Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
For many, the name Sen. George Mitchell calls to mind compromise and the pursuit of peace. The former democratic majority leader was a primary architect of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, and has worked to end conflict in the Middle East. In his new memoir, Mitchell paints a picture of a life shaped as much by growing up in an Arab-American family in working-class Maine as by diplomacy and politics. He reflects on a career that has spanned law, politics and business and one one thread running through it all: The art of negotiation. Sen. George Mitchell joins us to talk about his life and career, and what he sees for our nation’s future.
- Sen. George Mitchell Former United States Senator (D-Maine) and democratic Senate majority leader.
Video: Is Peace Possible In The Middle East?
Sen. George Mitchell talks to guest host Indira Lakshmanan about what it will take to negotiate a resolution between Israel and Palestine.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane's having a voice treatment. When he left his role as Senate majority leader in 1995, George Mitchell expected to make a transition into private life. Instead, President Clinton to be special envoy for Northern Ireland where he helped forge a landmark peace accord. In this long career, Senator Mitchell has been called on again and again for his negotiating skills, from the courtroom on Capitol Hill to the boardroom and long-simmering conflicts around the world.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANHe took over as chairman of Disney at a time of turmoil and was tapped to investigate steroid use in major league baseball. In his new memoir, Mitchell takes us through the most meaningful moments on that journey, Starting from his humble roots in a main factory town. Senator George Mitchell's new book is titled, "The Negotiator" and he joins me here in the studio.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANYou can watch a live video stream of this conversation on our website, drshow.org. We'll be taking your questions and comments for the former majority leader all through the hour. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a message on Facebook or Twitter. Welcome, Senator Mitchell.
SEN. GEORGE MITCHELLThanks for having me.
LAKSHMANANYou grew up in really what you describe as a hard-scrabble mill town in Maine in a tiny home on the wrong side of the tracks. Tell us about your childhood.
MITCHELLMy mother was an immigrant from Lebanon who came to this country at the age of 18 and moved to Waterville, Maine, to live with her sister who had preceded her as an immigrant. My father was the orphan son of Irish immigrants. He never knew his parents and he was raised in an orphanage in Boston, ultimately adopted by an elderly childless couple from Maine who moved to the same town and lived next door to the house in which my mother lived.
MITCHELLSo there, my parents met, were married and there I and my three brothers and sister were born and raised. It was a tough live. My mother, as I said, was an immigrant. She couldn't read or write English. She had little formal education and she spent almost her entire life working the night shift in local textile mills. Indeed, it was the operating textile mills that attracted so many immigrants, primarily French-Canadian from Quebec, but a number from all over the world really.
MITCHELLMy father left school after the fourth grade, started working when he was about 10 years old and spent his entire life as a laborer, the last part of it as a janitor at a local school. So it was what would be regarded now as a slum, just a group of tenement houses clustered down by the river. They've all now been torn down and there's a parking lot there.
MITCHELLBut the truth is, although we may have been poor, nobody ever felt poor because that's the way everybody lived. No one went hungry. We always had heat in our home in the winter and my parents focused tremendously on their one goal in life, which was that their children would receive an education. And my father was very clear and emphatic from the very beginning, every one of this children would go to and graduate from college.
MITCHELLAnd we all did. So although they died penniless, they were successful in achieving their dream, that their children all had an education and had a good chance in life.
LAKSHMANANYou also describe, as a really important day in your life, the day that you actually moved from one side of the tracks to the other, even though it wasn't into that much better of a house. Tell us about that.
MITCHELLThat’s right. One boundary of the area that we lived in, it was called Head of Falls, along the Kennebec River in Maine next to a point where the river drops, there's a dam and falls there. One boundary was the railroad track. It separated the area from the center of town and when my sister was born, she was the fifth child, there were only two bedroom in the house that we had. My parents slept in one and the five children slept in the other.
MITCHELLThere was this tiny room with two beds, two boys to each bed and my sister's crib was kind of jammed near the middle. And when she outgrew the crib, of course, it was impossible for my father, we couldn't sleep four boys and one girl in one room so we moved to a house not far away, but across the tracks, actually close to the train tracks, very close, but on the right side.
MITCHELLSo my father regarded it as a great accomplishment. Back then, we called it up and out and as the immigrants moved up the ladder of success, they moved up and out of Head of Falls and into other parts of town. So we actually were closer to the tracks and I can recall freight trains rumbling by just a few feet from our house, shaking the house.
