Mitchell Decries Political Discord, Urges Increased Voter Participation

Article excerpt

ORONO, Maine -- Political discourse in the United States is worse today than it was early in the 19th century, when personal attacks were rampant and duels were considered an honorable way to settle disputes between political rivals, according to former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell.

Mitchell, a 15-year Democratic senator who was majority leader for six years, came to the University of Maine on Tuesday to participate in a Democratic rally and the annual Mitchell Lecture on Sustainability.

"Politics has always been rough-and-tumble in the United States," Mitchell said in an interview.

Partisanship, controversy and personal attacks among political rivals are nothing new. Mitchell said he recently read an account of the presidential election of 1800, "a bitter, personal contest between [Thomas] Jefferson and [John] Adams -- two of the great men in our history. The name-calling is just incredible."

Mitchell argued that the tumult is more severe and damaging today. U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, cited the partisan divide as one of the factors contributing to her decision not to run for another term.

Digital and television media have contributed to spreading the gap and building tension between Democrats and Republicans, Mitchell argued. He said 30-second clips that boil an interview down to a quote that carries an "emotional wallop" have played their part in the problem.

Mitchell recounted the story of when he was elected Senate majority leader in 1989 and reached out to Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., to explain how he hoped their relationship would work.

"I told him I would never surprise him, I would always give him notice of what I intended to do," Mitchell said. "I would never try to embarrass him, I would never attempt to attack him personally."

Mitchell said he knew he and Dole would disagree often, but that personal "hostility and acrimony" would do nothing to advance the country.

"We shook hands, and to this day not ever has a harsh word passed between Bob Dole and me in public or in private. …