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Mitchell Says Bush Deserves A Lot Of Credit For Bipartisanship


All right. As the nation prepares for President George H.W. Bush's funeral today, we're going to hear now from the top Democrat in Washington during Bush's presidency. George Mitchell was Senate majority leader. And during that time, Congress passed landmark laws like the Clean Air Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both were products of compromise, and both were signed by President Bush. Mitchell said he did a lot of the harder negotiating with his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Bob Dole. And that's why I asked him this.

So how much credit should President Bush get for the bipartisanship of the time?

GEORGE MITCHELL: A lot of it. He was, by nature, an honorable, decent man - clearly a patriot. He had fought early in his life in the Second World War as a Navy pilot. He knew the consequences of worldwide conflict. He was deeply committed to the role of the United States as the leader of the free world, as the dominant power in the world. So I think he was a major contributor to the attitude that led us to engaging in these difficult issues. And I have to tell you, it sounds easy when you say them, but this took months and months - in some cases, years - of very intense, hard-fought negotiations, very strong disagreements - but all within a context of good faith and trying to reach an objective.

The budget agreement was really the epitome of that. The president had made his pledge during the campaign of no new taxes.

GREENE: Right.

MITCHELL: It was good politics but bad policy. And once he got into office and once we heard from the Congressional Budget Office in early 1990 that the deficit threatened to reach $150 billion if we didn't act, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, sat down and resolved, we have to do something about this. That laid the foundation for balancing the budget and for some of the most successful economic years in American history following that as a consequence. And President Bush had a major part in laying the foundation for that and deserves credit for it.

GREENE: But did that decision to go against his pledge cost him re-election?

MITCHELL: Well, some say it did. I can't identify cause and effect as clearly as that. You could ask the question - if we hadn't done anything on the budget because he insisted on not breaking his pledge and the economy had plunged into an even deeper recession, would he have lost the election anyway for that reason? It's hard to know. I leave that to the historians and the pundits. I do know he did the right thing.

GREENE: I'm glad you brought up the so-called - you know, the push for democracy around the world by the United States - because you and some other Democrats as well as some Republicans were critical of President Bush at times as the Soviet Union fell. I mean, there were these revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe. And there was a feeling that President Bush was not strong enough in carrying the flag of those movements - that he was, you know, more of a pragmatist, more reserved. Do you stand by that criticism?

MITCHELL: Well, I don't recall a specific criticism to which you're referring there. All...

GREENE: I think I read a quote from you. You were encouraging him to go to the Berlin Wall to acknowledge what you said was the tremendous significance of the symbolic destruction of that wall. And the president decided that a more reserved approach might be smart in a moment like that.

MITCHELL: Well, I stand by that. I had a long personal interest in Berlin because I served there in the United States Army when I was a young man during the time of the peak of the Cold War. And I have a very warm spot in my heart for Berlin. I did feel that the president should go, and I still regret that he didn't. And I kind of think he might have, at some time later, regretted not going there. There are many things on which we disagreed that way. But there was no fundamental disagreement about the role of the United States, about what we were doing in the world and what we continue to do in the world, as we should, as the dominant power representing free, open and democratic people and also those who wish to be free and democratic.

GREENE: What's his legacy as a diplomat?

MITCHELL: I think generally successful. He managed the collapse of the Soviet Union, from the Western and United States perspective, in a largely effective way. Not perfect - none of this is perfect, and no person is perfect. And someone - he stood up, of course, in the case of the Middle East. I think you could generally say that his international policies were consistent with historic and traditional American policies and that they were largely successful in protecting and defending the interests of the United States.

GREENE: And let me finish by just, you know, noting that you're going to be attending the funeral today, you know, which has brought a pause...


GREENE: ...And a potential shutdown of Congress should lawmakers not come to an agreement. But you know, on a day like this, is there some message you would send to lawmakers who are heading back to Washington in January to start a new term?

MITCHELL: My message would be, let's not just honor President Bush's legacy; let's act on it. And let's try to reintroduce some of the humaneness and integrity and bipartisanship that he contributed to during his time in office.

GREENE: Are you optimistic about that?

MITCHELL: I'm hopeful.

GREENE: Senator Mitchell, thank you so much for your time, as always.

MITCHELL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTUPENDO'S "BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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