Emory Report

May 30, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 34

Mitchell gives spare, salient advice

By Michael Terrazas

George Mitchell is a man of his word, which is perhaps what has made the former U.S. senator from Maine the great statesman and diplomat he is. And after making a promise in the opening of his speech to Emory graduates at the University's 155th Commencement May 15, Mitchell delivered.

"[Robert Reich has] authorized me to say that last year you had the shortest Commencement speaker on record," Mitchell said, referring to the diminutive former secretary of labor, who delivered last year's address. "This year I'll try to give you the shortest Commencement speech in history."

Mitchell followed through with a lecture that clocked in at just over six minutes. In it he gave a brief history and commentary on the peace process in Ireland; Mitchell chaired both the International Commission on Disarmament in Northern Ireland and the peace negotiations between the Irish and British governments.

"The making of peace is a never-ending process, as each generation struggles anew with the tension between the legacy of history and the promise of a better future," Mitchell said. "Can people who have been divided and in conflict for centuries rise above their past for the mutual benefit of a stable and prosperous future? That's what the people of Northern Ireland are trying to do. They are working to provide the conditions in which each individual can live a full and meaningful life. That should be the goal of every society, including our own."

Mitchell served in the Senate for 15 years. In 1980, he replaced Edmund Muskie, who left his Senate post to become secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter. Mitchell was elected to a full term in 1982 and was reelected in 1988 with an unprecedented 81 percent of the vote. He served as Senate majority leader for six years and re-signed from Congress in 1995.

The governments of Britain and Ireland asked Mitchell to broker their peace negotiations, and in his address he urged the Class of 2000 to show the same respect for humanity that has prompted some of the healing in those two countries' long and bitter conflict.

Mitchell challenged the graduates to not only shun acts of discrimination and injustice but to actively fight them: "Never forget that in the presence of evil, silence makes you an accomplice."

"The education you've received is important, even necessary," Mitchell said. "But it is not a guarantee of self worth. It is not a substitute for a life of effort. What you do is important. How you do it is just as important."

Finally, Mitchell encouraged graduates to take pride in their work, whatever it may be.

He said real fulfillment in life comes not from leisure or idleness but rather from striving for an objective that is "larger than your self-interest."

He quoted the writer John Gardner: "An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because it is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."

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