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Ron Chernow's Introduction of Senator George Mitchell at the 2013 Fall Benefit

Ron Chernow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, delivered a special introduction of Senator George Mitchell at the the 2013 Humanity in Action Benefit. Senator George Mitchell and President Jacques Chirac, represented by his daughter Mme Claude Chirac, were honored at the Consulate General of France in New York City on Thursday, November 14, 2013.

I am very pleased to introduce tonight’s honoree, George Mitchell. It seems only fitting and proper that Humanity in Action should honor diplomacy in action in the person of George Mitchell. Nowadays, it sometimes seems as if the true public servant—who serves the community rather than his own ambition—has become an endangered species. In fact, there are now so many disincentives to public service—a bitterly partisan atmosphere, an often strident press, a total lack of privacy, a corrosive public cynicism, and the need for non-stop fundraising—that it’s something of a small miracle when a person of distinction emerges from our chaotic political culture. And such a person are we celebrating tonight. 

How to introduce a man who has led such an amazingly eventful life? George Mitchell has worn enough hats in his career to fill up a good-sized shop window. So let me, being a biographer, quickly sketch in some background.

He is a former altar boy from a working class family in Maine. His Irish father was a janitor and his Lebanese-born mother a textile worker; as a teenager, George himself performed stints as a janitor. (And here I am tempted to joke that this prepared him for dealing with obstructions in Washington, but I will refrain from the obvious tasteless puns.) He got his B.A. from Bowdoin College, in Maine, then whirled into the orbit of Washington politics when he attended Georgetown University Law School. Upon graduating, he landed a job with the Justice Department and then acquired a powerful political patron, becoming executive assistant to Maine Senator Edmund Muskie—who, I must say, looked pretty good at the time and even better in retrospect.

Mr. Mitchell was then swiftly catapulted upward. President Carter named him U.S. Attorney for Maine and a U.S. District Judge before he was appointed in 1980 to serve out the unexpired Senate term of Edmund Muskie, who’d become Secretary of State. In 1982, and again in 1988, he was elected to the Senate by overwhelming margins. On the strength of his intelligence, dedication, and integrity, he ranked as Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995. Believe it or not, people in those days actually accomplished things in Washington—they didn’t just rant and posture—and George Mitchell’s legislative feats ran the gamut from the Americans with Disabilities Act to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The American Conservative Union, incidentally, gave him a damning score of zero on a scale of 100—something that, I suspect, will count as perfection with this audience. Yet he has also been a living symbol of bipartisanship, joining with other former Senate majority leaders in 2007 to form the Bipartisan Policy Center. The very name of the place makes one want to break down and weep with nostalgia.

But here comes the most interesting part. Where other politicians retire to the golf course or the lecture circuit, George Mitchell has dedicated his post-Senate career to conflict resolution around the world. In fact, his name has become synonymous with arbitration in many troubled hot spots. And he has been effective because of his unassuming and consistently professional manner. No grandstanding, no chest-thumping, no pandering, no “look at me” attitude. Instead of the ugly American or the imperialistic American or the swaggering American, he has given us the humane and dedicated American, who seizes the moral high ground and promotes not simply American interests, but America’s loftiest values.

I’ve gotten very interested in this transition from politician to global statesman while researching my current biography of Ulysses S. Grant, who has been badly caricatured as a narrow and provincial president who oversaw a corrupt and crony-ridden administration. But Grant had a high-minded, international perspective that was remarkable for an inward-looking America in the 19th century. He spoke out against the persecution of Jews in both Russia and Romania at a time when protest in the name of human rights was scorned as interference in their domestic affairs by foreign governments. And after his presidency, when he made a much-publicized trip around the world, Grant engaged in his own form of freelance diplomacy between China and Japan, who were then feuding over possession of some offshore islands—a role that, of course, foreshadows the work of Teddy Roosevelt, who mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese war and won the Nobel Peace Prize for it in 1906.

George Mitchell stands solidly in this noble tradition. Far from shying away from controversy, he has been fearless and deliberately taken on the tough issues. He was President Clinton’s envoy for Northern Ireland and presided over the Good Friday agreement of 1998, for which he won the presidential Medal of Freedom. Characteristically, he didn’t just get his toes wet in Northern Ireland, but plunged right into the surf. For a full ten years, he was chancellor of Queen’s University in Belfast, becoming part of the very fabric of that community’s life. 

Perhaps inevitably, George Mitchell was recruited to resolve that most intractable of disputes, the one between the Israelis and Palestinians. In 2002 he published the conclusions of a fact-finding mission, which managed to be both blunt and even-handed. He chided the Israelis for expanding settlements but also the Palestinians for failing to restrain violence by militants. It was a delicate, high-wire act that he performed with consummate skill and that has typified his career.

As you all know, in 2009, President Obama appointed him as special envoy for the Arab-Israeli peace process—a perhaps thankless mission that he handled gracefully for two years. We can scarcely fault him for not finding a magical solution to that tortured situation, but can only salute him for having made such an honorable effort.

With everything I’ve said, I’m still leaving out huge chunks of this man’s life—the World Justice Project, the chairmanship of Walt Disney, the 2007 report on the rampant use of steroids in major league baseball, etc., etc. if I were to list everything that George Mitchell has accomplished, we would still be sitting here in the wee hours, nodding off over our French wine.

Let me close by quoting something that George Mitchell said that closely echoes a line of Franklin Roosevelt and might almost serve as his credo. It seems the perfect antidote to the despair gripping the world today: “I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. They’re created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.” How can Humanity in Action not revere and honor such a man? 

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