MITCHELLIt wasn't until I went to college just when I turned 17 that I learned what it was to sleep through the night without the sound and feel of a passing train. It was quite an experience.
LAKSHMANANAllow you to sleep better and hopefully do more of your homework. You talk about how your mother was the most influential person in your life because of the work ethic that she instilled in you, despite the fact that, as you say, she couldn't read or write English. What were some of the most important things she taught you.
MITCHELLMy mother was a very strong and determined person. Tremendously energetic, very loving. We grew up in a great, very close-knit household, still are. Two of my brothers and my sister still live in Waterville, our hometown. We see each other quite often. We have now a large group of children, grandchildren, et cetera, and it's still a very close-knit and warm and loving family, really mostly due to my mother's influence.
MITCHELLShe worked nights, as I said, from 11 o'clock at night till 7:00 in the morning. She was in time to get back home, time to get us off to school.
LAKSHMANANAnd pack your lunches, I think.
MITCHELLPacked lunches, cooked supper, did everything. I don't know really when she slept and she, of course, must have been frustrated and tired at times, but never showed it to us. There was always the image of love, laughter. She was quite funny. When we listened to baseball games on the radio, we were all Boston Red Sox fans growing up in Maine, my mother didn't know a thing about baseball and could barely understand what the announcer was saying, but she loved to talk back to the radio.
MITCHELLAnd when Ted Williams, our favorite ball player, hit a homerun, my mother lead the cheers as he was described as rounding the bases. So she was a tremendous person, really responsible for everything that I and my brothers and sister have become.
LAKSHMANANYou also describe as one of the most important people in your life, a teacher. Who was she and what door did she open for you?
MITCHELLElvira Whitten (sp?) was an elderly woman who taught English at Waterville High School. In my junior year, she was my teacher. She was a very impressive and warm figure who every student in the class loved. She never raised her voice. She was calm, but dignified, perfect posture, perfect diction. One day, she asked me to come to see her after class.
MITCHELLAnd, of course, first thing I thought was, what have I done wrong. I went in and she said to me, she said, what do you read? And I heard the question, but I was so surprised by it, I said what do you mean? She said, well, books, newspapers, magazines, do you read anything? I said, well, I don't read any books, other than what was necessary to get through school.
MITCHELLI was ashamed to tell her that what most of the reading I did was what we then called funny books, what are now comic books. And she said, well, I think you're ready for something more serious. And she handed me a book. The title was "The Moon Is Down," a short novel called a novella actually by John Steinbeck about a fictional account of the Nazi occupation of Norway during the second world war.
MITCHELLAnd she said, you read this and when you're finished, come back and tell me about it. I wanted so much to impress her that I read the whole book that night. I went back the next day, gave her an oral book report that was probably a little longer than the book itself and she was very pleased, took the book back, handed me another book. I read that book and that went on for the entire school year.
MITCHELLAnd it was my first entrance into the world of reading and books and in May of that year -- the following year, at the end of the school year when I gave her my last report, I waited anxiously for her to give me the next book. She said, well, I think you're ready to do your own reading now. And I spent two weeks, I'll never forget it, in the school library, in the public library, searching for a book that I thought she might approve of.
MITCHELLAnd I finally selected three books called "The Bounty Trilogy." They're famous, of course, "Mutiny On the Bounty," "Men Against the Sea" and "Pitcairn's Island." And I read them that summer. And since then, I've read a lot and although I didn't realize it at the time, Mrs. Whitten changed my life and I've always been eternally grateful to her and it has reminded me of the powerful impact teachers have every day all across this country on students.
MITCHELLAn inspirational teacher really can and does change the lives of many students.
LAKSHMANANDid you ever get a chance to tell her that?
MITCHELLI never did, to my great regret, but many years later, when I retired from the Senate, I created a scholarship fund for needy students in Maine. And when we announced the program in Maine, we had a large press conference and dinner. I tracked down Mrs. Whitten's daughter. Mrs. Whitten had, by then, passed away. She was living in New Hampshire. I invited her to come over.
MITCHELLShe came over. And when I introduced her, I told this story and I said to her, this is my way of saying to your mother, thank you for the difference you made in my life.
