Former senator visits UI

Former Senator George Mitchell makes a joke in a speech given Thursday at the Law Building, as Heidi Hurd, Dean of the College of Law, looks on. Ben Cleary

Former Senator George Mitchell makes a joke in a speech given Thursday at the Law Building, as Heidi Hurd, Dean of the College of Law, looks on. Ben Cleary

By Tracy Culumber

With an audience of 325 University alumni, students and faculty members overflowing into two other rooms, former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, spoke about “America’s Role in the World in the 21st century” at Max L. Rowe Auditorium in the Law Building Thursday afternoon.

Mitchell, 72, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1980 to 1995 and as the Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995, focused his lecture on the U.S. need for improved international relations and improved intelligence capabilities.

“The vast network alliance of free nations, led by the U.S., must be renewed and invigorated,” Mitchell said. “For American democracy, power and principle must be mutually enhancing.”

Mitchell’s lecture was presented as part of the University’s College of Law’s annual Vacketta-DLA Piper lecture series, which allows law students to see the government in action and investigates the evolving role of government in the U.S. and the world.

The series was sponsored by the DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary legal firm and alumnus Carl Vacketta, a partner in the firm and recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award.

“It’s my way of giving back to a great institution and a great law school,” Vacketta said.

Dave Johnson, director of communications for the College of Law, said past lecturers in the series included U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, who is DLA Piper senior policy adviser and co-chair of the firm’s Homeland Security Task Force.

Vecketta, along with the Dean of the College of Law, Heidi Hurd, and Chancellor Richard Herman, introduced Mitchell with a short summary of his life achievements.

Mitchell has been at the forefront of American politics for nearly 40 years and gained national prominence as a leader in the1987 Senate investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair and as a negotiator for the1998 Northern Ireland peace accord. For his efforts, he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award, and the United Nations Peace Prize. He also championed similar peace agreements in 2001, which called for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.

“The trade of a negotiator is modesty and patience,” Mitchell said.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton nominated Mitchell to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Justice Harry Blackmun, but Mitchell declined the nomination because he wanted to focus on the nation’s healthcare reform. Mitchell currently works as an international adviser and on numerous committees and boards both domestically and abroad. He also works for the Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand law firm, which merged with Piper Rudnick in 2003.

“It is cool that they can get someone with his credentials to speak to us,” said Matt Heinlen, graduate student.

Mitchell said the University is one of dozens of universities and colleges that he has visited across the country. He said that he was at Colorado College Wednesday night and flew to Illinois Thursday for the lecture.

“We want all our young people to have an awareness of their society,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell told media members before the lecture that the “heart-warming” stories of people with little or no education will be rare in the future, and despite our nation’s excellent higher education system, education at the elementary and secondary level are critical to our nation’s future.

Mitchell, who has a law degree from Georgetown University, did not focus on his years in the Senate, but he began his lecture with a humorous anecdote about his “disillusionment” with the government on the day he was sworn into office. Despite the light-hearted introduction, Mitchell’s speech had a very serious message about the responsibility of the U.S. in a world with increasing threats of terrorism, nuclear warfare and the rising hostility towards the U.S. among the international community.

“Terror is a tactic, not an enemy,” Mitchell said. “Power is perceived to be the primary influence in the world. Our power is the greatest it’s ever been, but our standing in the world is the lowest it has ever been.”

Mitchell also said because 90 percent of U.S. intelligence is dedicated to collecting information, and only 10 percent is analysis, the obtained data is of little value to the protection of the nation.

At the conclusion of his speech, Mitchell briefly addressed the questions of the audience before moving to the reception in the Peer and Sarah Pedersen Pavilion outside the auditorium for refreshments.

“America is a land of opportunity,” Mitchell said. “I believe in the American dream because I’ve lived it. I think our country can be proud of the record we have.”