WATERVILLE — Politics in the U.S. have always been divisive, but nowhere near as much as in this election, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said Thursday.

Years ago such attacks were mostly reported in newspapers, he said, but now they are repeated endlessly on cable networks and social media and the effect is deeper, longer lasting and more negative, he said.

Such vicious attacks must stop, Mitchell said.

Mitchell spoke Thursday to about 200 people who turned out for a special breakfast hosted by the Maine Council of Churches at the Best Western hotel.

The former federal judge, who also helped negotiate peace in Northern Island and was a special U.S. envoy to the Middle East, said insulting and threatening those with whom we disagree precludes serious discussion.

“Every citizen of Maine and every other state in the country can play a role in reversing those hateful trends,” he said. It is important, Mitchell said, that people speak out against such practices and contribute their time, efforts and money to effect change.

“We can vote,” he said. “It is through the ballot box that we not only can choose our public officials, but we can show our values as a nation.”

Mitchell’s comments came the same day that a new Colby College-Boston Globe poll found that 90 percent of Americans believe civility in politics is important, and 70 percent said the U.S. may lose its global prestige because of the uncivil tone of the 2016 election.

“It seems most Americans view the election as particularly nasty,” Daniel Shea, professor of government and director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby, said in a news release about the poll, which was conducted by SurveyUSA. “They know the world is watching – and that it doesn’t shine a nice light on our democracy.”

Mitchell, a Democrat, told a story about how he and Republican Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas worked together in the Senate, often disagreeing on issues but finding ways to compromise. Mitchell was Senate majority leader; Dole was the minority leader who later became a Republican nominee for president.

Believing neither man could do his job if they couldn’t trust each other, Mitchell promised Dole at the outset that he would never criticize or surprise him and always would respect him and keep his word. Dole was delighted, according to Mitchell.

“We shook hands and never, ever has a harsh word passed between us,” Mitchell said. “We debated vigorously, but we did not make it personal.”


Watch our MaineVoice Live one-on-one chat between Bill Nemitz and George Mitchell.

LIVING THE DREAM

Mitchell focused on the need to promote civil discourse and hold officials and candidates accountable for their speech and behavior, but he also spoke about immigration and climate change.

People in the U.S. are fortunate to be citizens in a free and open country, Mitchell said. And while its military is strong and the U.S. is the world’s dominant power, it faces challenges, both at home and abroad, he said.

“We have to have the unity of our people. We have to have a national purpose. We have to have a national commitment to make good health, education and jobs available to all Americans,” he said.

During the nation’s first century, immigrants were welcomed, but later, Jews, Italians, Irish, Catholics and others were subject to racial and religious discrimination and stereotyping, Mitchell said.

Every rational American knows the country can’t accept everyone who wants to live here and the U.S. needs fair and realistic immigration policies, he said. But the national debate has become focused on who cannot enter and why, and how best to keep them out, Mitchell said.

Citing Apple, Amazon and Google, companies whose owners were either immigrants or children of immigrants, Mitchell asked if the U.S. would be a better country today if they had not been allowed in.

“Genius knows no language, no race, no religion,” he said.

Mitchell talked of growing up in a “slum” at Head of Falls in Waterville, populated by French-Canadian, Irish and Lebanese immigrants. Most were uneducated, he said.

His mother, a Lebanese immigrant, could neither read nor write and worked in a textile mill; his father, who was Irish, did menial jobs, working the last 20 years as a janitor. Because of their efforts and the openness of American society, however, their youngest son, George, got an education, he said.

“I believe in the American dream because I have lived it,” Mitchell said.

CHANGING CLIMATE

Mitchell said one topic conspicuously absent from the three presidential debates was climate change and global warming, an issue he considers one of the most serious facing the world, and one that was ignored by all 17 Republican candidates who sought the party’s presidential nomination.

“All 17 of them denied the existence of climate change and opposed any effort to do something about it, and I find that shocking,” he said.

Without naming Trump, he cited one candidate who believes climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese.

“I find that an incredible statement,” Mitchell said, adding that the evidence is overwhelming that climate change exists and it is critical that action be taken to address it.

“There once was a time when many people believed Earth was flat,” he said. “There was a time many people believed the sun revolved around the Earth. We know now those were not the case, and the reality of science has become what we consider knowledge.”

He added: “This is not just a question of individual belief. People can believe whatever they want. This is a question of national survival.”Amy Calder can be contacted at 861-9247 or at:

 


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