A senator's inauspicious rise

Former Sen. George Mitchell recalls his first day in Congress.

Former Sen. George Mitchell told an audience at the FOSE trade show that his ascent to the Senate was not necessarily auspicious.

Mitchell, who delivered the morning keynote address April 4, was serving as a federal judge in Maine when Sen. Edmund Muskie resigned to become President Jimmy Carter's secretary of state in 1980. Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan appointed Mitchell to the vacant seat, offering him some time to think it over.

Mitchell told the crowd that he consulted with his two brothers, with whom he had always been competitive. Both tried to discourage him, he said. One told him, "We don't know how you got to be a judge, let alone a senator," at least according to Mitchell's possibly embellished humorous retelling.

Mitchell accepted the offer and met then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd on the floor of the Senate for a quick swearing-in during the normal course of Senate business. It happened so quickly that "Nobody knew what had gone on, not even senators who were standing a few feet away," he said.

Right after the swearing-in, the bill that was under debate came up for vote. Mitchell told the audience that he now holds the Senate record for the shortest time between swearing-in and first vote: two minutes.

The day ended, he said, with an invitation to deliver a keynote speech to 3,000 certified public accountants. After his new assistant disillusioned him of the notion that the convention had held the spot open for him -- they'd actually had several speakers cancel -- he fretted that he knew nothing about their requested topic, the tax code.

His assistant set him straight on that score too, he said, saying: "You are now a U.S. Senator. You will regularly be called on to speak on subjects you know nothing about."
 

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