and punish wrong. It must also encourage good, point out improvements, open roads to prosperity, and infuse life into all enterprises. It should combine the best minds of the state for all the high ends for which society is established and to which man aspires. That gives us much to do.” Indeed.
While Republican leaders seek to repeal the income tax, they ought to read how Republicans helped Governor Curtis establish that tax. Democratic Senator Mitchell even worked with Republican Senator John Chafee in a long — but failed — attempt to establish a national health care system. That child care tax credit I mentioned earlier also involved a diverse group of Republican and Democratic Senators.
One of Mitchell’s major accomplishments was the enactment of amendments to the Clean Air Act, when he was Senate Majority Leader. Mitchell got important support and assistance from a bipartisan group of Senators including Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, a Democrat, and John Chaffee of Rhode Island and David Durenberger of Minnesota, both Republicans. Surprise! Democrats and Republicans often worked together in the good old days.
George Mitchell’s personal story is inspiring, too. 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 U.S. Senator Angus King noted in one of the book’s final chapters, he’d encouraged Mitchell to run for president in 2002 and still feels he would have won that race. “George Mitchell is one of the two or three most able public officials of his generation,” said King. “He should have been president.”
After you read this book, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with Angus — and wish George Mitchell was running for president this year.