George Mitchell, 2012 Jefferson Medal Recipient, Praises Rule of Law as Key to Free Society

George Mitchell

George Mitchell, recipient of the 2012 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law, was U.S. Senate majority leader from 1989 until 1995. Photos courtesy UVA News Services/Dan Addison

April 16, 2012

George J. Mitchell, a former U.S. Senate majority leader and peace negotiator in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, received the 2012 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law on Friday as part of the University of Virginia's Founder's Day activities.

Mitchell, who spoke Friday morning at the Law School, described his views on the Middle East peace process, the hyper-partisanship and lack of collegiality among politicians in Washington, and the importance of law and lawyers in the United States.

"Lawyers play a special role in American society in the preservation of liberty and the protection of individual rights," he said. "So the education you're receiving here is important for you individually, but also for the future of our society."

Speaking on Jefferson's 269th birthday, Mitchell praised the efforts of the nation's founders in crafting the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and for achieving independence in self-governance.

"From the very beginning, our ideals distinguished our nation," he said. "And they instantly, and to this day, continue to appeal to people around the world. Our economic strength and our military power, which have now become overwhelming, are necessary and important. But our ideals are, and always have been, the primary basis of American influence in the world. No American should ever forget that the United States was a great nation long before it was a great military or economic power."

American ideals, he said, include sovereignty of the people; primacy of individual liberty; opportunity for every member of society; and an independent judiciary enforcing the rule of law, applied to all citizens and the government.

"There is, of course, a never-ending tension between the preservation of order and the rights of the individual," he said. "That is especially true in these dangerous times when it can be difficult to find the right balance between collective security and individual liberty."

Losing sight of ideals and the rule of law, he said, led to the rise of Nazi Germany.

"In my lifetime, a great, civilized and cultured nation descended suddenly into the abyss of lawlessness, a lawlessness that resulted in the Holocaust and the deaths of millions of innocent people," he said.

An entire nation was degraded, a whole continent stained. So, in the final analysis in every society, including ours, it's the rule of law that stands against that fateful descent."

Mitchell challenged the students in the audience to work toward making the 21st century an era in which the nation's ideals and the rule of law are upheld.

"The 21st century may be like so many in history — a time of war, of injustice, of oppression, of famine," he said. "But it could also be a time when the dominant power uses its strength carefully and commits its people and its prestige to a great and noble vision — a world largely at peace, with the rule of law and freedom, education, opportunity and hopefully prosperity, extending to more and more people in our country and throughout the world."

A Democrat, Mitchell entered the Senate in 1980 and served as Senate majority leader from 1989 until 1995. He led the 1990 reauthorization of the Clean Air Act, wrote the first national oil spill prevention and clean-up law, led the Senate in its passage of the first child care bill and was principal author of the low-income housing tax credit program. He played a key role in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement and creation of the World Trade Organization. (More on Mitchell)

Prior to his appointment to the U.S. Senate in 1980, Mitchell served as a federal judge in Maine. That position, he said, was the only job he ever held that had any actual power.

"The majority leader of the Senate only has the opportunity to go around and beg people to do things that they ought to be doing without being asked," he said. "When I chaired the peace talks in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, I had no power to tell anybody to do anything. But when I was a federal judge, I had the authority to order people to do things, and I'm pleased to tell you that, in every instance, they followed it to the letter. I really loved that part of the job."

His favorite part of being a judge, he said, was the opportunity to conduct naturalization ceremonies, at which he would administer to immigrants the oath of allegiance to the United States and make them American citizens. Mitchell's mother was an immigrant from Lebanon and his father was the orphan son of Irish immigrants.

"It was always a very emotional ceremony for me," he said. "[My parents] had no education. My mother couldn't read or write. She worked nights in a textile mill. My father was a janitor. But because of their efforts, and, more importantly, because of the openness of American society, I, their son, was able to get the education they never had and was able to become the majority leader of the United States Senate."

After each ceremony, Mitchell said he would always speak with the new citizens and their families, asking them about their fears, their hopes, their dreams and how they came to America.

"Most of us are Americans by an accident of birth," he said "Every one of them is an American by an act of free will, often at great risk and cost to themselves and their families."

Mitchell told the story of how he once asked a young Asian man who had just become a naturalized American citizen why he came to the United States. "He replied in slow and very halting English," Mitchell said. "'I came,' he said, 'because in America everybody has a chance.'"

This man, he said, who could barely speak English, was able to summarize the true meaning of the United States in a single sentence.

"America is freedom and opportunity," he said. "Although we now face very serious challenges at home and abroad, I'm confident that we'll meet those challenges, as we have before, and emerge a stronger and better nation."

Despite its imperfections, he said, the United States is the" most free, the most open and the most just society in all of history."

Mitchell, who served as President Barack Obama's Special Envoy for Middle East Peace from 2009 to 2011, expressed optimism that an agreement will be eventually reached between the Israelis and Palestinians.

"While we were not successful in getting a peace agreement in the Middle East in the latest effort, I do believe that it's very much in the self-interest of both Israelis and Palestinians to conclude their conflict with an agreement and I think that self-interest will be recognized and will prevail, in large part because I think the alternative is more painful."

Mitchell was also asked if he believes members of Congress will ever be able to put aside their partisanship and start working together.

"I don't think the situation will be improved any time soon, except if some major scandal or unexpected problem occurs that arouses the interest and commitment of the American people," he said.

Contributing to the problem, he added, is a media environment that pays attention to those politicians who are the most ideological and negative.

"Watch the news, who gets on? The most extreme statement. The most ideological statement. The most negative statement," he said. "If you're not extreme, you're not negative, then it's like a tree falling in a forest with no one around. No one hears anything."

Sponsored jointly by the University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Monticello, the annual Thomas Jefferson Foundation awards are conferred during the University's Founder's Day celebrations, held around Jefferson's April 13 birthday. In addition to receiving a medal struck for the occasion, recipients attend ceremonies in the Rotunda and a dinner at Monticello.

Mitchell received his award at a ceremony for invited guests Friday at a luncheon in the Dome Room of the Rotunda, alongside fellow recipients Rafael Moneo (architecture) and Jessica Tuchman Mathews (citizen leadership).

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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