Mitchell biography shares icon’s remarkable journey

Many people in Maine, in the United States, indeed around the world, believe they know George Mitchell. They can recite his accomplishments as a prosecutor, federal judge, Senate majority leader, and later, his reputation as the man who brought peace to Northern Ireland and attempted to do so in the Middle East. In a process that Mitchell himself sometimes cites as preparing him for the task at hand in Ireland, he spent years working with dozens of small towns and nongovernmental organizations to craft legislation that eventually set a permanent boundary for Acadia National Park.

He is without question a leading public figure in Maine, indeed of our time.

Mitchell, unlike so many current politicians, has never been one to trade on his personal narrative, the story of how he got to where he is today. For a public figure, he has remained steadfastly reserved about details of his private life. For Mitchell, it has never been about him. It always has been about the political and environmental issues of the day, the problems at hand.

And how he dealt with those issues is well documented in the books from his own hand, including “Men of Zeal,” which he co-wrote with former Senator and Defense Secretary William Cohen, as well as “World on Fire: Saving an Endangered Earth,” “Making Peace” and “The Negotiator: A Memoir.”

So despite his impressive legislative, political and diplomatic resume, what most of us know is where Mitchell has been, but not how he got there. It has been a long road from a tenement in Waterville where he was born during the depths of the Great Depression to an impressive house atop the hill in the rarified environs of Seal Harbor.

Douglas Rooks

Douglas Rooks

Now, with “Statesman,” by Douglas Rooks, the story of the path George Mitchell has walked, not just his list of destinations, is much more clear.

Of particular interest to political junkies will be chapters detailing Mitchell’s early forays into law practice and Maine politics and the connections he forged early with other leading Democrats, including Harold Pachios, Joe Brennan, Ken Curtis, Tom Allen and Tom Andrews.

Rooks devoted considerable time to the years Mitchell spent working with the legendary Sen. Edmund Muskie. It is easy to see Muskie’s influence on the gestation of Mitchell’s calm, self-effacing style, which did not come to the latter naturally. Rooks skillfully employed a quote from law school professor and political gadfly Orlando DeLogu to sum up Mitchell’s wooden attempt to be elected governor, running against independent Jim Longley.

“Your television spots strike many of the people I speak to and myself as sterile in the extreme. There is seldom any humor, you are seldom smiling. Though these TV spots are no doubt accurate, they come out canned. You come out much less lifeless than you, in fact, are.”

Over the years, of course, Mitchell learned from those mistakes, becoming a formidable campaigner. Rooks even dishes on the origination of some of Mitchell’s standard opening lines and jokes.

No great statesman gets to where they are without an incredible staff, and Rooks helped shed welcome light on their efforts as well. Many of Mitchell’s top aides were along for his entire Senate career, and it is nice to see the hard work of such stalwarts as Clyde MacDonald, Mary McAleney, Estelle Lavoie and Martha Pope acknowledged in “Statesman.”

Rooks, as any biographer would, included chapters on each of Mitchell’s political and diplomatic accomplishments. Where Mitchell and others have written entire books on those subjects, he wisely avoided replowing tilled ground, instead offering insight into what was going on behind the scenes at the time. Other chapters clearly show the senator’s continued quiet dedication to improving the lives of the people of Maine, including coverage of the impressive accomplishments to date of Mitchell’s scholarship fund.

At times, Rooks’ writing skirts the edge of being too thick; voluminous facts, like trees, so densely packed as to limit the amount of air and light allowed in. That comes, no doubt, from his years of writing editorials and analysis pieces for newspapers such as the Kennebec Journal and Maine Times, where he also served as publisher. He’s used to having a generous amount of ink to get the reader from point A to point B, and, dressing out at nearly 600 pages, “Statesman” takes no shortcuts in that regard.

But the book’s length also is the result of having to wrestle with a veritable mountain of material generated from Rooks’ exhaustive research. He enjoyed the full cooperation of Mitchell and interviewed literally hundreds of associates and many family members. Keeping track of all those dates, times and names and being able to weave them into the social and political context of those times is a remarkable scholarly achievement.

Reached at his home last week, Sen. Mitchell said he is about a third of the way through “Statesman.” He explained he has enjoyed discovering long-forgotten anecdotes and stories that Rooks turned up. “I’ve known and respected Doug for many years,” Sen. Mitchell said. “He’s done a very thorough job of research.”

Sen. Mitchell, who just completed the manuscript for his fifth book, (due out in November, about the Middle East), said that he plans on finishing “Statesman,” in the near future now that his scheduled has eased.

In the introduction to “Statesman,” Sen. Angus King talks about what he sees as the qualities that made Mitchell such an effective leader. “The first is that leadership is not magic, not some mysterious elixir which, if drunk at birth, instills the ability to move people in one direction or another,” he wrote. “It is instead, a complicated series of personality and character traits which, when found in the right combination at the right time, can make a business successful, lead to victory on the battlefield, or even bend the arc of history.”

Rooks pointed out that for all Mitchell’s impressive accomplishments, his career in public service spanned just over 20 years of his life. To fully understand the heights of those accomplishments, it is necessary to view them in the context of his formative years. And that is exactly what Rooks does with “Statesman,” sharing, as King pointed out, the full arc of Mitchell’s success.

Author appearances

“Statesman” author Douglas Rooks will be in Down East Maine later this summer for a radio show and book signings.

He is slated to be on WERU on Friday, Aug. 12, at 10 a.m. He is scheduled to do a reading at the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor that same evening at 7 p.m.

Rooks will return to Mount Desert Island on Tuesday, Sept. 20, for a 4 p.m. talk at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

Earl Brechlin

Earl Brechlin

Editor at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander editor Earl Brechlin first discovered Mount Desert Island 35 years ago and never left. The author of seven guide and casual history books, he is a Registered Maine Guide and has served as president of the Maine and New England Press Associations. He and his wife live in Bar Harbor.
Earl Brechlin

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