LAKSHMANANWell, an important lesson to all of us to thank our teachers and those who really make a difference in our lives before it's too late. We're gonna take a short break and when we come back, we'll take your comments and your questions for the former Senate majority leader, George Mitchell. Please stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're having a conversation with former Senate majority leader George Mitchell. His new memoir is titled "The Negotiator." Senator Mitchell grew up in Maine, graduated from Bowdoin College and then Georgetown University Law Center. He served in Berlin as a counterintelligence officer with the U.S. Army. He worked in the Justice Department, was a senator from Maine, majority leader, chairman of Disney, presidential medal of freedom, a long list of things. Senator Mitchell, it make me wonder, you' have this illustrious career working with presidents, CEOs, major league baseball owners. Why did you make this book so personal with Maine and your upbringing at the center?
MITCHELLWe'll all products of our environment, and I feel very fortunate to have been born and raised in Maine. I love the state. I love the people. The greatest honor of my life really was representing them in the Senate for 15 years, a task I enjoyed very much. I went to every part of the state, every town. I spoke at a graduation for every single high school in Maine. And I learned a lot from the people I represented. I listened to what they had to say, did my best to represent them fairly, and I believe that it was there that my parents got a chance to achieve their goals.
MITCHELLMy mother was an immigrant, as I said. My father never really knew anything better. He, as I said earlier, was adopted out of a Boston orphanage by a family from Maine. So it's my home, it's my place. I'm sure people that grew up in small towns in Nebraska and Idaho feel the same way about their towns, and that's one of the great things about life in our free and open society.
MITCHELLAnd my parents, my mother was an immigrant, and my father, the orphan son of immigrants, but they wanted very much their children to be Americans. Assimilation was everything in our age, and they drummed it home, some words but mostly by actions, how lucky we are to be Americans, to be living in this free and open country.
LAKSHMANANAnd starting in Maine but all your life, you worked, first as a paperboy, a bean picker, a truck driver. And there's a great story in your book about learning the difference between management and labor by working for your brother. Tell us that story.
MITCHELLMy brother Robbie was just a couple years older than me but a great guy and a really great entrepreneur. He began working at an early age, and he was a self-made man by the time he was in junior high school. Literally, he was a great guy. And he came to me one day and said that he had gotten the concession to do the janitorial work at the local boys' club, where we played a lot, and he said if you come help me do the work, I'll split the proceeds with you.
MITCHELLI said okay. I already had a job as a paperboy, and I washed cars in a used car parking lot after school. So this would help me, and I had what I thought was a great income at the time. So I swept the club, I put everything in order. What I didn't like is I cleaned all the bathrooms. And then he went into the office and called his girlfriend and talked to her on the phone.
MITCHELLAnd at the end of the first week...
LAKSHMANANWhile you were working.
MITCHELLHe paid me $2.50, and I thought this is great, and it added, with what I earned elsewhere, it added up to a good paycheck for a week. And then by accident, a couple months later, I found out that he was getting $15 a week. So he was keeping $12.50 and giving me $2.50, and I was doing all the work. And in the interim, he'd gotten the concession for a small office building next to the boys' club, so I was doing both of them, working about two hours a night.
MITCHELLSo I confronted him with it, and he said, very calmly, he said, well, he said, I'm the one who got the concession. He said without that, you wouldn't have a job, you wouldn't have any income. And then he paused, and he said, and besides, he said, I'm management, and you're labor, he said, and management always gets paid more than labor. And I thought to myself, someday I want to be management.
MITCHELLAnd my brother had several other, he bought a large cotton candy machine, and I and another boy worked it in the summer fairs in Maine. He opened and ran a, while he was in high school, a golf driving range. He had a series of business enterprises. He's the one member of our family who passed away, and we think about him every day. He was a great, fun-loving, entrepreneurial guy and taught me a lot in my life.
LAKSHMANANEspecially about how capitalism works.
LAKSHMANANAnd important lesson to learn. You know, I'm struck. You grew up poor, but you tell us that you never felt poor because everyone you knew lived the same way. And it strikes me that every kid in America now is bombarded with images of staggering wealth that really underscore the gap between haves and have-nots that's much wider than it was when you were a child. Is it even possible today to move up the ladder like you did?
