AUGUSTA — Former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell told family, friends and state legislators Tuesday that he is fortunate to have received many awards and honors during his life, but by far the greatest were serving the people of Maine in the U.S. Senate and as a U.S. attorney and U.S. District Court judge.
Mitchell’s remarks followed the unveiling of his official portrait in the Hall of Flags at the State House. He said it was humbling to know the portrait will hang with those of important Mainers including U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Maine’s first governor, William King and former governor, U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie.
“For me, this really is dancing with the stars,” said Mitchell, who grew up in Waterville.
His portrait, by Ireland-based artist James Hanley, was donated by Mitchell’s family and friends and will hang in the Hall of Flags. Hanley also painted a portrait of Mitchell for Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where Mitchell served 10 years as chancellor.
In a speech to state senators and representatives before the unveiling Tuesday, Mitchell, 80, spoke of the importance of public service, which he said is at times a thankless task but also among the most notable endeavors one can undertake.
This is a time, he said, when the inability of elected officials to work together at the national level to deal with problems facing the country – unemployment, underemployment and the country’s ongoing emergency from a long and severe recession – has led to a decline in public confidence.
He offered this advice to legislators: Learning to listen, being patient and respecting those with whom one disagrees can help reduce the polarization and hostility that make it difficult to work together.
The former Senate majority leader, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize after negotiating Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement in 1998, told legislators that learning to listen was the most important lesson he learned in his political life. He listened to hundreds of hours of speeches during his five years in the peace talks, and as a result became more patient, and ultimately more effective, he said.
When Mitchell became Senate majority leader, he called Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican and the Senate minority leader, to ask for a meeting, telling him he wanted to have a good working and personal relationship with him.
“We discussed, we debated on hundreds of bills, some of them extremely contentious,” Mitchell said. “We often disagreed, but through it all, we respected each other.”
Mitchell said he and Dole represented different political parties with different goals and philosophies, but worked together without hostility or rancor.
“It can be done in Washington, in Augusta, in America,” he said.
Mitchell, of Mount Desert Island and New York, was given a standing ovation from lawmakers.
Among those who attended Tuesday were former eight-year state Rep. Marilyn Canavan, a Waterville Democrat, who also is former director of the State Ethics Commission, and her friend, Betty Goulette, also of Waterville.
“It just makes me very proud to be a Mainer,” Canavan said after Mitchell’s speech to the Legislature. “The topic he chose was certainly relevant in today’s divided world. Listen up, Congress. Listen up.”
Goulette, who attended Waterville High School with Mitchell, concurred with Canavan.
“I liked him in high school and I still like him,” Goulette said. “I thought his speech was excellent. He’s a good speaker.”
Rep. Thomas R.W. Longstaff, D-Waterville, called the speech “just incredible.”
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, lauded the bipartisan message.
Aside from his family, Mitchell said the most important thing in his life is the Mitchell Institute, which each year gives scholarships to a graduating senior from each of the 130 public high schools in Maine.
After this year’s scholarships are announced, more than $11 million will have been given to about 2,300 students.
In his speech before the Legislature, Mitchell said his mother was a Lebanese immigrant who could not read or write and worked nights in a textile mill and his father was Irish-American and worked as a janitor at Colby College. Neither was educated, according to Mitchell.
He attended Waterville High School, Bowdoin College and then Georgetown University Law Center, fulfilling the American Dream his parents could not, he said.
Amy Calder can be contacted at 861-9247 or at: