Straight Talk

George Mitchell
Senator George Mitchell talking with Senator Bob Dole in 1990. Courtesy of the Robert J. Dole Archive and Special Collections

From our November 2016 issue.

This summer, Maine Governor Paul LePage became a national poster boy for the state of political discourse, making headlines for branding people of color “the enemy” and an obscenity-laced voicemail left for a state legislator. Amid the furor of censures and editorials that followed, we wanted a statesman’s view. We asked George J. Mitchell, Maine’s Democratic U.S. senator from 1980 to 1995, for his thoughts on political rhetoric in 2016. He graciously complied.

[dropcap letter=”S”]ince retiring from the Senate, I’ve spoken to a diverse range of audiences in hundreds of cities and towns in Maine and across the nation. In most of them, citizens expressed concern about the polarization and dysfunction of our politics and, increasingly in the past year, the vulgar tone of our public discussions. I’m grateful to Down East for giving me this opportunity to comment.

When a candidate for president of the United States, addressing a large crowd at an event covered on national television, used the F-word to criticize adversaries, a line was crossed. When our governor, in a voicemail message he asked be made public, used extreme vulgarity toward a legislator, the line was obliterated. Everyone makes mistakes. But neither of these was a one-time slip. They were consistent with long patterns of behavior.

Swearing in public and insulting and threatening those who disagree is often a way to obscure the truth
and to avoid serious discussion, not to engage in it.

Support for both men frequently comes with the comment that they “tell it like it is,” and are “not being politically correct.” But this is based on an erroneous belief that being a “straight talker” somehow justifies or permits the public use of vulgar, inflammatory, and insulting words. Nothing could be further from the truth. Swearing in public and insulting and threatening those who disagree is often a way to obscure the truth and to avoid serious discussion, not to engage in it. It’s easy to rouse your most fervent supporters by cursing and demeaning your opponents. What is difficult is to publicly address complex issues in a serious way and in respectful language. That is the true practice of responsible democracy.

Of course, American politics has always been rough and tumble. But electronic communications — in particular, social media and the power of television — have vastly broadened the audience for and the impact of vulgar and incendiary words. This coarsening of public discussion has been abetted by a steep decline in the standards of journalism, always a vague concept and now virtually non-existent.

Shortly after I was elected senate majority leader, I called Bob Dole, then the Republican leader. I believed neither of us could properly do our jobs if our relationship was one of mistrust. I told him how I would behave toward him, setting out basic standards of honesty and fair dealing, and he enthusiastically agreed to do the same. We shook hands, and never has a harsh word passed between us, in public or private. We often disagreed. We debated vigorously. But we did not make it personal. We recognized that while we had an obligation of loyalty to the senators who had elected us to be their leaders, we had a higher loyalty to the people of our country. Too many of our political leaders give lip service to this proper hierarchy of loyalty and too often act to the contrary, out of pure party loyalty. Too many demonize their opponents in a way that uses and fosters disrespectful and inflammatory speech.

Every citizen can play a role in reversing these harmful trends. We can speak out, as individuals and in organized groups. We can contribute time, effort, and money to those who share our beliefs. But, most importantly, we can vote. Through the ballot box, we not only choose our public officials, we also express our values.

During his 15-year career in the U.S. Senate, George J. Mitchell served six years as senate majority leader. As the U.S. special envoy for Northern Ireland, he led talks that resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, bringing an end to a 30-year conflict. From 2009 to 2011, he served as U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. 

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