Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell spoke to a crowd of over 200 on Monday on the topic of the challenges facing the United States today. Ellsworth American Photo by David Roza

Mitchell focuses on nation’s challenges in Brooksville talk

BROOKSVILLE — When former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell spoke at David’s Folly Farm on Monday, generating strong emotions among his listeners. At several points, he was interrupted by applause from the over 200 people packed into the farm’s barn.

The first round of applause came halfway through his speech, when the Waterville native and former Army intelligence officer said military force “ought to be the last resort” for the United States to achieve its diplomatic goals.

“There are too many in our country who think that the first thing we ought to do is drop some bombs somewhere,” said Mitchell, who, after his career in the Senate in the 1980s and 1990s, served as the United States special envoy in both the Middle East and Northern Ireland, where he helped broker a successful peace agreement between the British and Irish governments.

“There will be times where we have to use force and we must be prepared to do it. But the occasions ought to be rare and urgent.”

Mitchell’s long list of achievements and honors — he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work in the Northern Ireland peace process — impressed the Brooksville Public Library patrons who read his memoir, “The Negotiator.” Library Director Brook Minner took notice.

Former Senator George Mitchell speaking in Brooksville.

“When people return their books I usually ask, ‘How was it?’” Minner said after the speech. “The comment I heard most about his memoir was some version of how much we need politicians like him today: a real statesman, someone who sees the bigger picture and works across the aisle.”

Minner wrote Mitchell an email asking if he would be interested in speaking in Brooksville. The Mount Desert Island summer resident accepted the invitation.

It was Mitchell’s first ever speaking engagement in Brooksville, and he was given a warm welcome. The crowd stood to applaud him when he walked into the barn and when he finished his speech. Afterward they queued for nearly an hour to shake his hand or get one of his books autographed.

In his speech, Mitchell discussed the challenges facing the United States today. He spoke of how trade was deliberately used as a tool to keep nations from warring again after World War II. But he also spoke about how technological advances and, to a lesser extent, trade agreements have led to a great but unequal rise in prosperity.

“While there are many jobs are lost due to trade, most job losses in human history are the result of innovation,” Mitchell said. For example, he spoke of the stagecoach industry, which used to employ men across the East Coast.

“No rational person would argue that we’re worse off that the automobile was invented,” he said.

Mitchell discussed the world’s population growth, and how by 2050 there will be 10 billion people on the planet. A third of them will be Muslim, he said. He talked about global climate change, and how people can debate the different ways to cope with its effects, but that they can’t debate the science that confirms its existence.

To some extent, Mitchell was preaching to the choir. Audience members nodded their heads and occasionally muttered agreements throughout his speech. One man in the audience even encouraged Mitchell to run for office during the question-and-answer period.

But it was toward the end of his speech that Mitchell was interrupted by applause again. He spoke about money in politics, and how the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, and other factors, “opened the floodgates” for wealthy individuals and organizations to influence elections.

“I think it’s one of the worst decisions ever made by any Supreme Court in history. But to be fair to them, they didn’t create the problem,” he said, to more applause. “Money and organizations have always been a factor in governance.”

Mitchell said placing reasonable constraints on campaign contributions and reforming congressional districts to be less partisan would be steps toward “restoring the kind of genuine, fair and competitive democracy that we believe in.”

Despite the divisions in the United States today, Mitchell was hopeful about his country’s future. Mitchell mentioned the 2016 Nobel Prize winners, where all six American prize winners were immigrants. He also mentioned that many of the world’s best universities and business brands are American.

“I for one completely disagree with those who argue the United States is in decline,” said Mitchell, whose father was a janitor at Colby College and whose mother was a textile worker from Lebanon. “I think our best years lie ahead of us.”

“I think each of us,” he continued, “ought to begin and end each day with a ‘thank you’ that we have the privilege of being Americans.”

The whole barn, it seemed, applauded at that.

David Roza

David Roza

David grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and now covers news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.