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
Peace talks aren't the traditional landscape of politics, of course, but they demand that politicians compromise when the risks are even greater than usual.
"Politicians are maligned the world over," Mitchell says. "But these men and women exist in a circumstance unlike anything we are familiar with. They face the same tension every elected official faces in trying to balance the demands of one's constituency with the needs of the larger society. But they also confronted a long history of political violence where not only their careers but their lives and the safety of their families were at stake."
This respect for the burden and for every individual who was taking it on, however recalcitrant or provocative, set the tone that kept the talks going, shored them up at moments of desperation, and encouraged an atmosphere in which bitter enemies could eventually make the leap to direct communication and even to some acknowledgment of the sufferings and needs of the other side.
One Unionist leader who had opposed Mitchell's appointment with the statement that it was like "appointing an American Serb to preside over talks on the future of Croatia," two months later told the press he was an excellent chairman. After waiting in the wings at the first session as parties argued over him, Mitchell's first act was to have them all commit to a set of democratic principles (the "Mitchell principles"), which grounded the work of the next 22 months and the agreement itself.
He let everyone have their say, no matter how long it took. He was painstakingly fair in consulting on decisions and dealing with every kind of maneuver. He watched as parties exited because of broken cease-fires and found ways to bring them back.
He even reached out to those who tried to undermine the talks: After gunmen made an attempt on the life of one party leader as he was visiting his son in the hospital, Mitchell phoned him. "He belongs to a party that strongly opposed me, but this was beyond politics, beyond reason, beyond humanity," he says.
The achievement of the April 1998 agreement was obviously far from his alone, and Mitchell sees these key factors:
*"The wide and deep yearning for peace and weariness with sectarian conflict among the people of Northern Ireland."
*"The political courage of Northern Ireland politicians."
*"The creation of the European Union, which made it easier for Britain and Ireland to work together, and the tremendous economic growth and changes in Irish society."
*"The commitment of the British and Irish governments" over many years and down to the final moments; and the active backing of President Clinton at key stages.
In his book, Mitchell details how these commitments came into play, and credits the many sung and unsung heroes.
Several times he considered leaving, especially when the consequences for his personal life became difficult to bear. His brother died and his wife had a miscarriage while he was in Belfast - and little progress was being made.
"It took 14 months to get agreement on the statement of the issues - not the solution, but the statement!" Mitchell says with a glance of exasperation. "When you read it you must say, 'This could have been agreed to in an afternoon.' I was constantly plagued with doubts about where my true obligations were."
But his wife, Heather, who supported his work each step of the way, became pregnant again, and the birth of their first child, Andrew, in October 1997, came at another "low point in the process."
"When my son was born," he says, "late one night, I started thinking about what his life would be like if he'd been born in Northern Ireland." He called his staff in Belfast to ask how many children had been born on that day in Northern Ireland - it turned out to be 61. "I began to think how different the prospects would be for them had they been born in the US, even though their parents' aspirations would be the same as ours. That strengthened my resolve. I put out of my mind once and for all any idea of leaving the talks and committed to bring it to a conclusion."
In early 1998, after a Christmas holiday stained by a "rampage of sectarian murder," he concluded there had to be a firm deadline. "I devised a specific plan and exact time and date and made up a day-to-day schedule for what would be done," he says. "I met with each party and tried to persuade them. To my surprise, they agreed. "That's when I first felt there was a realistic chance of success - that they were willing to submit themselves to a deadline suggested they were serious," he adds. The pages in his book devoted to those final two weeks of negotiating are riveting.
"Making Peace" is not a history of the talks but a story of his personal experience. Sometimes dry, it may be of greatest interest to "political junkies." But part of its value lies in that very depiction of the slogging that's required to make democratic ideals become realities.
Finding the right words
Many hiatuses occurred in the talks - during summers, when traditional parading often inflamed attitudes, and over holidays, when violence sometimes reached new levels of inhumanity. Mitchell always had to find words both for the participants and the press that would be honest and yet set the stage for when talks resumed. At his most despairing moments, he had to inspire others to continue the fight. Mitchell always managed to do that, and to present a higher sense of what politics is about and what it can accomplish.
He's still doing so. After 3-1/2 years of the peace process, he declined to chair the commission to implement the agreement. But he follows it closely. Full implementation will take some time, he says, as many issues remain unresolved - studies are still under way, for instance, on policing and the criminal justice system.
"What we are learning in the Balkans, in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East," he says, is that as "difficult as it is to reach an agreement, it can be more difficult to implement it." On the current crisis over decommissioning of weapons, he adds, "Opponents of the agreement have failed to bring it down. The incredible circumstance now is that it is under threat from those who support it. That would be a huge tragedy, since they have already taken the risks of reaching the agreement.
"They have the momentum of the agreement and the overwhelming support of the people behind them," he adds. "History might forgive the failure to reach an agreement, but it will never forgive the failure to implement it. I point that out as often as I can."