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Review: ‘The Negotiator,’ George Mitchell’s lifetime exploring The Art of the Possible

The Negotiator: Reflections on an American Life

By George Mitchell

Simon and Schuster

304 pages, $27

By Lee Coppola


Not many authors can use their life as an American as a subtitle for a memoir. But when you’re a former federal judge, Senate majority leader, leader of the peace talks in Northern Ireland, chairman of the board of the Disney Corp. and investigator of illegal use of stimulants by baseball players, it seems a perfect fit.

George Mitchell covers all those experiences, and then some, in his latest work. As he must have done in arm-twisting fellow senators or recalcitrant war combatants, he relates them in an unassuming, personable, lets-have-a-cup-of-coffee way. That’s not to say, as he reports, he wasn’t stern when gentle wasn’t sufficient.

Mitchell blends all this serious stuff with anecdotal humor. Like the time he was in Paris as a young Army officer. He and some friends were standing on a bridge overlooking the Seine where a film crew was working. Suddenly, the leading lady approached him, cigarette in her mouth, and asked him for a light. He didn’t smoke but fumbled for a match anyway until she moved on.

That’s how he met Ingrid Bergman.

Of course, he encountered many more well-known people during his career, most of them world leaders or titans in government, industry or sports. He speaks kindly of most, but when he doesn’t he invariably offers an olive branch. What permeates from the pages is his earthiness.

Raised in a small town in Maine, there were no silver spoons in his house. His mother, a Lebanese immigrant, worked in a textile mill. His father, an orphan, was a janitor. So, like most not-so-rich kids, he worked at odd jobs as a boy when he wasn’t playing baseball, that is. His love for America’s pastime never left him, so years later, when baseball commissioner Bud Selig called, he eagerly jumped at the chance to help clean up the game.

It seems his paths often led him into situations where his persuasive skills were needed. None perhaps more than when Congress battled over the Clean Air Act, a bill that pitted environmentalists against industrialists and congressmen took sides depending on their constituents’ concerns. Eventually, with arm-twisting and cajoling from Mitchell, the Senate majority leader, the bill passed.

Mitchell was lauded for his work by some of the groups that opposed him but, as he writes, “I swallowed my anger and resisted the temptation to gloat.” He could gloat 20 years later when the Environmental Protection Agency declared air quality had improved significantly since passage of the act.

His work in bringing peace to Northern Ireland was detailed in a previous Mitchell book. But that book provided another humorous anecdote for this work, one in which he forged Henry Kissinger’s signature. After publication of his Northern Ireland book, he was asked to speak to a multitude of Irish-American societies. At one, in Stamford, Conn., a woman he described as elderly, rushed up to him and asked him to sign a poster of Henry Kissinger. “I’m not Henry Kissinger,” he replied. “Well then who are you anyway?” the woman asked. When he told her, she asked him in a whisper if he’d sign the poster with the name of the poster’s subject. He did.

Mitchell manages to fit his family life into “The Negotiator.” He revered his mother, didn’t think so highly of his father, followed in the footsteps of his older brother and divorced his wife when his political career interfered drastically with his role as a husband. He remarried a woman 20 years his junior three weeks before he left the Senate in 1995 and has since fathered a son and daughter.

As most memoirists do, he offers advice to his readers, most of it geared to how to negotiate. “It is definitely not a science or math,” he writes. “It is very much an art, requiring knowledge, skill, judgment and humility. Especially humility.” The best way to succeed, he suggests, is to talk less and listen more.

He doesn’t offer it as advice, but one tidbit from “The Negotiator” has nothing to do with negotiating. It’s more closely aligned with public speaking and it involves Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra and hot water. President Reagan asked him for hot water to sip as he waited to address congress for a state of the union message. Reagan said Frank Sinatra told him it relaxes the throat and lowers the octave level.

“I’ve been drinking hot water before every major speech ever since,” he writes.

Lee Coppola is a former print and television reporter, a former federal prosecutor and the former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli journalism school.