As part of the Distinguished Speakers Series, former Senator George Mitchell spoke about his time in the Senate, his investigation into steroid use in baseball and the threats the world faces at the Mondavi Center Wednesday night.
“There isn’t a man, woman, or child that doesn’t trust George Mitchell,” said Don Roth, Executive Director of the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, in his introduction of the former senator.
Mitchell was the U.S. Senate Majority Leader for six years before his retirement in 1995, the main investigator in the steroids scandal in Major League Baseball, as well as the successful mediator between Catholics and Presbyterians in Northern Ireland for which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
After serving in the Senate, Mitchell went back to practicing private law and currently is the chair of the global board of the international law firm DLA Piper and serves as the chancellor of The Queen’s University in Northern Ireland.
“I will not be talking about my years in the Senate,” Senator Mitchell said. “I don’t want to make a false impression that I didn’t love the Senate – I did – but there’s just so many other to topics to cover.”
Senator Mitchell began his political career as a federal judge in Maine. In 1980, when Senator Edmund S. Muskie left the Senate to become Secretary of State, the Governor of Maine appointed him as his successor. Senator Mitchell recalled that night for the audience.
“On that Sunday, I went to bed wondering ‘what was the governor going to do’ and at 11 that night, I got a call and it was the governor,” Mitchell said. “He told me he wanted me to come down to the State Capitol so he could announce that I was to be the Senator. I said I needed time to think about it and asked how long do I have. He said one hour.”
Senator Mitchell did not want to join the Senate without first talking to his family and receiving their input. He decided to call his brothers, who, as he explained, used to be the jocks while Senator Mitchell was remembered as ‘Johnny Mitchell’s kid brother who isn’t any good’ in the small town they grew up in.
“I called my brothers and told them the governor called – what do you think about that?” he said. “Their responses were predictably negative – my brother Johnny said ‘everyone knows you are a born loser, no one can understand how you came to become a federal judge and you couldn’t possibly win a statewide election.”
After uproarious laughter, Senator Mitchell finished his story by explaining that he called the Governor right after his brothers’ phone calls.
“I said [to the Governor], ‘Governor, I don’t need an hour. I received all the reassurance that I need,” he said.
Senator Mitchell shifted his lecture to discuss baseball and his approval of MLB’s actions during the investigation.
“The Major League Baseball and the commissioner have not been recognized for the courage for [asking for] an outside investigation,” he said.
Instead of having its own organization conduct the investigation, the MLB specifically asked Senator Mitchell to look into the problem and report whatever and however he wanted. His findings became the Mitchell Report, which claims to have evidence against 89 players for steroid or prohibited substance use.
Senator Mitchell said the press seemed to overlook a key issue during the scandal that lay outside the realm of the professionals – 2 to 6 percent of high school aged Americans use steroids.
“It’s one thing for a fully adult male or female to use drugs, [but] it’s a completely another for teenagers,” he said.
He then spoke about global issues, outlining six dangers in the world today and the need for the United States to be the forerunner in solving those problems.
Senator Mitchell warned that the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons is a threat to everyone. He said currently nine countries have nuclear capabilities, with Iran aiming to be the tenth.
He also spoke extensively on terrorism and the increase of terrorist groups that are less centrally controlled. Some terrorist groups are political and open conversation can be had to lessen violence but others are not.
“There is no such thing as a war on terrorism because terror is a tactic, not an enemy,” he said. “We need more effective counterterrorist program [because] the military is not enough.”
Mitchell also commented on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and rising hostility towards Americans around the world.
“Our power is the greatest it has ever been, but lowest in [world] standing [that] it has ever been,” he said. “The U.S. was a great nation before it was a great military and economy power.”
Lastly, Senator Mitchell said the international competition for energy independence and climate change are also worldwide threats.
“We don’t like knowledge [about climate change] but we need political power to do what’s necessary,” Mitchell said.
After the Senate, Senator Mitchell went to Belfast, Ireland in hopes of lessening the violence between the two religions. The economy’s recession had increased the amount of violence between the two religious groups and he hoped to make successful leaps to peace in the region.
“People need income and meaning to their life,” Senator Mitchell said. “People need hope.”
During the question and answer portion of the night, Senator Mitchell explained that his greatest accomplishment was not the peace keeping in Ireland, but his scholarship foundation. Every year, his foundation awards one scholarship to every high school in Maine for either a two-year or four-year college. His parents could not afford to receive an education and he sees it as most rewarding to allow teenagers to achieve that goal.
Senator Mitchell ended the night with a story about when he was a federal judge. As one of his duties, he conducted naturalization ceremonies for non-native Americans to become official citizens. It was very emotional for him as he was the son of immigrants and afterwards would always talk to each of them individually about their lives and why they were here.
“One man told me, ‘Here in America, everybody has a chance,'” he said.
NICK MARKWITH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.