A group of students participating in Bowdoin’s new Public Service Initiative were treated to a private meeting Monday afternoon in the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library with former US Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. Mitchell is a 1954 Bowdoin graduate who received an honorary degree from the College in 1983.
Mitchell, a veritable giant in public service as a legislator and peacemaker, among other roles, was on campus to give a talk on serving in government “in times like these.” As US senator and senate majority leader in the ’80s and ’90s, Mitchell led the fight for clean air and water, childcare, veteran’s affairs, low-income housing, education, free trade, and civil rights for the disabled. As peacemaker, he was the foremost architect of the Northern Ireland peace accord and a special envoy for peace in the Middle East.Today, he is the driving force behind the George J. Mitchell Scholarship Program, which has awarded $15 million in college scholarships to students from every community in Maine. (One of the students he met with from the Public Service Initiative — Olivia Giles ’20 — is a Mitchell Scholar, and he had breakfast on Tuesday with the rest of the Mitchell Scholars studying at Bowdoin.)
After greeting each of the students gathered around a table in the library’s Nixon Lounge, Mitchell spoke in a considered manner about his notion of public service.
“I define public service broadly,” he began. “It is not limited to public office or government, but is service to community and society in a way that benefits others and is larger than one’s self interest.”
In our democratic, capitalist society, he continued, most of us grow up expecting to find jobs that provide us with dignity and some wealth. Yet, it’s also in our nature to seek a deeper, more meaningful life. “The more you get along in life, and the more you achieve, the more you come to recognize there is much more to life than achieving fame or wealth,” Mitchell said. “Real fulfillment comes from engaging with all of your physical strength and spiritual ability and commitment to doing something that benefits others.”
Mitchell says he views life as a never-ending search for respect, both self-respect and the respect of others. “And you acquire that respect in the most meaningful way by engaging in activities that help others,” he said.
He then answered questions from students, including one from a student who wondered whether qualities like trying to understand viewpoints different than your own are important in government today.
“I think it is more important now than ever,” he said. He then recollected the hours he spent meeting with and talking to regular Mainers during his years as a politician. “It was not only politically beneficial, but it was also tremendously helpful to me to understand people’s concerns,” he said. Additionally, he asked his aides every day to bring him the ten most negative letters constituents had sent him. “It served in grounding me,” he added.
If he hadn’t been hearing from many different kinds of people, and open to ideas that diverged from his own, he could have, perhaps, lost perspective. As a senator, “you can come to believe you are the center of the universe,” Mitchell said. “One of the conclusions I have drawn after public and private life is that there is an almost unlimited human capacity for rationalization….And the higher up you go in government, the greater the possibility for self-delusion and rationalization.”