Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell has been making the rounds of the author promotion circuit this summer following the release of his latest book, “The Negotiator.”
Those, however, who are looking for his latest missive to be a dry and scholarly recitation of his well-documented diplomatic service in Northern Ireland and the Middle East are bound to be disappointed. In that minor respect, the title may be a bit of a misnomer.
Mitchell’s book, which is dedicated to his mother, Mary, is warm, open and shares some deeply personal stories about his growing up poor in Waterville, his early career in law and politics, as well as adventures overseas including a chance encounter with Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman on a foggy night on a bridge over the Seine in Paris.
In short, it’s a personal journey, a glimpse into George Mitchell, the kid from Maine, the man, rather than just Majority Leader Mitchell, the legend. We learn about his service with an Army Intelligence Unit in Berlin at the height of the cold war, going about his job, sometimes in plain clothes, with a pistol concealed under his jacket while watching the back door while on a stakeout. “Although I had trouble staying awake when I worked as a night watchman at the paper mill two years earlier, I was wide awake this night as every sound raised an alarm in my mind,” he writes.
They are the chapters about Mitchell’s early years growing up literally on the wrong side of the tracks in a gritty mill town in a close-knit and loving family, sneaking across the Two-Penny footbridge over the Kennebec to avoid paying the toll, eventually finding his athletic legs as a Bowdoin College basketball player that provide the keenest insight into the wellspring of Mitchell’s wisdom. There were plenty of triumphs and sorrows along the way. In typical Mitchell fashion, the triumphs are underplayed, the sorrows only hinted at. Although the spotlight frequently falls upon him, it has never been at his insistence or direction. It’s hard with that kind of ingrained humility to write about oneself instead of the arena and swirl of events. Yet Mitchell manages to pull it off.
For Maine political junkies, there’s plenty in “The Negotiator” to pique their interest. Mitchell writes about his relationships with the pantheon of Maine’s top Democrats including his mentor, Senator and later Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, Harold Pachios, Joe Brennan, Kenneth Curtis and more. Fortunately for those whose loyalties lie on the proverbial “other side of the aisle,” he had plenty of Republican friends as well.
His work as a prosecutor and later a federal judge in Maine is also covered.
All, of course, is not lost for foreign affairs junkies. While some chapters share stories of his years in Northern Ireland negotiating the peace accord there, he devotes much more space to the frustrations and difficulties of trying to repeat that success in the Middle East.
But again, it’s the personal snippets that are the most fascinating. He shares how his work on getting Most Favored Nation trade status for Romania led to a tennis match with the great Ilie Nastase and how that later set up his meeting, and the wooing, of his wife Heather MacLachlan.
Mitchell also discusses the cordial and respectful relationship he had with Senator Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican who was minority leader when Mitchell led the senate.
“When the Senate was in session, we met and talked several times a day. We occasionally had lunch or dinner together. We represented different parties with different political philosophies,” Mitchell writes.
“We negotiated hundreds of agreements on Senate business and procedures. We discussed, debated and voted on hundreds of issues, some of them extremely contentious. We often disagreed. But not once did a harsh word ever pass between us in public or in private. I kept my word to him, and he kept his word to me.”
Perhaps that chapter alone ought to be mandatory reading in the current Congress.
Mitchell, who now has a house in Seal Harbor here on Mount Desert Island, includes a chapter on the island, unabashedly calling it the most beautiful place on Earth. In it, he shares an amusing anecdote about antics of “people from away” during a wait to use a pay phone at the Jordan Pond House in which most Mainers will undoubtedly share an affinity. Also in that chapter, he summarizes the arc of his life that stretches from the slums of Waterville to a stately home overlooking the ocean. And in it, characteristically, he brings the reader back to his youth, his mother, her love, her sacrifices, her belief in America that served as the foundation for his.
But what does all that have to do with an encounter with a luminescent Ingrid Bergman? Mitchell explains he came across the movie star, who was famously featured in the classic “Casablanca,” with a small film crew on that foggy bridge. As he stood there watching with just a handful of people, the actress approached him.
“Although dressed in a long, shabby coat with a kerchief over her head, with little or no makeup, she was as beautiful in person as she had been on the screen,” Mitchell writes. “She walked right up to me, pulled out a cigarette, and said, ‘Do you have a light?'”
Mitchell, of course, has never smoked and did not have a lighter or matches. Still, he went through the motions of searching for some before admitting he couldn’t help. She turned to another man nearby.
“What a missed opportunity!” Mitchell writes. “For several years thereafter, I made it a point to carry matches whenever I went out just in case I ran into Ingrid Bergman again. But of course, I never did.”
Thanks to Ingrid Berman, Mitchell always will have a wonderful memory of Paris. And as he shares in “The Negotiator,” his life arguably has been more interesting than any feature film ever could depict.
Meet George Mitchell
Senator George Mitchell will speak about his newly published memoir, “Negotiator: Reflections on an American Life,” at the Northeast Harbor Library on Thursday, Aug. 13, at 5:30 p.m.
This talk is free and open to the public, but space is limited. Call 276-3333.
Mitchell will appear at Sherman’s Bookstore on Monday, Aug. 17, from 7-9 p.m. to meet readers and autograph books. Call 288-3161.