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The family man behind the negotiator

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His patience and perseverance are touted as making possible the April 1998 Northern Ireland peace accord. But it's what lies behind these qualities that makes George Mitchell's remarkable feat most edifying.

Senator Mitchell achieved "the impossible" because he has a way of exemplifying how politics, in its best sense, is meant to be played, and for what ends.

In an era when clever sound-bite jabs and pointing the finger at the foot-dragging culprit hold sway in political life, Mitchell's approach resonates with its profound faith in the fundamentals of democratic interaction. How you deal with people is as crucial to the result as what you deal about - however intractable or perilous the situation, his story declares.

This doesn't jump right out at you as he speaks in his quiet, modest way about the two years of "tremendously acrimonious, painful, and unproductive discussions" he sat through as bombings and other shocking acts of violence sought to derail the talks he was chairing.

Nor does it stand out in bold relief in his new book, "Making Peace" (Knopf), an account of the ins and outs of the negotiations and the personal challenges that helped make them the "most difficult and most gratifying" experience of his public life. But it comes into focus as he shares the motivations that led him to take on the job and the principles that guided him in day-to-day interactions with parties who found it hard even to stay in the same room with one another.

Family is a primary influence in his life, and he credits his father with getting him into the peace talks and his newborn son with keeping him there. The orphaned son of an Irish immigrant (raised by a Lebanese-American family), his father was a janitor, "not an educated man, but a wise one. He taught us that every human being has an obligation to help others in need, and the more successful you are, the greater the obligation." Many think it was because of his Irish heritage that he got involved, but that was gratuitous, accidental, Mitchell says. "That I was in a position to help was what mattered."

When the risks are greater


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