Q&A with George Mitchell
(CBS News) Former Senator George Mitchell has made a name for himself as the man in the middle - the peacemaker, an honest broker helping to bring an end to conflicts that seemed but impossible. to resolve. Our Rita Braver paid him a visit.
George Mitchell led Rita Braver along a hiking trail at Maine's Acadia National Park ("It's a majestic forest that you have to go through," though he warned, there are "a lot of rocks"). But then, Mitchell has managed to navigate many rocky paths - a modest man with a remarkable career. He's served as Senate Majority Leader, Middle East negotiator and Chairman of the Board of the Walt Disney Company. He runs a major law firm, and led the investigation into steroid use in Major League Baseball.
But what may be his most significant achievement could be seen earlier this summer - a historic handshake between Queen Elizabeth and former IRA Chief Martin McGuinness, now a top official in Northern Ireland.
It happened in large part because just 14 years ago, George Mitchell brokered a peace deal between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland after years of violence and strife.
"I realized how historical it was," Mitchell told Braver. "I felt it. Everyone was aware of the historical significance of what we were doing."
Growing up here in Maine, Mitchell never expected to become an actor on the world stage.
"This is so far beyond the dreams I might have had," he said. "And I think about my parents, how it would have been completely beyond their scope of imagination."
But his life IS a testament to the American Dream. His dad was an Irish-American janitor, his mom a Lebanese immigrant who couldn't read or write.
"She was a weaver in a textile mill and she worked a night shift - I still can't figure out how she did it," Mitchell said. "She had five children, so including she and my father there were seven people in our house. We had one tiny bathroom."
But Mitchell didn't let any of it stop him. He worked his way through college and law school, with a stint in the military in-between.
In 1962, he was unexpectedly offered a job with Maine Senator Ed Muskie.
"Did you start to think, hey, there's something about politics?" asked Braver.
"As they say in a less elegant term, it gets into your blood," he replied.
In 1980, Mitchell became a United States Senator himself, earning a reputation that follows him to this day as a skilled negotiator trying to understand the other side.
"Why do they believe as they do? Why do they act as they do? Is there something to their position that I don't understand or that I've been wrong about? The most disturbing thing now is the rigidity of some - you know, 'We are right, we are 100 percent right, and if you disagree with us, you're not just wrong, you're not an American.'"
In fact, in 1989, when he was elected Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Mitchell did something that's hard to imagine in this era of partisan animosity: On his first day, he made a pledge to Republican Leader Bob Dole: "I'll never try to embarrass you. I will never attack you personally."
"It's almost-unheard of these days," remarked Dole, "but in those days, it was a cordiality. We had a relationship. He's my friend, and he's a great legislator."
Mitchell was so well-respected on both sides of the aisle that President Bill Clinton wanted to make him a Supreme Court Justice.
Clinton told Braver he was disappointed Mitchell said no. "Oh God, yes, I thought he had a range of experience that would have been incredibly valuable on the court, as well as years of negotiating experience which would have made him effective in trying to forge a majority. So I was disappointed he didn't do it."
But Mitchell turned down the court in 1994 because he felt a greater responsibility to get the Clinton health care plan passed. It was an effort that ultimately failed, and Mitchell's sacrifice was for naught.
"Have you ever looked back and said, 'Gee, that was a mistake?'" Braver asked.
"Oh sure, yes!" Mitchell laughed. "After the Bush v. Gore decision by the Supreme Court, that's one thing I wish I'd been there to argue against."
In 1995, George Mitchell decided it was time to leave the Senate. But a week later President Clinton convinced him to take on the tough task of bringing peace to Northern Ireland, and soon Mitchell found himself at a negotiating table filled with old and bitter grievances between Catholics and Protestants.
"How did you find the patience to deal with so many different parties and make that all happen?" Braver asked.
"Very early in the process I said, 'Look, I'm a product of the U.S. Senate. I've listened to 16-hour speeches. There's nothing you guys can say that can faze me.'"
"He's brilliant at that," said President Clinton, "just hammering through and working on their psychology and their needs and listening carefully to what they need."
Finally, after three years of intense negotiation, Mitchell sealed a peace deal, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II.
Through it all he always returns to his beloved Maine, where he's built a family retreat, on land once owned by David Rockefeller.
Still, it doesn't take much to pull Mitchell back into service. A life-long baseball fan, he was tapped to run an investigation into steroid use by players, and his 2007 report is credited with helping to clean up the sport.
More people read that than my reports on Ireland and the Middle East," Mitchell mused.
It was in 2009 that President Obama named him chief negotiator in the Middle East.
"Senator Mitchell is going to be fully empowered by me and by Secretary Clinton," said Mr. Obama, "so when he speaks, he will be speaking for us."
But the intractable Middle East proved to be one place where even Mitchell could not prevail. After two years he stepped down, to spend more time with his wife, Heather, and their two children.
Yet, despite the obstacles in the Middle East, this American statesman is still full of hope.
"I believe that Israelis and Palestinians will come together to reach an agreement to end the conflict, in my lifetime," Mitchell said. "But that belief is based primarily on the reality that it is so much in their interest, both societies, to bring this conflict to an end."
And as for George Mitchell, at 79 he doesn't rule out taking on another big assignment.
"I can't imagine any American saying no to a president who asks you to do something that is meaningful for the country and for our people," he said.
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