A further look at the new George Mitchell biography

10 mins read
Paul H. Mills
Paul H. Mills

By Paul Mills

My last column was the first part of a review of what will likely be the most comprehensive published study of the remarkable career of Maine’s George Mitchell.

When an author like Rooks sets out to cover such a broad subject, there’s always a risk of mishaps in the process of assembling the product. This is particularly true if one has themes that one is ardently trying to press into service in the process.

One such mindset that gives rise to some factual casualties is the perception Rooks brings to the book that Mitchell’s advancement occurred here at the dawn of an era when Maine voters were only for the first time supporting such public figures who were in Mitchell’s case, from an ethnic background, or who, like Angus King, were originally from outside the state.

Rooks casts undeserved aspersions on the Maine electorate when trying to make this point. This he does by asserting that only upon Angus King’s 1994 election did Maine elect a governor born out of state. In fact, King was the 6th non Maine native to have been popularly elected governor.

George Mitchell as a senator
George Mitchell as a senator

Another example is the 1960 election, when the state voted for Nixon over John F. Kennedy. Rooks attributes this to anti-Catholic bigotry. It’s an inference which is by no means unique to this book that nevertheless overlooks the success in the three immediately previous elections of the Catholic son of a Polish immigrant, Edmund Muskie, and the fact that Kennedy carried some of the most Protestant states in the nation.

Another place where the author’s attempt to make a point winds up tripping over some factual foundations is his desire to overstate the success of the state’s Democratic party in the 1950’s and 60’s era during Mitchell’s initial involvement in it. It’s a train of thought that seeks to throw to the curb the achievements of the party in the pre-Muskie-Mitchell era. Maine’s Depression era leader of the party, Lewiston’s Louis Brann, for example, is belittled as having been elected governor in 1932 “in the FDR landslide,” in effect attributing Brann’s success to merely riding coattails of the party’s standard bearer. Roosevelt, however, lost Maine that year in an election that in any event occurred two months after Brann, a charismatic former mayor of the state’s second largest city, had already been chosen in his own right. (Our state elections were two months before the presidential at that time). This was also in a time when two of the state’s three U.S. House Districts wound up electing Democrats, with the third following suit in 1934.

The tendency to give subsequent Maine Democrats of the Muskie and Mitchell era a “first ever” pinnacle also shows up when Rooks recites that the party had never elected a U.S. Senator until then. In fact, two had been elected earlier in the century. He also cites the Democratic capture of the Maine legislature in 1964 – at the time when Mitchell was a manager of Muskie’s re-election – as the first time the party had won control since the Civil War when it in fact was the third.

The book also casts aside another Maine political landmark when in a discussion of Mitchell’s role in the 1986 U.S. Senate election of Barbara Mikulski of Maryland it claims the race as the first when two women opposed each other for such a position. Instead, that distinction was won 26-years earlier by the Maine U.S. Senate contest between Margaret Chase Smith and Lucia Cormier.

Mitchell certainly should be credited with helping Mikulski win but in so doing Rooks recites her victory as the first by a Democratic woman to the Senate when at least two other female Democrats had also been elected to such positions.

Though the book is occasionally beset with these and other misplaced or exaggerated factual underpinnings, Mitchell does of course deserve the recognition to which his career has entitled him and overall the insights are fascinating and well expressed.

Rooks reminds us, for example, how well suited Mitchell’s character trait of tenacity was to the diplomatic arena. “In Northern Ireland I had several hundred days of failure and one day of success,” he quotes Mitchell as saying.

The book is full of such direct quotations from Mitchell himself. This is of course as it should be. Where it sometimes also goes off the track is its over-reliance on quotations from more peripheral figures who are sometimes given to unduly impressionistic observations.

Though the biography would have moved a little faster if some of the nuances were not so painstakingly brought into focus by third parties who in some instances were only remotely associated with Mitchell, it’s also true, as John Quincy Adams once reminded us, that “Posterity delights in details.”

Thus befitting a figure who has stood astride so prominently the international stage we are thus treated to such insights as Mitchell’s childhood interest in Captain Marvel comic books, his youthful diet of goat’s milk, the name of his college girlfriend and why the relationship ended.

Details closer to our own time include a peak into how his meticulous and competitive character expresses itself in his command of tennis. What Mitchell did in Manhattan during the 9-11 attacks is another instance of the detail for which the hunger of most readers would be satisfied.

The length of the 532 page book is of course to a great extent justified. This is due to the multitude of seemingly disparate interests and institutions that interface Mitchell’s professional life. It’s hard to explain his role as investigating drug use in baseball without first shedding light on Mitchell’s personal passion for the sport and then going on to discuss the organization of major league baseball itself.

The book also earns its place on the shelves of those about Maine icons when it provides long over-due recognition for some of Mitchell’s actions that went unnoticed or under-reported by the media when they occurred. An example of this is Mitchell’s early 1980’s floor speech against the nuclear arms build-up.

Another is Mitchell’s own book World on Fire, on the environmental crisis, one that was overshadowed by Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance.

The most enduring Maine based legacy, the scholarship program Mitchell founded, is another example.

It’s of course too early to tell whether the book will ever be surpassed in the length and detail which Rooks devotes to his esteemed subject. It’s not too early, however, to hopefully adjust some of the focus and misapprehensions on which the book is based even though it is so far the most that has been published between two covers on one of the political and diplomatic geniuses of our time.

Paul Mills is a Farmington Attorney well known for his analyses and historic understanding of public affairs in Maine; He can be reached by email at pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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