Reunion Remarks: Senator George J. Mitchell '54
Story posted June 07, 2004
Reflections on a Career in Public Service
by The Honorable George J. Mitchell Jr. '54
June 5, 2004
It's an honor for me to participate in what is for all of us a once in a lifetime day. And it's a pleasure to see so many friends again, especially the members of the class of '54.
I've been asked to reflect on my career in public service. But I first want to talk about Bowdoin, this great institution where we learned, where we began to grow up, and which made possible all of our careers.
I've had a lot of luck in my life. One of the luckiest days of all was when I first walked on to this campus.
Although it happened fifty-four years ago, I remember it as though it was yesterday.
My parents' central goal in life was the education of their children. They knew the hard life of those who lacked learning. They wanted something better for their children.
My brothers preceded me to college, on athletic scholarships.
But by the time I graduated from Waterville High School, in 1950, hard times had hit our family. Early that year my father lost his job.
My mother continued to work, and that kept us going. But it was a difficult year, during which there was no talk of college.
One day that dark spring, my father told me that his former boss, a man named Hervey Fogg, wanted to see me. My father didn't know why, but, he said, Mr. Fogg is a good man, so you should go see what he wants.
I went, not knowing what to expect. It quickly became clear that all he wanted was to help me. He told me that he had gone to Bowdoin and encouraged me to consider it. He assured me that it wasn't too late to be admitted that year; he had already set up an appointment for me with the Director of Admissions.
A week later I set off for Brunswick. I was sixteen years old, naive, insecure, uncertain. I had traveled little outside of Waterville, had never been on a train or a plane. My parents didn't own a car, so I got up very early in the morning and walked to the outskirts of town to hitchhike to Brunswick.
Within minutes, I got a ride. After he heard my story, the driver took me right to the Bowdoin campus. I was several hours early for my appointment so I spent the day walking back and forth across the campus, memorizing the names of the buildings. I can still recall my feeling of awe.
When I met the Director of Admissions, Bill Shaw, I was very nervous, but he made me feel at home. When I told him that my parents couldn't afford any tuition payments, he was reassuring.
Don't worry, he said, if you're willing to work, we'll figure something out.
And he did. He helped me get some modest scholarship aid, which, combined with several part-time jobs, enabled me to get through.
Bill introduced me to Mal Morrell, the Director of Athletics. Although I was a truly lousy basketball player, Mal treated me as though I was an All American.
I think what happened is that Mal initially confused me with my brother Robbie, who had led Waterville to the state high school championship the year before and who really was an all star. I'm sure Mal figured it out after he watched me play a few games.
But he never said a word to me about it. To the contrary, he encouraged me and he arranged several jobs for me, one of which was driving a truck for the Morrell family business, still operating here in Brunswick.
As a student I was inspired by Dr. Ernst Helmreich, under whom I majored in history. Although I didn't meet his expectations as a student, he taught me the value of having high standards and high goals.
Through their selfless acts of generosity to me, these men taught me the meaning of Bowdoin, and they taught me a lesson about life that has guided me ever since. Bowdoin is more than a college. It is, in a real sense, a family, one that has earned our gratitude and deserves our support.
Of course an important part of the family are those with whom we lived, learned, and laughed, our classmates. A few days ago I received and read our 50th Reunion Yearbook.
I was left with two impressions. The first was what a diverse, talented, and successful group of men were represented in the Class of '54.
Doctors and teachers, lawyers and preachers, scientists and engineers, we dispersed around the country and the world. Having travelled so far makes coming back that much more meaningful.
My second impression was the sad recognition that so many of our classmates are no longer with us. No one of us knew every one of our classmates, so our memories inevitably focus on those we knew best.
For me, the list included my freshman roommate, Dan Gulezian; Sigma Nu brothers like Don Bean, Paul Clifford, and Greg Payne; and other friends like Mike Batal, Angie Eraklis, Jim Flaker, Scott Fox, Bill Fraser and Jim Furlong.
Each of you knew someone on that list. I ask you to now join me in a moment of silent reflection on their lives and friendship.
