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George Mitchell Tells His Favorite Tales in New Memoir

Warner, left, and Mitchell share a laugh with Mitchell's wife at the Mitchell portrait unveiling. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Warner, left, and Mitchell share a laugh with Mitchell's wife at the Mitchell portrait unveiling. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Not long after George J. Mitchell gave up a federal judgeship in Maine for an appointment to the Senate, he found himself sleeping on a cot.  

The Maine Democrat who would go on to become majority leader writes in a new memoir out Tuesday, published by Simon & Schuster, that an old-fashioned all-night filibuster followed shortly after his arrival, the kind that in 1980 meant senators would have to catch naps on cots not far from the Senate floor.  

“I had been a dignified person in a black robe; now, here I was, lying on a narrow, uncomfortable cot in my suit with a bunch of old men in suits, while a few senators spent the whole night on the Senate floor talking but saying little,” Mitchell writes. “I began to feel a sense of regret, even self-pity, when I rolled over on the cot and looked, on the next cot, directly into the sleeping face of Senator John Warner of Virginia.  

“After a few minutes of wallowing in self-pity I thought, ‘Who am I to feel sorry for myself? There, just a few inches away from me is a man who could be home, legally in bed with Elizabeth Taylor, but who instead is spending the night with me.'”  

Such anecdotes and vignettes — Warner was the sixth of Taylor’s seven husbands — dot the aptly-named “The Negotiator,” highlighting Mitchell’s life story, from his upbringing in Maine through military service and the many other assignments of adulthood.  

Just getting an education beyond high school was a challenge. In the memoir, Mitchell recalls the story of hitchhiking from his home in Waterville south to Brunswick, a trip that takes almost an hour on the modern interstate.  

“One of the luckiest days in my life was the day I first walked onto the campus at Bowdoin College,” he writes, expanding on how the director of admissions and a succession of teachers and coaches helped him cobble together the part-time jobs needed in those days to work his way through the liberal arts college.  

In many ways, the memoir reads like stories Mitchell might tell a class of incoming freshmen at Bowdoin, and he writes in an author’s note that it is not intended to be comprehensive. He has already documented the Iran-Contra controversy and the Northern Ireland peace process in other writings, with still another book planned on his work in the Middle East.  

With his many post-Senate projects — from peace negotiations to the board of directors at the Walt Disney Company to investigating steroid usage in Major League Baseball — Mitchell’s stories about life in the Senate and as majority leader appear relatively early in the book.  

That includes the battle of the year in 1990, the revisions to the Clean Air Act. His recounting starts with a bid by Appropriations Chairman Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., to amend it in a way favorable to his home state’s coal industry that would have effectively upended the environmental regulations.  

Mitchell recalled that some senators admitted to being reluctant to oppose Byrd because of quite practical concerns, “I just can’t take a chance on this one. I’ve got a big project pending in Appropriations.”  

As the story goes, Mitchell and Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas (working together) were two votes short of killing Byrd’s amendment. Dole had to cajole Steve Symms, R-Idaho, while Mitchell needed to convince none other than Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr., of Delaware.  

Mitchell also discusses his dealings with two leaders on the bill from across the Rotunda, the recently retired Democratic Reps. John D. Dingell of Michigan and Henry A. Waxman of California, whom Mitchell described succinctly as “dissimilar in size, approach, and outlook on issues,” before saying both men will be judged favorably for their mastery of the legislative process and representing their respective constituencies.  

In the end of course, the House and Senate agreed to a conference report and the bill was signed into law by President George Bush, who had made it a priority.  

Mitchell also writes a bit about his entrance in the race for majority leader, just after winning a second full-term in the Senate in what was a contested battle against a pair of more senior senators, Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii and J. Bennett Johnston Jr., of Louisiana.  

While Mitchell technically came one vote short of the needed margin on the first ballot, Johnston and Inouye moved to give the job to Mitchell rather than continue to a second ballot.  

The memoir provides a window into the behind-the-scenes conversations behind a Senate leadership race, from the initial push from a pair of well-known Finance Committee Democrats, Max Baucus of Montana and Bill Bradley of New Jersey, through the process of building up support and securing commitments, as well as the fear of a surprise loss on the secret ballot, as was the fate of Rep. Morris K. Udall, D-Ariz., in earlier House leadership contests.  

“The difference between a caucus and a cactus is that on a cactus the pricks are on the outside,” is the Udall line quoted by Mitchell, who ultimately had nothing to fear.  

It may serve as a good reminder for anyone pondering entry into the Democratic leadership contests that memories can be long. Mitchell says one of his colleagues did renege on a commitment. And all these years later, Mitchell still will not reveal which senator that was.  

“I assured him that I would never disclose his name to anyone. I never have. His name will go with me to my grave,” Mitchell writes. “He went on to an outstanding career in the Senate, and I served for six difficult but exciting years as majority leader.”  

The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

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