LEWISTON — The road to real peace is long and winding, but it always beats the alternative.

While former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, an iconic Maine Democrat and global peacemaker, didn’t put it quite like that, his message to a group of about 150 gathered Tuesday could be easily summed up that way.

Mitchell, who turned 82 in August, was promoting his latest book, “The Negotiator” during the Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library.

But besides signing about three dozen books following his discussion, Mitchell didn’t use his time for self-promotion. He had two big topics he wanted to discuss.

The first was the decreasing ability of American children born in poverty to escape that poverty through education, the way he was able to as a child.

The second was why he was advocating for the Iran nuclear treaty that is expected to be ratified by the U.S. Senate in the weeks ahead.

“I believe to this day that all of us are so fortunate to be Americans, to be citizens of what is, despite its many serious imperfections, still the most open, the most free, the most just society of all of human history,” Mitchell said.

But, he said, a child born today in circumstances similar to his own — the son of blue-collar immigrants — has less chance for upward mobility.

“I think that’s not only wrong but a danger to our nation,” Mitchell said. “My impression, and this is a personal impression, is that there is a hunger that’s widespread in our country in two different senses.”

The first sense is “physical hunger,” he said. 

The other is hunger for education.

“Right here in Maine, in many of our communities, there are many children, youngsters coming from broken or dysfunctional families or families with exceptionally difficult circumstances, who aren’t properly feed, who aren’t cared for, who don’t have the necessary environment to be able to succeed in life,” Mitchell said.  

“Children who aren’t fed can’t learn and won’t develop to their full potential,” he said. “I find it shocking. We simply have to do better as a nation in seeing that every child, not just many, not just most, but every single child has good nutrition, good care, early intellectual stimulation and the maximum opportunity to develop, to go as high and as far as that child’s talent, willingness to work and willingness to risk will take him.”

Mitchell’s sentiment was interrupted with applause from the audience.

“In America, nobody should be guaranteed success, but every single person should have a chance to succeed,” he said.

Mitchell served 15 years in the U.S. Senate after being appointed to the post by former Gov. Joe Brennan in 1980. Mitchell is considered one of Maine’s most popular politicians, winning re-election in 1988 with 81 percent of the vote.

“That is the all-time record for votes received in Maine and he holds that record today,” former state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said as she introduced Mitchell.

Mitchell has served as a special peace envoy to both the Middle East and Northern Ireland, appointed by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, respectively.

Mitchell also served one year as a federal district court judge, appointed by President Jimmy Carter.

During his talk Tuesday, Mitchell detailed the reasons for his support of the treaty with Iran aimed at preventing that country from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Mitchell said the deal is not perfect, but critics of the treaty were offering no alternative.

He noted that five other countries that are world powers were in agreement on the treaty and that they have vowed to lift economic sanctions on Iran with or without the United States on board.

Mitchell said without the treaty, the time frame for Iran to achieve a nuclear weapon could be as short as three months. He said opponents to the treaty, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, believe Iran can’t be trusted.

Mitchell said those critics are right.

“Iran can’t be trusted,” he said, adding that he is staunchly opposed to Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. And beyond further destabilizing the Middle East, Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would likely prompt other countries that have so far abided by the international treaties against nuclear proliferation to seek to obtain their own nuclear arms, he said.

There were only two ways to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, in his estimation.

“By negotiation and agreement or by war,” Mitchell said. “It seems to me to be just plain common sense to do so by negotiation and agreement.”

Mitchell’s speech Tuesday marked the start of the 18th season of the monthly Great Falls Forum, co-sponsored by the Sun Journal and Bates College.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.