I've often been asked what principles guided my actions in public office.
They're few and simple. Foremost among them is my conviction that in America no one should be guaranteed success. But everyone should have a fair chance to succeed, to go as high and as far as his or her talent, willingness to work and to take risks, will carry them.
For me, Bowdoin College, exemplified by Hervey Fogg, Bill Shaw, Mal Morrell, Ernst Helmreich, and by so many of my classmates, made that possible. No words are adequate to convey the full measure of my gratitude, so I can say only, to Bowdoin, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I'd like to say a few words about our country, from which all of us have benefited so much.
More than two hundred years ago, our forefathers created a revolution, not just on the soil of North America, but also in the world of ideas.
They took the best of ancient Greek democracy and of the philosophers of the Age of Reason in Europe, and they created a new system and a new spirit. Their ideals - the primacy of individual liberty, the sovereignty of the people, the equality of all citizens under law - have become the world's ideals.
The collapse of communism and the triumph of democracy were the signal events of the twentieth century. As we enter the twenty-first century, American ideals, American values, American culture, are ascendant in the world.
Yet the American people aren't celebrating. Nor is anyone else. To the contrary, not in our lifetime has the United States been held in such low esteem throughout the world.
Poll after poll reports widespread and rising hostility to our country, among old allies and adversaries alike, on every continent.
Some object to what they believe is the unilateralism of the current administration. For others the United States is always the one to blame, simply because of its place in the world.
Throughout human history, there have been many dominant military and economic powers. Only in the last century has the United States been thrust into that role.
It brings enormous benefits and many problems. In this era of instant communication, every problem in the world is seen by some as an American problem. Every grievance, no matter how local, whether real or imagined, can be a cause for resentment of the dominant power.
In the past few years, I've met with government and political leaders from every country in Europe, from Ireland to Russia, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean.
I asked each of them this question: Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists and Russia has withdrawn its military forces back to its national territory, do you believe the United States should withdraw its military forces back to its territory?
Without exception, the answer was an emphatic "no." Most Europeans want American military forces on their continent.
Think back through history and try to recall if there ever was a dominant power with so much moral authority that other countries asked that its military forces be stationed on their soil.
Why is that?
And how can it be reconciled with the current hostility to the United States, to which I earlier referred.
Obviously, part of the answer lies in the power itself. Most people want to be on the side of the strong.
But for too many people, in and out of our government, Americans and non-Americans, power is perceived to be the primary basis of American influence in the world. I think there's more than power involved.
Power is clearly important, and we must be prepared to use it, including military force, when necessary. A strong economy and a strong military are essential to our security, our freedom, and our prosperity.
But power must be deployed in service to our basic ideals: Individual liberty, equal justice, opportunity for all. Ideals always have been the primary basis of American influence in the world.
We must never forget that the United States was a great nation long before it was a great military or economic power.
When there were fewer than four million Americans living in thirteen states along the Atlantic coast, this was a great nation, ennobled at birth by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Those charter documents, especially the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, are the most eloquent and concise statements of individual liberty ever written and adopted by human beings.
They guided us in the early years of nationhood, through the civil war, through the turbulence of the twentieth century. And they must guide us now, in the transition from a bipolar world to one of American domination.
In every society in transition there are those who fear the future, who resist change, who yearn for a past that never was, who seek comfort in rigid ideologies and unbending absolutes. Listen to this quotation:
"Gone is faith; gone is moderation; grace has departed our land. No one any longer reveres God. . . . People recognize no standards of law or piety and, as a result, our values are disappearing."
I made a few changes to put these words into modern English, because they were spoken in Greece in the year 555 B.C. The sixth century before the birth of Christ was a time of transition and upheaval in Greece. The city/states were moving from what some would call dictatorship - they were really oligarchies - to what we call democracy. The right to vote was being extended to more people, and that was seen as a radical idea which would lead to a decline in values.
Indeed, that always has been the argument against the expansion of individual rights, even here in America: If you let poor people vote, our values will decline; if you treat black people as equals, our values will decline; if women have the same rights as men, our values will decline.
