Peacemaker talks of building a better life
For a man who has been in the middle of trying to bring peace to Northern Ireland, still not accomplished, and written a peace program for Israel and the Palestine, where peace is not even on the horizon, George Mitchell is his old, unflappable self.
His composure is possibly a leftover from his days as U.S. Senate majority leader. Mitchell spoke Thursday at the University of Nevada, Reno, Fund for Excellence Lecture series.
Former Sen. Richard Bryan offered praise for his one-time colleague, the former senator and Senate majority leader from Maine in the 1980s and 1990s, but Mitchell turned to humor at once.
Mitchell recalled when he has first joined the Senate after serving as a federal judge in Maine in 1980.
“I caught a midnight train for Washington, got there, took a taxi to the Congress, walked in during a debate and took the oath of office,” Mitchell said. “Fifteen minutes later I cast my first vote, after being told by the staff of Sen. Edmund Muskie, whom I was replacing, how to vote.
“I was then told that I should take my regular seat. As I did so all the other senators rushed out of the chamber and left me alone. It seemed a filibuster was in progress and I was the lone spectator.”
Mitchell sat through speaker after speaker, he recalled, before finally being told that a cot was set up for him in an adjoining room.
“So I went there and they pointed out my cot which was against a wall. To get to it I had to climb over bodies, the first of which was that of Ted Kennedy. And you all know how big Ted Kennedy is.”
Mitchell paused as laughter resounded.
“And then I had to get over Jesse Helms, and you all know how Helms is about heterosexual relations … but I made it.”
Mitchell, who had met with students earlier Thursday, turned to his work in Ireland, where he created the Good Friday pact or as it is also called the Belfast Accord.
“Ireland is a beautiful country, an advanced society where literacy is higher than it is in the United States. But it’s a bitter, sectarian war there between the Catholics and the Protestants. In my first meeting with the two sides I said I wasn’t there to offer an American solution to the crisis but an Irish solution.
“The two years of talks that followed were the most demanding of my life. And while it is not over, there is a war weariness that has settled in and I think that is what will finally bring peace to Northern Ireland.
“But for real peace there must be a change in people’s minds. Peace and stability must become the most important issues. I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended.”
His talk then turned to the Mideast, where he has worked to form a policy for the Bush Administration. He said he recently visited Israel and met with Ariel Sharon, the country’s leader.
“What Sharon said to me is that the current high level of violence cannot continue, life is unbearable.
“I later talked with Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat and he spoke in the same terms. I think war weariness has set in there as well. But there’s a fantasy world on both sides at work. That has to end.”
Mitchell said the U.S. remains the most significant player in the Mideast situation, although the European Union must play a role.
Finally, Mitchell told his audience of 500 donors and doers for UNR the solution in the Mideast hinges on three qualities of life almost all share.
“There must be an income that is sufficient to sustain life. There must be real hope that the citizens there be able to do something with their lives other than carry suicide bombs or drive tanks into homes. And there must be a a belief that their children will be able to have a decent start in life.
“Without those things, with the rise of the lone Islamic suicide bomber and the destruction of Arafat’s quarters by the Israelis, there is little basis for optimism in the Holy Lands.
“But as long as there are negotiations continuing, there is hope.”
Mitchell received a standing ovation from the audience before he went off to join Bryan to relive old Senate days.