Why is Sen. Mitchell giving up power? The question is, why not?

March 09, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

By now, we should be used to it: the example of the politician who does something so unexpected that it shocks even the most politically jaded news watchers.

And, in a way, we are used to it. We know it's just a matter of time before another Richard Nixon or Wilbur Mills or Gary Hart shows up on Washington's Richter scale of political shocks.

In fact, it happened last week.

But this time there was a new twist to the old scenario.

This time, Washington insiders weren't confronted with the familiar shock of a politician lying, cheating or taking bribes. This time, the shocking story unfolding in the nation's capital was a totally unfamiliar one.

If you had to give it a title, you'd call it: The Senator at the Peak of His Powers Who Wouldn't Seek Re-election.

The senator, of course, is Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, who announced last week he would not seek re-election this fall. He gave no specific reason for his decision, saying only, "I'm in good health and good spirits . . . and it's the right time to consider other challenges."

A respected and successful leader, Senator Mitchell was regarded as a sure bet to be re-elected, and his decision not to run left Washington observers "thunderstruck," "shocked" and "stunned."

What in the world could be wrong with him? the pundits wondered aloud and in print.

What did he want? Was he leaving for something better? Baseball commissioner, perhaps? An appointment to the Supreme Court?

Or to put it the way a perplexed Sam Donaldson did on "This Week with David Brinkley": "What has caused him in sort of the prime of his life -- I mean, he's not ill, we don't believe; he's done a great job . . . why is he suddenly saying, I'm out of here?"

After all, wasn't George Mitchell living, as ABC White House correspondent Brit Hume described it, the "ultimate life . . . to be that high in the government"?

Apparently, most Washington insiders -- that small group who number their days not by the rising and setting of the sun but by the rise and fall of political power -- just don't get it.

Apparently, the likes of Brit and Sam just don't get the idea that there is more to the "ultimate life" than power and ambition.

Which, as we all know, generally leads to the desire for more power and more ambition.

Of course, to be perfectly fair about it, a lot of the rest of us don't get it either.

Asked to define the "ultimate life," most of us would turn to the model of a life built on power and money and material success.

How quickly we forget the lesson learned by one politician who, just as he reached the pinnacle of his "ultimate life," confronted the narrowness of his vision. Facing an illness which eventually took his life, the late Republican party chairman Lee Atwater -- known for his down-and-dirty political tactics -- experienced a total change of perspective.

"Forget money and power," Atwater told a reporter just before he died in 1991 at the age of 40. "I had no idea how wonderful people are. I wish I had known this before. What a way to have to find out. . . . Seventy percent of the things I was frantically pursuing didn't matter anyhow."

For a time, Atwater's experience seemed to inspire many in Washington and elsewhere to re-examine their lives. At least briefly.

Facing down death, it seems, rouses most of us to a better appreciation of what needs to be changed about our lives.

Odd, isn't it, that we find it more difficult to accept the wider perspective of someone like George Mitchell: a man who seems to understand -- without benefit of standing in the shadow of death -- that it's important to pursue things that matter.

Sometimes this means moving on, even when things look pretty good -- as they surely did for Senate Leader Mitchell. "The position should not be regarded as permanent to the person," he told reporters last week.

Nor, one is tempted to add, should the person be regarded as permanent to the position.

But both attitudes require someone confident enough to move ahead into what is ultimately an unknowable future. In other words: a free person.

I leave it to others to describe George Mitchell as a lame duck senator. What we have here, it seems to me, is something else: a very, very free duck.

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