Majority leader Mitchell is leaving Senate for love

April 23, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Well-wishers who besieged Sen. George J. Mitchell at a Democratic fund-raiser the other night seemed delighted they could finally make sense of the stunning developments in his life.

Now they understood why the majority leader is leaving the Senate at the peak of his career.

And why he turned down a seat on the Supreme Court.

And why he seems to be grinning all the time these days, transforming a countenance that often used to be dour.

"He has chosen love," declared Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, fairly gushing from the fund-raiser podium over the straight-laced senator's latest bombshell:

The 60-year-old Mr. Mitchell is engaged to marry a 35-year-old New York sports promoter.

Or maybe Mr. Mitchell has chosen both love and baseball.

A native of Maine and a lifelong Red Sox fan, he is considered the leading candidate for commissioner of Major League Baseball, a job that would pay him $1.5 million a year for 10 years and provide him with homes in Maine, Washington, Florida and New York, where his fiancee, Heather MacLachlan, is based.

"He can play tennis in the morning and watch baseball games in the afternoon," observed Frederick H. Graefe, a lobbyist and friend of Mr. Mitchell who is convinced of the love-and-baseball theory.

But Mr. Mitchell told reporters at a breakfast meeting Thursday that his plans to marry Ms. MacLachlan, the managing director of a sports marketing firm, were "not a factor" either in his decision to retire from Senate when his term ends in January or in his rejection of a Supreme Court nomination.

In 1989, Mr. Mitchell recalled, he had intended to "serve this term and one more."

"But in January of this year, I began thinking for the first time about the possibility of not serving an additional term and leaving at the end of this term.

L "And I finally decided that was the right course of action."

By January, Mr. Mitchell had already been dating Ms. MacLachlan for nearly five months, conducting a commuter courtship between Washington and New York, and was "very devoted" to her, according to a Mitchell friend.

Ms. MacLachlan told an interviewer for Tennis Week magazine in February that she was cutting back this year on a hectic European travel schedule. The magazine listed her as being among the most powerful women in tennis. In 1986, she became the first female agent of a male professional tennis player -- Boris Becker -- a relationship that has since terminated.

Mr. Mitchell insists that there was no specific factor precipitating his announcement March 4 that he would leave the Senate after 11 years, not even the huge workload of being majority leader, which many colleagues blame for burning him out.

"It is a very difficult and demanding position," Mr. Mitchell acknowledged yesterday.

"But that is not the reason I'm leaving . . . I simply began thinking about it in a more immediate way than I had before, and I decided this would be an appropriate time."

As for his decision to turn down the Supreme Court seat -- catching the White House so off-guard that the nomination process is now in limbo -- Mr. Mitchell says his motive was the chance to devote his full energies to getting health reform legislation enacted.

"I've made no other decision," the majority leader continued with what has become a standard reply. "I have not been offered commissioner of baseball. If offered, I will consider it at that time."

The senator even rejects the notion that he now seems much happier and more relaxed.

"That's just you imposing on me your own expections," Mr. Mitchell, seeming unusually light-hearted, told a reporter outside the Senate chamber.

Maybe so, but the pieces fit together rather neatly.

A self-made man from a working-class family, Mr. Mitchell put himself through law school and climbed to the top ranks of the political system.

But he has never made any money to speak of.

Divorced in 1987 from his wife of 28 years, Mr. Mitchell has occasionally revealed hints of a private side much livelier than his bland public persona, popping up now and then in gossip columns.

At a time when Mr. Clinton is being asked to describe his underwear, Mr. Mitchell refuses to provide any details of his relationship with Ms. MacLachlan beyond the terse three-line engagement statement issued Tuesday.

So now he can finish his Senate career on a high note by brokering the final deal on health care reform, an issue he cares deeply about.

Then, he can go off and be a private citizen, making enough money to keep pace with the jet-set lifestyle of a young woman who spent seven years as the companion of Ion "Dracula" Tiriac, the flamboyant Romanian tennis player and manager.

And who knows? Maybe Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist will retire while Mr. Clinton is still president and still owes Mr. Mitchell big time.

If he gets such an offer, the majority leader says, he'll consider it at that time.

And he grins.

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