George Mitchell Distills What Leadership Requires in Washington

A comment on how to represent citizens who hold contradictory positions

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In a panel titled "Politics of the Possible," ably moderated by Rita Braver, I had the pleasure of listening to George Mitchell, whose speaking engagements I've sought out several times over the years. After retiring from the Senate, where he was a Democratic majority leader, he helped lead successful peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, served as America's special envoy to the Middle East, and published the Mitchell report on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. In 1994, he declined when Bill Clinton proposed appointing him to the Supreme Court, preferring to stay in the Senate to work toward universal health care. I often (though not always) disagree with Mitchell's politics, but consistently find him to be reflective about his work in public life -- and insightful about various issues -- in a way that is rare among retired politicians.

For example, here's an anecdote he shared Friday, responding to a prompt about politicians and gridlock in Washington, D.C.:

Before we blame it all on the politicians, let's not relieve the American people of their responsibility. Everybody wants it resolved in a nice way. But they want it resolved consistent with their interests. In 1990, we had a huge battle over the budget. The first President Bush was in office. The issues were the same as they were the last time around with President Obama and the Republicans: taxes, spending, Medicare. It went on for months. The press was extremely critical of excessive partisanship. You could've pasted the stories in from this last year.

I used to go home every weekend in May to hold town meetings. On a Saturday morning... the first guy to get up when I invited comments and questions delivered a stinging rebuke of me, criticized me harshly for my excessive partisanship. Why weren't we able to resolve this like gentlemen? And when he finished he got a standing ovation. And he said, "Well that's my comment, now here's my question. The press is all about politics. What are the issues? What are you guys fighting about?" Medicare was the big issue, how to deal with Medicare spending.

And I described the issue, the president's proposal and our proposal. He stood up and he said, "Senator, you represent us, and we're telling you, go back to Washington and don't give an inch on Medicare." And he got a double standing ovation. So I had two very clear messages going back. The problem is that they were directly contradictory. The public, like individuals, are capable of holding and advocating contradictory positions. I spent 5 years in Northern Ireland with people on both sides telling the politicians, "Settle it now -- settle it our way." And the true leaders are those who can reconcile the conflicts in the public mind with the national interest