History proves otherwise. Rather than denying rights to the poor and oppressed, the American answer has been to give them access to education, to opportunity. The result has been a rising tide for the entire society.
The broader the base, the sturdier the structure, whether it's a building or a democracy. Our American experience should fill us with hope, not fear; with optimism and a sense of adventure, not uncertainty and timidity.
Finally, I conclude with a few words of reflection on my career in public service. Almost all of it was unexpected. All of it was rewarding.
A list of highlights would be too long, so I will mention two events that were especially emotional and memorable to me.
I spent five years working for peace in Northern Ireland. It was the most difficult and dangerous work I've ever undertaken; perhaps for that reason it also was the most rewarding.
Northern Ireland is a land of great natural beauty, inhabited by shrewd and hardy people. They have inflicted terrible suffering on one another. Their history includes a litany of vicious beatings, brutal murders, and devastating bombings. For a long time death, destruction, and maiming were routine. The well-attended, highly emotional funeral was a part of the social fabric.
Perhaps because they have seen so much death, they love life. They are warm and generous and they have an earthy sense of humor. They love to eat and drink, and they especially love to talk. I've been told that I'm a good listener; I got plenty of practice in Northern Ireland. For the years of negotiations, I listened and listened, and then I listened some more. At times it was interesting, at times entertaining; it also was often repetitive, frustrating, and discouraging.
As the months stretched into years, I became increasingly fond of the people of Northern Ireland. I can never be one of them, of course, but I enjoyed enough of their laughter and shared enough of their grief that I feel very close to them.
I am an American, and proud of it. But a large part of my heart will forever be in Northern Ireland.
The peace agreement there was, for me, the realization of a dream that sustained me through the most difficult years of my life. After the agreement was reached, I talked with the men and women with whom I'd negotiated; we were all overcome with exhaustion and emotion. As we parted, I told them that I have a new dream.
That dream is to return to Northern Ireland in a few years with my children. We will roam the countryside, taking in the sights and smells and sounds of one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. Then, on a rainy afternoon (there are many in Northern Ireland) we will drive to the Parliament building and sit quietly in the visitors' gallery of their elected Assembly. There we will watch and listen as the members of the Assembly debate the ordinary issues of life in a peaceful democratic society: education, health care, agriculture, tourism, fisheries, trade. There will be no talk of war, for the war will have long been over. There will be no talk of peace, for peace will by then be taken for granted. On that day, the day on which peace is taken for granted in Northern Ireland, I will be truly fulfilled.
The best job I ever had, and the one I had for the shortest time, was my service as a Federal District Court Judge. In that position, I had great power.
The power I most enjoyed exercising was when I presided over naturalization ceremonies. As you know, they are citizenship ceremonies.
A group of people who had come from every part of the world, and who had gone through all the required procedures, gathered before me in a federal courtroom in Portland or Bangor.
There, by the power vested in me under our Constitution and law, I administered to them the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, and then I made them Americans.
It was always a very emotional ceremony for me because my mother was an immigrant from Lebanon, my father the orphan son of Irish immigrants. They had no education and worked at the lowest level of the economic ladder.
But because of their efforts, and more importantly, because of the openness of our society, I was able to get an education and to go on to a life they could not have imagined.
After every ceremony, I made a point to invite each of the new citizens into my chambers, individually or in family groups, where I spoke with them personally. I asked them where they came from, how they came, why they came.
Their stories were as different as their countries of origin, but through them ran a common theme, best expressed by a young Asian man who, when I asked why he came, replied in slow and halting English, "I came here," he said, "because in America everybody has a chance."
Think about that! A young man who had been an American for just a few minutes, who could barely speak English, was able to sum up the meaning of our country in a single sentence. America is freedom and opportunity.
I believe in the American dream, because I have lived it. We are the most fortunate people ever to have lived, to be citizens of what is the most open, the most free, the most just society in all of human history.
We here today had the special good fortune to attend, grow up in, and graduate from this great institution which, in its own way, represents, teaches, and enhances the highest values of our nation. For all of that, we give our heartfelt thanks.
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