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The Mouse Who Whored

There were many inexplicable facets to the political sham, and shame, that was ABC’s The Path to 9/11 miniseries. But the most bewildering was the whereabouts of George Mitchell, the chairman of ABC’s parent company, The Walt Disney Co. Mitchell has long been known as the ultimate compromise broker. Yet, a Nexis database search shows he’s not mentioned in a single article or news transcript ever since outrage over this concocted-by-conservatives piece of anti-Clinton propaganda erupted among Bubba’s former administration members, Democratic leaders and liberal bloggers (as well as American Airlines) starting September 1. Why wasn’t Mitchell front and center soothing his pals? Or, at the very least, alongside president and CEO Bob Iger, who, left on his own, not only messed up by allowing the discredited b.s. to be broadcast (unlike CBS’s Les Moonves, who yanked that Reagan biopic at the first smell of stink), but then mishandled the media mayhem that resulted.

Mitchell used to be the most politically adept of U.S. senators, first as a backbencher (1980-1988), and then as Senate majority leader (1989-1995). But he really shined after leaving Congress when he served for five years as Bill Clinton’s special adviser on Northern Ireland and brokered the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. Then, an international commission he headed produced a “Road Map to Peace” that outlined how Israelis and Palestinians might finally coexist. After that, navigating The Path to 9/11 should have been a cakewalk. Instead, for the company, it turned into a minefield.

That Mitchell will be succeeded by John Pepper, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble effective January 1, is no excuse for the Disney chair to go AWOL. For one thing, Mitchell is still pocketing a hefty paycheck. He owns about $1.8 million in Disney stock and, according to the company notice of its annual meeting, receives $500,000 as the annual retainer for being board chairman.

Shareholders need to know exactly how much time Mitchell has actually been spending on Disney business this year, including how much time at Disney headquarters. Not much, I hear. After all, Mitchell recently was chosen to head Major League Baseball’s steroid investigation. Even that move was questionable because of his status as chairman of Disney, which owns ESPN, one of MLB’s broadcasting partners, and was the outlet for a short-lived reality series on Barry Bonds as the alleged steroids user pursued Hank Aaron’s career home-run record. Which begs the questions: Why isn’t Mitchell putting Disney business first?

Then again, Mitchell has been a disappointment on so many levels since arriving at Disney, both as a longtime board member and, since March 2004, as nonexecutive chairman. There’s a long list of problems associated with his Disney tenure, nearly all of them rooted in his Igor-like relationship with the bossman he ultimately replaced, Michael FrankenEisner. That’s also why 24 percent of Disney shareholders withheld votes for Mitchell’s re-election to the board in 2004, a startlingly high number.

In December, Disney’s board requested that Mitchell, who turned 73 last month, postpone his planned retirement and stand for re-election to facilitate an orderly succession process. But the move was controversial; after all, Mitchell in the recent past sup­ported Disney’s corporate governance requiring directors to retire when they reach 72. That was the reason why Roy Disney quit as director in 2003, after learning that he would not be nominated for another term because he’d be too old.

Politically, liberals had every reason to think this like-minded corporate magnate might work to even the playing field for them inside Disney. But Disney’s ABC radio network and its ABC-owned and -operated radio stations still broadcast conservative talk radio virtually 24/7 because Mitchell has done nothing about it. Nor has he laid down the law with Disney’s chief lobbyist, Preston Padden, Disney’s executive vice president of government relations and one of Washington, D.C.’s most well-connected Republican lobbyists.

Padden is a founding member of a loose-knit group billed as “Entertaining Republicans” that raised $100,000 for the Republican Party in 2004. Since 2005, Padden has been actively coordinating with the National Republican Congressional Committee to raise money for GOP congressional candidates running in the 2006 midterm elections. (In fact, Padden’s boss, Bob Iger, attended one NRCC $500-a-plate breakfast fund-raiser organized with Padden’s help and hosted by House Speaker Dennis Hastert.) Meanwhile, Padden’s new No. 2 is Bill Bailey, former communications adviser to Senator John McCain.

Meanwhile, Padden, who used to lobby on behalf of Rupert Murdoch, was set to use all of his considerable influence in the GOP-controlled Congress and White House on Disney’s behalf when Comcast was interested in gobbling up the Magic Kingdom. Now his biggest issue, besides pushing for antipiracy legislation, is preventing congressional bills that would allow so-called “à la carte” cable pricing (to let consumers pay only for the cable-TV channels they want, thus upending the traditional cable-TV bundle), which could hurt Disney’s ESPN and family channels.

Then again, ABC’s parent company Disney has a history of being close to the Bush administration since 9/11. Let’s not forget that W pleaded just days after the tragedy for Americans “to return to the kind of lives we were leading before [9/11], ­especially air travel .?.?. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Go down to Disney World in Florida; take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.” It was as close to a White House commercial for Disney as any corporation could dare hope. Then Bush followed that up weeks later with a PR visit to Orlando, where the Magic Kingdom had suffered a 25 percent drop in ticket sales. And since then, in addition to the usual tax breaks from W’s brother, Jeb, Disney World has benefited from special security measures, including extra protection and a federally declared “no flyover zone.”

And let’s not forget that former chairman/CEO Michael Eisner, although he has supported Democratic candidates like Bill Bradley in the past, pulled the distribution plug on Fahrenheit 9/11 even though stockholders were starving for movie-division profits after everything else on Disney’s slate in the first half of 2004 fell flat. But that was an out-in-the-open partisan documentary. Besides, movies have no special responsibility to the public. But networks do, which is why the government licenses the public airwaves.

The moment The Path to 9/11 was announced, Mitchell should have been aware what an obvious political hatchet job this was, and then drafted early on to work out a compromise that would correct its deliberate inaccuracies and misrepresentations. That way, ABC could have come away with kudos, not criticism, for a docudrama that the whole country could have been proud of. (And yes, I think that was possible here.)

Instead, even huge network advertiser American Airlines is furious over the way it was portrayed in a totally fabricated scene of the ABC miniseries that had terrorist Mohammed Atta walking up to an American Airlines counter in Boston and later boarding the plane despite Atta being flagged for buying a last-minute ticket. An airline spokesman said: “We are looking at possible legal actions as a result. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, it was not American Airlines, nor was it even the right airport that was depicted.”

As for Mitchell, he owes not just Disney shareholders, but also the public, an apology for being AWOL. Obviously, he’s forgotten an early lesson he was taught about the critical nature of conflict resolution. According to news archives, the lesson took place in September 1992 when he led a bipartisan Senate delegation to the bloodied Balkan region and passed through a small town on the border between Bosnia and Croatia where Serb militia and townspeople had evicted their Croat neighbors and burned down their homes. Then, after the war winds shifted, the Croats returned to burn out the Serbs.

“It’s hard for an outsider to tell who won,” Mitchell reportedly said to the town’s mayor. Replied the mayor: “Nobody won. We will repair our buildings long before we repair our souls. It will take generations to get over the mistrust and the hatred generated by this war.” Given the deepening political polarization of this country, and Disney’s role this past week in inciting more animosity, Mitchell still has a lot to learn.