Former Senator Builds Paths to Peace in Trying Times


Fromer U.S. Senator GEORGE MITCHELL (C) listens to a question at a press conference in New York last spring where he discussed the findings of a report by a U.S. led committee on Israeli-Palestinian violence.

With the closure of its Washington campus and stringent budget cuts, the John F. Kennedy School of Government (KSG) has had a turbulent year. The problems there, however, seem mild compared to those that KSG Class Day speaker Senator George J. Mitchell has tackled in recent years.

Mitchell has risen to international prominence in the last seven years by leading delicate negotiations in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East. The Mitchell Plan which he designed in 1996 has been the basis for the return of home rule to Northern Ireland and consequently for vastly improved relations between the feuding Protestant and Catholic communities.

But prior to turning to the international sphere, the Maine native served in all three branches of government in the United States, working his way up through the legal and political system to eventually serve as the Democrat Senate majority leader for six years.

And today, Mitchell will speak about his experiences to KSG graduates ready to embark on their own careers in public service.

From Waterville to Washington

Mitchell—who is often mistakenly thought to be of Irish descent—was in fact born to Lebanese parents on August 20, 1933 in a rundown distinct of Waterville, Me. His father, who worked as a janitor at Maine’s Colby College, instilled in Mitchell the love of American democracy that led to his political career.

“[My father] believed, deeply and totally, that there is no limit to how far and high one can go in America,” Mitchell wrote in 1997. “And he was right.”

Motivated by his parents’ strong emphasis on education as a route for advancement, Mitchell held a variety of jobs—ranging from an advertising salessperson to a truck driver—in order to pay his way through Bowdoin College. He graduated in 1954 and, after a stint in U.S. Army counter intelligence, received a law degree from Georgetown University in 1960.

“George comes from very, very humble origins,” said former Senator Warren B. Rudman (R—N.H.), who has worked closely with Mitchell since they served together on a Senate committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987. “[He is] the son of working people who went on to have an extraordinary career without many of the advantages that a number of successful Americans have.”

After working in Washington, D.C. for five years, including two as an attorney in the Justice Department, Mitchell returned to Maine and entered a private law firm.

But despite his law career, Mitchell’s true interests never strayed far from Democratic politics.

After an unsuccesful bid for the governorship of Maine in 1974, he served as a federal judge, en route to succeeding his political mentor Edmund Muskie (D—Me.) as a U.S. senator.

Once he arrived in Washington, Mitchell worked tirelessly to pass environmentally friendly legislation, including the controversial reauthorization of the Clean Air Act in 1990.

And after his prominent role in the Iran-Contra investigations, Mitchell was appointed the Senate majority leader in 1988, capping off his distinguised senatorial career before his retirement in 1995.

“I am incredibly proud to have represented the people of Maine in the Senate for almost 15 years, keeping their trust and confidence amid a period of political skepticism and cynicism,” Mitchell says.

Diplomatic Rainmaker