Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell listens to a member of the audience Tuesday afternoon at the University of New England.LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell listens to a member of the audience Tuesday afternoon at the University of New England.LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

BIDDEFORD — Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell shared some words of wisdom Tuesday on making the country less divided.

Mitchell was the featured speaker at the eighth Annual George and Barbara Bush Distinguished Lecture at the University of New England. His free talk, titled, “Challenges Facing the U.S., at Home and Abroad,” drew a packed audience.

The former Maine Democratic senator and federal judge served as Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995; he received the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom for chairing peace negotiations in the Northern Ireland peace agreement; he was also a U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East.

Mitchell spoke to the audience about the importance of personal conduct by politicians.

He said when he was elected majority leader of the U.S. Senate by Democrats, the first person he called was Bob Dole, who was the Republican leader of the Senate.

The two men agreed to meet, and Mitchell said he told Dole although he’d only been in the Senate a few years, he’d been there long enough to know if the two leaders didn’t trust each other, the Senate was impossible to run.

“I set forth the most simple, basic, fundamental standards of fairness, openness, loyalty and honesty,” said Mitchell. He said Dole was “delighted,” the two shook hands, and to this day, not once has a harsh word passed between the two.

“We became and we remain very close personal friends, despite the fact that for six years we disagreed just about every day,” he said.

The two negotiated and tried to resolve their differences, he said. Sometimes they couldn’t. When an item was put out to vote in the Senate, sometimes his opinion prevailed, sometimes Dole’s opinion prevailed, but the two never made it personal.

The lack of willingness between members of the two parties to put their differences aside to do the people’s business is one of the most pressing problems in Congress today, said Mitchell.

Another problem is gerrymandering, or manipulating the boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one party or class, he said.

In 2000, Mitchell said, Democrats controlled Congress and lines were redrawn for congressional districts that reflected a party bias. Ten years later when Republicans were in charge, “the difference in technology was like 10 light years” from what existed a decade earlier and were able to redraw congressional districts with a partisan bias with much greater precision.

“In the House of Representatives, in our country today, the general election is virtually meaningless. Of the 435 seats, fewer than 50 are competitive between the parties,” he said.

Money in politics is also a problem, Mitchell said.

“American democracy has been corrupted by money,” he said. He urged audience members to look up a “60 Minutes” segment which aired in 2016 when Republican Congressman David Jolly “courageously” described in great detail his orientation to the U.S. House of Representatives, through which he was encouraged to focus more of his time on raising money than connecting with constituents.

“We’re drowning in a swamp of corrupt money influenced politics,” Mitchell said.

He said he believes the United States is the most open, just and free society, but like any other society there are problems always have been. Mitchell told the audience to research the presidential election in 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adam. He said the campaign mudslinging was much worse than what goes on today, but the difference was that there wasn’t the modern media and technology with its ability to spread the news quickly to millions of people worldwide.

Despite the obstacles, Mitchell said he said he is very confident about the country’s future.

“We have made terribly tragic mistakes in our history, over and over and over again, but the greatness of America has been a willingness to confront errors and to take action to right the wrongs of the past,” said Mitchell. 

— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 325 or [email protected]

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