MITCHELLOne of the reasons I wrote this book was to describe how anyone can succeed in America. When I spoke at all of the graduations of all the high schools in Maine, I met hundreds, perhaps thousands, of youngsters who reminded me of myself at their age, insecure, uncertain, low aspirations, and I wanted to try to lift their aspirations and to create, in their minds, a sense of hope and opportunity and promise.
MITCHELLBut the reality is, of course, that it is declining in our country. It isn't just the income gap. I'm a Democrat, and I believe strongly in the principles of the party, but I think too many in our party focus on, well, let's tax the rich. Well, there ought to be progressive and fair taxation in our country, but to me the real answer is let's let everybody lift themselves up. Let's let everybody have a chance to go as high and as far as talent and willingness to work will take them.
MITCHELLI think that's the great challenge of our society, and I think we're losing ground. The other side of the coin is I'm now in a position where I have children. When I retired from the Senate, I got married. I had children late in life. I now have teenage children. And the challenge my wife and I face is how not to give them too much because we know it's not good for them to have everything handed to them. And yet everybody who has children loves them so much, you want to do as much as you can for them.
MITCHELLAnd when you come from a background like mine, you want them to have things that I never had. And so that's a huge challenge. But I think the greatest threat to the United States is not external. We can deal with ISIS and Iran and Russia and whatever other challenges we face, and we will do so. We have, I think, a great and promising future in the next several decades of growth and opportunity, but it is here at home, where what I call, I label the middle-class working-class jobs.
MITCHELLWhen I was a kid growing up in Waterville, there were two textile mills. There was a paper mill. There was a large railroad repair shop. Not one of them now exists. And we haven't, in our society, found a way to replace them with those jobs, and obviously what's needed is an increase in education and care, skill and knowledge for young people to compete in a transformed world, transformed by the communications and technological revolution through which the world is passing.
LAKSHMANANNow, you actually got into politics in not exactly the way we would expect, perhaps, not through debate team or model U.N. but because of basketball?
MITCHELLYes, my brothers, all three of the, were great basketball players. I was not as good as my brothers. In fact, I was not as good as anyone else's brother. And I was young. I graduated from high school at the age of 16. So I would say scrawny and puny and not much of an athlete, and so I began to be described early, around our small town, as Johnny Mitchell's kid brother, the one who isn't any good.
MITCHELLWell, it created in me both a deep inferiority complex but a highly competitive attitude toward my brothers, and since I couldn't ever compete with them in sports, and never did, I sought an outlet that would enable me to establish myself, in a way. And my father, God bless him, he really wasn't particularly interested in sports. He had no education. But he loved reading and learning, and he kept telling me when I was a kid, don't worry about it.
MITCHELLI'd come home crying from, you know, doing poorly in a sports event or losing or something, and he's say you study, work hard, and in time, your brothers will look up to you the way you now look up to them. And so that got me going in the academic field, and eventually I was very, very lucky and was able to succeed in elected politics. And when I'm asked what the greatest moment of my life it, it is in early November of 1992, when I was elected to the Senate for a full term, I had been 36 points behind in the polls, so I was lucky to come back and win, and at the celebration on election night, a huge ballroom filled with people and a stage crowded, I was at the microphone.
MITCHELLAnd my brother Johnny, who was the real star in our family, a great athlete, was draped all over me because he likes to be in the center of action, and, you know, he mugs for the cameras. And the next day in the Portland paper, there was a big picture of me standing on the podium with my brother hanging over me, and the caption read, Senator George Mitchell celebrating his landslide election upset victory, being cheered on by an unidentified supporter.
MITCHELLWell, that was the peak of my life.
LAKSHMANANSo from out from under your brother's shadow and into the spotlight.
LAKSHMANANNow after college, after graduating from Bowdoin, your first real job was you were in the Army, posted to Berlin at the height of the Cold War. And your assignment caused you a lot of very sleepless nights, you say. Tell us why.
MITCHELLIt was a great and interesting experience for me. I loved the Army. I almost stayed in and made it a career. I feel that I grew up in the Army and learned a lot there. There are many in our society now who don't experience military service, and I think it's their loss, really. I feel it's a great, it was a great time in my life.
MITCHELLAt that time, just before the Berlin Wall went up, hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing communist East Germany and other Eastern European countries for the West into what is, what was West Berlin, the Allied part of Berlin. And so the U.S. Army and the Central Intelligence Agency operated a refugee center, where people who came in were processed, treated, and then most of them were resettled in West Germany or other Western countries.
