Doug Rooks recently stopped by the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library to give a talk about his new biography of former U.S. senator George Mitchell, who graduated from Bowdoin in 1954.
The third floor of the library, where Rooks spoke Wednesday afternoon, was an appropriate venue. To research Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible, Rooks spent many hours in the archives here, which are named after Mitchell, and which hold many of Mitchell’s papers, as well as more than 300 oral interviews about him.
Rooks called the archives a “treasure trove” and a “home away from home” for the months he spent scouring documents. He urged people to visit the “uniquely calm and calming space.” Rooks, a career journalist who graduated from Colby College, has spent more than 25 years covering Maine and New England news.
At the Bowdoin talk, Rooks read a chapter from Statesman about the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987, which describes the confrontation that occurred then between Mitchell and Lt. Col. Oliver North. Before Rooks began reading, he described Mitchell’s oratory as “a moment of real historical significance to Maine, to the nation, and to the world, about as clear an exposition of the rule of law in this society as we are likely to have.” This episode elevated Mitchell’s standing with his colleagues and helped lead to his election as senate majority leader in 1989.
A key resource to Rooks’ telling of the Iran-Contra affair was Jamie Kaplan, an attorney for Mitchell. Rooks discovered Kaplan’s contribution while he was digging through the archives. “I realized Kaplan had a uniquely intimate view of the Iran-Contra hearings,” he said, but he had a perspective that had not yet been heard by other reporters or historians. Kaplan also happens to live in Brunswick, and Rooks found his number and spent several hours interviewing him on campus.
Kaplan made an appearance at the book talk on Thursday. At the end of Rooks’s reading, in response to an audience member’s question about what new insights Rooks presents in the biography, Kaplan said, “I cannot imagine anyone, in any circumstance, coming up with a more detailed accounting of the subjects covered in this book. It is truly thorough and painstaking.” He added that George Mitchell’s own accounts of his life and participation in historical events, chronicled in the five books Mitchell has written, were circumscribed. “George is a very sensitive and considerate guy, and he’s not likely to paint people in a bad light. A neutral light for sure, but you could do more,” Kaplan pointed out.
Rooks first met Mitchell in 1985, when Rooks was editorial editor of the Kennebec Journal, in Augusta, Maine. Mitchell would regularly stop by the newsroom, spending as much time with reporters as they needed, Rooks recalled. “I would ask him some question about foreign affairs, expecting a two-line answer about a current issue, and he would give me the entire story, all the background, who the players were, what the main issues in that country were,” he recounted.
Besides spending time at the Mitchell archives and the Muskie archives at Bates College, Rooks interviewed Mitchell several times over the years for his book, including at Mitchell’s home on Mount Desert Island.
When Rooks spoke on Maine Public Radio about Statesman on July 5, Mitchell called into the radio program, thanking Rooks for his research. “He wrote the book about me, but I learned a lot of things from his book that I didn’t know before!” Mitchell said, explaining that Rooks had unearthed documents and accounts of meetings from his past he hadn’t thought about for years.
In his book, Rooks covers the breadth of Mitchell’s career, spanning his early days in the military, and his career as lawyer, federal judge, U.S. senator, U.S. senate majority leader, broker of the Northern Ireland peace process, special envoy to the Middle East peace process, and his business involvements. He spends just a few pages on Mitchell’s time at Bowdoin, where Mitchell enjoyed playing basketball and cribbage with his fraternity brothers, but was only a middling student—perhaps because he worked the equivalent of a fulltime job all four years he was a student.
At his presentation, Rooks marveled at the diversity and success of Mitchell’s career. “There is not a single other former senator I can think of who has anything like Mitchell’s career, maybe some former presidents. There’s the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, his wonderful work in the Middle East, and countless other things….I like to think I got, not everything, but most things that he did in the book.”