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After weeks of offering quiet advice, Mitchell goes public in president's defense; Ex-Senate majority leader is unpaid Clinton defender able to talk to both sides; TRIAL IN THE SENATE


WASHINGTON -- The latest White House defender is armed with a sparkling international reputation, a Rolodex of Senate sources, an impressive record as a lawyer, a knowledge of constitutional history and, for good measure, a knighthood from the queen of England.

He is George J. Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, who in recent weeks has been quietly advising President Clinton on how best to navigate the Senate waters during the impeachment trial.

Now, Mitchell is going one step further, hitting the airwaves to try to discourage the calling of witnesses and to defend the president in the trial.

How effective the Democrat will be in wooing Republicans is up for debate. But he is a widely admired figure who has made friends on both sides of the aisle.

Mitchell wasted no time in speaking out this week -- a move strongly supported by the White House. And Clinton allies could not have been displeased by what they heard.

'A nuclear weapon'

"Removal from office is like a nuclear weapon that is simply unsuited to these events," he told CBS News on Thursday night.

"This must be the most investigated relationship in all of human history," he later complained to NBC, referring to Clinton's friendship with Monica Lewinsky.

Mitchell will bang the drum for the Clinton camp tomorrow in an appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press."

"His advice on how to proceed has proved invaluable to the legal team and to the political team here," says Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman, noting that Mitchell is working for the president on a "behind-the-scenes, advisory and consultative basis."

Those close to Mitchell say that while the White House is eager for his support, it did not pressure him to speak out this week.

Clinton and Mitchell have long enjoyed a close working relationship. The president intended to nominate Mitchell to the Supreme Court in 1994, but the former senator from Maine took himself out of the running.

Mitchell, 65, is often billed as a "man for all seasons."

He negotiated the successful peace accord in Northern Ireland (earning him the knighthood); he heads a panel investigating bribery allegations in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and he is studying player salaries for Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. (Mitchell himself was formerly considered for the job of baseball commissioner.)

Irish clubman

Everyone seems to want him: Just this week he was named chairman of the Irish National Golf Club.

The effort to save Clinton's presidency presents a new challenge. Mitchell, an unpaid White House adviser, is expected to reach out to wavering Democrats and moderate Republicans who will decide Clinton's fate in the Senate.

"He has a great appreciation for feeling and nuance," said Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican who worked with Mitchell on Northern Ireland. "He knows how to use his influence in the right way. He will be anything but a bull in a china shop."

Mitchell does double duty at law firms in Maine and Washington. Hal Pachios, a longtime friend and fellow lawyer, says Mitchell can marshal the arguments against Clinton's removal through keen legal reasoning.

"He can articulate legal concepts better than anyone I know," Pachios said.

Washington wise man

Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, says Mitchell fills a ritual role here: the Washington wise man.

"These people are very valuable because they know everybody, and they can move messages back and forth between people quietly, through back channels," Hess said.

The son of a janitor and a Lebanese immigrant, Mitchell grew up in Waterville, Maine. He served as a U.S. attorney and federal District Court judge before being elected to the Senate.

After serving as majority leader from 1989 to 1994, he retired from the Senate at a time when he could have been re-elected easily. It has been anything but a quiet "retirement."

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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