MITCHELLThere was a unit that was established there to try to screen out people who were being sent by the community government to serve as sleeper spies in the West, and that became a highly publicized matter in West Germany when, later, the top aide of one of Germany's chancellors was found to have been a communist sleeper spy.
MITCHELLAs a young officer, I was only 21, and I had hardly been anywhere, I was in charge of a unit that screened people trying to figure out who among them were intended as spies and also to try to recruit some to go back for us, go back to their home country and spy for us. And it was a very difficult task with some very painful decisions. And I recount in the book one especially, when a man, a woman and their two young children came over, and we determined that the man was coming as a spy, and we detained him and turned him over to the West German police and sent the woman and her children back to East Germany.
MITCHELLAnd I said in the book that it troubled me for a long time because I hoped I was doing the right thing. I think I did. But those two children have been my companions for life. When you have the power to decide the fate of others, it is an enormous responsibility. I later had it as a federal judge, as a United States attorney, in some sense as Senate majority leader. It is a serious responsibility because we're all human, we're all fallible, we've all made mistakes, and to think that we are judging others is something that has to be taken with the utmost seriousness.
MITCHELLAnd in a way, that helped me later as a prosecutor and a judge because I kept those two children in my mind and always wondered did I do the right thing.
LAKSHMANANAnd carrying the responsibility of what had happened to them in your heart for all those years.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet.
LAKSHMANANSo Senator Mitchell, when you were first elected to the Senate, you found yourself sleeping next to Senator John Warner. How is that possible? Tell us about that?
MITCHELLThere was a filibuster shortly after I entered the Senate, and I went over to see what it would be like. It was very long. I'll try to abbreviate this because the story is quite long. So I spent the whole night in the Senate, really the only one there, listening to what's called a debate, but really it's just people killing time.
MITCHELLAnd I asked one of the young aides standing by the door where all the other senators were while I was out there tending to the nation's business. And he took me out behind the Senate chamber, into sort of a library-like, you know, waiting room, and there were set up a whole bunch of narrow canvas folding cots of the type you see in emergency shelters. And there, lying there in their clothes, sleeping away, were the members of the U.S. Senate.
MITCHELLI was feeling very discouraged about my first 48 hours there were kind of rough and tough, and I thought maybe I'd made a big mistake leaving a federal judgeship to enter the Senate. Keep in mind that I was appointed initially to the Senate when one of Maine's senators became secretary of state, and I'd left being a federal judge, which is a lifetime appointment.
MITCHELLSo I scrambled over on this cot and lay there, feeling sorry for myself, engaging and wallowing in self-pity, when I rolled over, and there, six inches away on this narrow cot, I looked into the face of Senator John Warner of Virginia, a wonderful guy. We later became great friends. He was at that time married to Elizabeth Taylor. So I looked at him, and I thought, who am I to feel sorry for myself. Here's a guy who could be home, legally in bed with Elizabeth Taylor, and he's spending the night with me.
MITCHELLAnd at that moment, I resolved to shed my self-pity and to concentrate on doing a good job in the days ahead.
LAKSHMANANAnd put it all in perspective. We have an email from Jeff, who asks, could the senator comment on the dysfunction that is Congress today. Do you see any way for the two sides to work together? And he says he thinks the job of elected officials is to work for the betterment of the country and not all this paralyzing vitriol that we now see.
MITCHELLPolitics has always been rough in this country. There never was a period when all was rosy and warm and friendly. I read an article written by a professor at the University of Maine last year, which described the presidential election of 1800. Two national icons in our history, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, ran against each other, and it was vitriolic and name-calling and broad, negative assertions.
MITCHELLBut of course what was absent then was the electronic media. Those words that were spoken in 1800 were read by a very few people, remote in time and distance from the place where they were said. Now, it's immediate, has a huge impact. The negative television ads have an impact. And the amount of money, I think, is devastating and corruptive.
MITCHELLWhen I was elected Senate majority leader, the first day, I called Bob Dole, who was the Republican leader. I went to see him, and I said these are tough jobs, we've got to trust each other. I hope you'll trust me, and I'll trust you. And we shook hands, and we've never had a harsh word since.
