During the inaugural Baker Distinguished Lecture Series, Senator George Mitchell began with an explanation of his expertise as a speaker.
He shared an anecdote of his first day in the Senate in 1980, when he was informed by his new assistant that he had been asked to give a keynote address on the tax codes at the National Association of Certified Public Accountants convention. The young Mitchell expressed surprise.
"I said, 'The tax code? You got 2,000 people in the audience and every one of them will know more than I do.' The young man looked at me, and in a voice dripping with sarcasm and condescension, he said, 'You're now in the United States Senate. Every day, you're going to be called upon to speak in public on things which you know nothing about, so you might as well get started.' So I did, and I here I am to tell you what's going on in the world."
With colorful stories and humorous one-liners, Mitchell set a comfortable tone in the Cox Auditorium. Alexandra Chiasson, sophomore in English, attended the lecture as a Baker Ambassador, and especially enjoyed his candidness.
"I thought that was great, it's really wonderful when a politician can step down from their assumed pedestal ... and talk to the people they are serving," she said. "He's personable and was willing to answer our questions and talk to students. I think it's really great to see someone removed from what we see on TV."
The former senator spoke for an hour, addressing the current state of the nation's government. He specifically addressed the strength of American ideals.
"Because of our ideals, I believe that the United States was a great nation from its inception, long before it was a great economic or military power," Mitchell said. "Much has been written, recently, about so-called 'American decline' ... I strongly disagree. We do have challenges abroad, but I think we can meet them and as always in the past, come out of them stronger and better."
He shared thoughts on the economy, proposing that the solution to the "fiscal cliff" is men and women like Senator Howard Baker and his wife, Senator Nancy Kassebaum.
"They demonstrated in their careers a capacity to stand firm on their principles, but also to be able to understand that others who disagree also have principles, and to be able to find common ground," he said.
His comment was greeted with a round of applause. After his lecture, Mitchell was asked by WUOT staffer Chrissy Keuper how he himself managed to find common ground in his resolutions in the Senate and abroad. He negotiated the Good Friday Agreement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and also wrote "The Mitchell Report" on violence in the Middle East, and is renowned for his ability to resolve conflict.
"It's a responsibility of political leaders to lead. And one of the most important ways that political leaders can lead in conflicting societies is by making clear that there is a realistic way forward," Mitchell said. "Not a foolish or unrealistic way, but pointing out that the problems that exist can be dealt with in non-violent ways."
Although Baker and Mitchell were on opposite sides of the aisle during the short time together in the Senate, Mitchell explained the special relationship they had.
"In my early years in the Senate, which was precarious, I was appointed. I wasn't supposed to be there long," he said. "I had no conception that I might someday be Senate Majority Leader. I had the opportunity to learn from a man who had intelligence and common sense, and most of all, integrity."
A brief question and answer session was offered to all students, and Mitchell gladly answered a few questions. Chiasson asked his opinion on the recent passage of gay marriage in his home state of Maine. Mitchell said that he supported it.
"I believe it was and is, in the simplest terms, the right and decent and fair thing to do," he said. "I'm married and I don't think it's any threat whatsoever to me or my marriage. And I don't think anyone else who is married to a person of the opposite sex should in any way feel threatened because other people choose their own norms."
Mitchell's lecture was the first of the Baker Distinguished Lecture Series, a series that the Baker Center plans to sponsor twice a year. Nissa Dahlin-Brown, the associate director of the Baker Center, said that the spring lecturer has not been decided on yet. The speakers are expected to be nationally and internationally known.