LAKSHMANANThat's a nice story. I wish there were more of those in Washington today. It would be nice if Senator McConnell and Senator Reid could say the same thing. We'll have more on the dysfunction in Washington when we come back. We're going to take a short break. Please stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're having a conversation with former Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, and we have an email from Lorraine, who says Senator Mitchell, if you were sent as a special envoy to the US Senate today, we all know that's a war zone, what would you do to negotiate a cease fire and create a more constructive environment?
MITCHELLWell, first, I thought it was tough when I was there. Nobody should think that there ever was a time when there wasn't dispute, fractiousness, disagreement. It wasn't quite as personal or as harsh as it is today. What I would do would be first to try to reduce the amount of money in American politics. I think it's a corrupting influence. Corrupting, not in the sense of Senators and Congressmen being bribed. That occurs rarely in our history. But in the sense that it has severed the bond of trust between the American people and their elected representatives.
MITCHELLI travel all over the country and I ask this question of almost every audience. Thousands of people in total. Does anyone believe that members of Congress are more responsive to their constituents than they are to their donors? In all that time, only one person has raised her hand. It was here in Washington, a woman. And when I asked her later, please, explain it to me. You're the only person who's ever raised their hand, she said, oh, it's simple. My husband's a member of Congress. That's the only one.
LAKSHMANANThat's a very special case.
MITCHELLSevered. I believe that the Supreme Court decision and Citizens United was one of the worst decisions ever made by any Supreme Court in American history. Let me be clear, it did not create the problem of money in politics, that already existed. But it poured gasoline on the fire. And it pictured a fantasy world that is unrelated to the reality of American politics. So, the first thing, I think, has to be to try to reign in these vast sums of money, which now seems to be impossible, and that's why we're getting these billions and billions of dollars being spent in campaigns.
MITCHELLAnd you have the truly demeaning spectacle of candidates for President lining up to beg for money from very, very wealthy persons to support their cause. I just think it's disgraceful and I think the American people feel it's disgraceful. There are many other factors. Reapportionment now is much more precise and select and partisan. You can put up on a screen the images of some congressional districts that make Rorschach's tests look like an amateur.
MITCHELLAnd so, there are a lot of factors, but in the end, I think it's the members themselves who have to dig down deep and remember that their primary responsibility is to the institution of the Senate and to the country and our people and not to their party or the cause of the moment.
LAKSHMANANYou, yourself, hated asking donors for money.
LAKSHMANANYou describe it as being one of the worst parts of being an elected politician for you.
MITCHELLI did. I did find it demeaning, but unfortunately, it's a necessary part of life. And I do describe in my book how, in the first campaign I ran, I had to do it, because otherwise, I would not have been elected. It's as simple as that.
LAKSHMANANAnd yet, at the same time, as we have Ralph from Battle Creek, Michigan, is writing in with a question, at the same time though, these billions of dollars in federal elections, due to Citizens United, he said, this can't be a good thing.
MITCHELLIt isn't a good thing. There's no doubt about it. I was one of the authors, along with Senator David Boren of Oklahoma, of a campaign finance reform bill that was a fairly strong bill. Didn't solve all the problems, by any means. We passed it, but unfortunately, the first President Bush vetoed it and we couldn't override the veto. And whatever reform efforts have been made since then have been limited and have been overwhelmed by the court's decisions and other actions.
LAKSHMANANYou thought that after the senate, you were going to become a private citizen. In fact, you even gave up the chance to become a Supreme Court Justice. But instead, Bill Clinton sent you as a peace envoy to northern Ireland, and it took over the next five years of your life. Was it worth it?
MITCHELLYes. I love Ireland, northern Ireland. I love the people and the place. My father's parents were born there, but I never heard him mention the word because he was adopted by a non-Irish family. And so, my experience filled a void that I didn't even know existed. That is, in learning about my Irish heritage and it was a very difficult experience. Not much progress. Lot of people were killed before, and even while I was there. But in the end, we were able to get an agreement, and while it is imperfect there. It's still a segregated society.
MITCHELLTensions and problems still remain, but the brutal sectarian conflict has largely ended, and for that, I'm deeply grateful.
LAKSHMANANTell us about Claire Gallagher.
MITCHELLAfter we got the agreement, after it was approved in referendum, some of the dissidence from the IRA who wanted a -- 100 percent of their way, which is the British to leave completely rather than northern Ireland or any part of the United Kingdom. Set off a bomb in the town of Omagh in the western part of northern Ireland, a horrific tragedy. 29 people were killed, 330 were injured. Some severely maimed. A few days later, President Clinton asked me to accompany him to Omagh to meet with some of the survivors and the families of those who were killed.
MITCHELLAnd in one corner of a municipal auditorium, I met with several of them. One of them was a 15-year-old girl, Claire Gallagher, whose eyes had been blown out in the blast and she had two large, white patches on her face. Her face was cruelly scarred from the shrapnel, from the bomb that exploded. And she was wonderful and strong, despite the terrible tragedy that had occurred. And what she said to me was, don't stop. Keep going. You have to bring this to an end. And I thought to myself, at her moment of incredible tragedy, blinded for life, horribly scarred, she was thinking of others.
MITCHELLI've kept in touch with Claire since then, have seen her on several occasions. She's now married, has two beautiful children, working at the Royal Institute for the Blind in northern Ireland. And when my wife and I had a daughter, we talked about names and the name Claire reminded me of Claire Gallagher, so I have a beautiful young, 14-year-old daughter named Claire Mitchell.
LAKSHMANANWonderful. We have an email from Richard in Richmond, Virginia, who says that you were one of the many negotiators who tried and failed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Why have all these years of negotiations not worked and how can Netanyahu be brought back to the negotiating table? You know, it does raise the question, even with your negotiating skills, it didn't happen. Is Middle East peace impossible?
MITCHELLI don't think it's impossible. Keep in mind that the conflict in northern Ireland went on for 800 years and many thought that peace there was impossible. In fact, a week before we got the peace agreement, a public opinion poll published in northern Ireland reported that 83 percent of the people felt no agreement was possible. Only seven percent thought it was possible. 10 had no opinion. I believe there will be peace between Israelis and Palestinians and a two state solution, because it's so much in the interests of both societies.
MITCHELLI think ultimately, they'll come around to recognizing. The political leaders now don't trust each other, so they're unwilling to take risks with peace, because if they think it's going to fail, they don't want to subject themselves to domestic criticism for the concessions that they must make. Since both societies are divided on the subject, whoever takes a step for peace will be harshly criticized by the opposition within his or her society. But I think, ultimately, they'll recognize it.
MITCHELLI encourage everyone to read a speech given by President George W. Bush, given on January 9, 2000, 11 days before he left office, he was in Jerusalem, he made a very powerful speech, setting forth American policy and explaining why it is in the interest of both Israelis and Palestinians to reach an agreement. Israel has a state. They don't have security for their people. A lot of fear and anxiety. The Palestinians don't have a state. They want one. And President Bush pointed out that the only way the Palestinians are gonna get a state is if the Israelis have reasonable security.
MITCHELLAnd the only way they're going to get that security is if the Palestinians have a state, so they're each vested in the other's success. And I think that will come to be realized in time and I hope soon.
LAKSHMANANWe have a tweet from John who's asking, since you know him, he's asking you to give your honest assessment of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
MITCHELLI know him very well. He has very strong feelings and strong views regarding Israel's security. I regretted his statement just before the election in which he said that there wouldn't be a Palestinian state during his time in office. Because earlier, when I was there, we urged him to say he was for a two state solution, which he said. And at that time, I'm sorry to report, that almost all of the Palestinian and Arab leaders said that simply we don't believe him. We don't think he's serious. He's just saying that to placate the Americans.
MITCHELLAnd now this latest back and forth has caused them to say, basically, I told you so. But he is a strong leader. He's been elected by the people of Israel, and therefore, it is our obligation to work with him. We don't choose the leaders of other countries. We don't choose the President of Russia, the President of China, the Prime Minister of Canada or anybody else. We deal with whoever the people elect. And we have to do our best to persuade him, which we've been unable to do so far, but we have to keep at it, that this is in Israel's best interest.
MITCHELLPeace in the region, it doesn't make sense for Israel to be in a state of conflict with all of its neighbors in such a turbulent region at such a turbulent time with population trends moving dramatically in a manner contrary to Israel's interest. And I think the first step of a peace with the Palestinians that gave the Palestinians a state which would be, which would not have an army or a navy, would not pose a military threat to Israel, is the best way to go for both sides.
LAKSHMANANYou faced obstacles in the Middle East, but you've certainly had far more successes than failures as a negotiator. What are your guiding principles to share with us on how to get to yes?
MITCHELLWell, I think the first and most important point is you have to remember that the people who are involved in the conflict and the negotiation should be the owners of the process. It ought not to be a top down dictated process by me or any other outside figure. Whether me or the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom or anybody else. They're going to live there after this is over, and they have to be the ones that own the process and the result. Secondly, you have to have a lot of patience.
MITCHELLIt's very, very difficult, time consuming, demanding too let people have their say, and especially when you disagree with them. But I think in life, it's actually more important to actually listen hard to those who disagree with you than to those who agree with you. And that does take patience, perseverance, determination. I think it is important that we keep in mind that only the United States has the capacity to create the conditions and to assure implementation for achieving and going forward with an agreement in the Middle East. And so we have to stay at it, because it is in our interest, as well as the interests of the Israelis and the Palestinians.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." A thread that runs through this book is your notion of what it means to be an American.
MITCHELLWell, I regard myself as fortunate to be American. A citizen of what, despite its serious imperfections, remains to me the most open, the most just, the most free society in all of human history. And I believe that I have been able to live a very lucky life, in part because of my parents, and the helping hands of others, but also in large part because I had the good fortune to be born in this open society. And I think our great challenge doesn't come from ISIS or anywhere else. It comes from inside. And we have to make sure that every child in America has the same chance I had to get ahead.
MITCHELLIn America, nobody should be guaranteed success, but every single person should have a fair chance to succeed. And we should draw on the talents of everybody. There's a lot of debate about immigration. All the debate is about keeping people out. We ought to focus on getting the right people in. Think of this, Steve Jobs' father was born in Syria. Jeff Bezos' adoptive parents came from Cuba. Would we be a better country if Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos hadn't been born here because their parents weren't let in?
MITCHELLThink of it. Apple and Amazon. It's incredible. Genius knows no boundary. It knows no ethnicity. It knows no religion. It knows no language. But they can flourish here, because we have freedom, because the highest value in our country is individual liberty, where people can do what they want, say what they want, go where they want, and we have to make sure that we continue to draw on the talent of every single person in our society.
LAKSHMANANLet's take a call from Selena in Jacksonville, Florida. Selena, you're on the air.
SELENAHi. Senator Mitchell, thank you so much for taking my question. So, I'm -- it's great to be able to talk to someone who I've only studied about in History textbooks. So, you mentioned that growing up and going to college was a huge transition for you and it was something that your parents had always wanted you to do. So, I'm actually a high school senior right now, and I will be going to college in D.C. at Georgetown this fall. So, do you have any advice for me and all the other seniors graduating this year and moving on to the next stage of their life? Do you have any advice about how to make the most of my undergraduate experience?
LAKSHMANANAll right. Thank you, Selena.
MITCHELLWell, first, you're very fortunate. It's a truly great school. I went to Georgetown Law School, not the undergraduate, but the undergraduate school's one of the finest in the country. Make the most of your years there. The first challenge will be in your freshman year. And I'll talk about my experience and you will know how much it applies to you. I didn't do well in my first year in college. Because it's the first time I had been completely independent. And I didn't have enough discipline and restraint to resist some of the temptations of independence.
MITCHELLSo, going to the movies with the guys, playing cards, engaging in a bull session. That took my time and effort instead of my studies. Be careful in the first year, if this is the first year that you have independence from home, to act with some restraint, and take independence in slow, healthy doses, rather than all at once. That would be my advice to you. Study hard and I'm sure you're going to do very well.
LAKSHMANANWe only have a short time left. You've had a remarkable life, but you also say that chance is a fickle dictator that sets our path. So, what's the message that you want people to take away from this book?
MITCHELLIn your life, there will arise occasions, opportunities, problems that you could not possibly foresee. Prepare for them. You can't prepare for the specific incident, but anticipate that occasions will arise that you cannot foresee, and be prepared to take a risk. That's what I would say. Have a plan, but be flexible and deviate from that plan when necessary. When I left the security of a federal judgeship to go to the Senate and what looked like certain defeat in the next election, I had many people tell me to my face I was crazy and stupid. And at times, I thought I was, but it turned out to be the right decision.
LAKSHMANANSenator George Mitchell, what a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks so much for joining us.