WASHINGTON — Her decision to wear purple was not by design. She wasn’t trying to make a political fashion statement. It just worked out that way, she says.
“No, you’re talking about being a purple state or something,” U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said on the day of her farewell speech to her colleagues and the American people.
Snowe announced in February that she would retire after nearly 40 years as a state and federal lawmaker.
With 34 of those years in the U.S. Congress, Snowe is in the process of saying goodbye — or mostly “see you later” — to friends and colleagues in the nation’s capital.
“We are not a collection of red states and blue states; we are the United States of America,” Snowe said with a laugh as she paraphrased a refrain uttered by U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, in 2008 on the night he won the Iowa caucus.
“Well, that’s right,” Snowe said. “We want it to be.”
The slight laugh wasn’t cynicism toward the president, who often repeats variations on that theme, as it was an expression of a pent-up anxiety over the us-versus-them state of American politics.
As for the purple blazer. “It was just sort of, what can I wear today that would sort of be bright?” Snowe said. “You know what I mean? Uplifting a little bit. But, you know, it could have been subconscious.”
Lincoln would be sad
Snowe said the entire U.S. Senate has been invited to watch the recently released film, produced by Steven Spielberg, about President Abraham Lincoln. She’s seen the movie and has long admired the iconic Republican president, his vision of preserving the nation and creating equality for all.
Asked what she thought Lincoln would make of these days in Washington, she paused.
“I think he would be sad,” Snowe said. Talk of secession in some parts of the country may be fringe politics, but it’s still worrisome.
“It says you can’t appreciate the blessings of this great country,” Snowe said. “It is important to feel as one. Even though we have regional differences and philosophical differences, you’ve got to think of the whole at times, the whole country. To start thinking in terms of separateness, it creates barriers. It’s unfortunate.”
Snowe said she has part of a letter that was written in the early 1860s as Southern senators were storming out of the chamber on the cusp of the Civil War. The author’s father was the Senate’s sergeant at arms, Snowe said. “Imagine how different our country would be today, how crucial it was to keep the Union intact.”
She said Lincoln would probably be disappointed in that the challenges faced today by Congress really pale in comparison. “Hundreds of thousands died in the Civil War — staggering,” she said.
The ideals of consensus and compromise are not novel to Snowe. She’s long urged bipartisanship and collaboration between the two major parties, regardless of which party happens to hold a majority in Washington at the time.
In her farewell address Thursday, she worried that Congress had forgotten the art of legislating by way of compromise.
“And when the history of this chapter in the Senate is written, we don’t want it to conclude it was here that it became an antiquated practice,” she told her colleagues as she stood on the floor of the Senate.
She also said it wasn’t always easy. In fact, compromise — real compromise — is often more difficult than just picking a side and voting in a political bloc.
Throughout the day she reminded reporters, colleagues and staff that it was stunning to her that while the buildings they all worked in were steeped in history and the artistic portrayals of great acts of American conflict and compromise, Congress was failing to follow in the footprints of the nation’s founders.
She said politicking had become a substitute for governing. “It’s habitual now,” she said. “The exception is now the norm, and people mistake it for somehow we are legislating, when in fact it’s just about sending out a message to reinforce the base and go after the other guy.”
Snowe said you see this extreme politics taking shape in the form of the “trackers” that Maine Gov. Paul LePage complained about. A desire to find or capture”gotcha” moments that can be taken out of context or used in the next campaign has taken over the actual process of governing, she said. In the Senate, the “gotchas” come in the form of bill amendments often designed to force a lawmaker into a devil’s bargain.
They have to vote for measures that will hurt them politically to move forward parts of a bill they actually know are for the betterment of the country.
“You can understand some of it,” Snowe said. “But now it’s almost to the exclusion of anything else we do.”
And dominating the day, the week and the month have been conversations over the ever-looming so-called “fiscal cliff,” a deadline in federal tax code that is coupled with federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, that could set an already fragile American economy tumbling into recession again.
Much of her farewell address was aimed at urging compromise and a deal between President Obama and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Praise from colleagues
Earlier in the week, Senate colleagues of Snowe, both Republican and Democrat, praised her long service and her principles during tribute speeches.
“Sen. Snowe has served her state of Maine and our nation so well,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. “She’s one of our most respected members of Congress. She is known for her civility, her sensibility and her mastery of the substance of the issues. And, I might add, she brings that New England sense of a more frugal government but at the same time shows that it can be done in a compassionate, smart way.”
Mikulski went on to laud Snowe’s advocacy for small business, women’s rights, national security, and the men and women of the armed services. On Thursday, Mikulski said Snowe was a truly inspiring figure for girls and women, not just in the U.S. but around the globe.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, also spoke in tribute to Snowe on Wednesday. McConnell related parts of Snowe’s life story, including the loss of her first husband, Peter Snowe, and how at a very young age Olympia Snowe decided to run for and was elected to her late husband’s seat in the Maine Legislature.
“The young couple seemed well on their way to building a life together,” McConnell said. “But in 1973, in the midst of a winter snowstorm, tragedy struck. Peter was killed in a car crash and, at a still-young age, Olympia was left to build a life for herself.”
He said the tragedy could have marked the end of any political aspirations she may have had, but Snowe had resolved to “make a positive out of a terrible negative.”
It wasn’t the first tragedy in Snowe’s life, nor the last.
She lost her parents as a child and was raised by an aunt and uncle in Auburn. Her uncle died when she was a teenager.
After marrying fellow lawmaker and future Maine Gov. John “Jock” McKernan, the couple suffered the lost of his son.
She still winces when asked about it all. She said she drew strength from her Greek heritage and remaining family, friends and Greek Orthodox faith. But she’s also managed to keep hope and notes her sense of humor has helped, too.
“I always kid my colleagues in the Senate, when they ask, that it’s the Spartan side,” she said.
Snowe said the ultimate lesson is one she shares with anybody who is facing tragedy or tough times.
“A lot of young people have their own challenges, hardships and difficulties,” Snowe said. “And it doesn’t matter what the challenge is or what the problems are. They are all one and the same. You are on the ground, and you have got to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. I just decided it was already bad, and I didn’t want to make it worse, so it was the fighting instinct to survive and to overcome it and know that there is a better day ahead.”
LePage, who shares with young people his story of overcoming the obstacles of his difficult childhood at the hands of an abusive father, joined in the many people praising Snowe this week.
“Sen. Snowe has served the people of Maine tirelessly throughout her career in public service for more than three decades,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “She has been an outstanding advocate for the people of Maine and a fearless leader in Washington, D.C.”
Snowe’s advocacy has included helping small businesses settle disputes with the federal government, such as working with Saddleback Mountain ski area owners in the 1990s to settle a long-standing dispute over the Appalachian Trail and land development, advocating for large employers such as Bath Iron Works and working with individual constituents on issues big and small.
She has most recently worked, among other things, on seeking answers for the family of Pvt. Buddy McLain, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 by an Afghan police officer that McLain and other soldiers were training.
Her inquiries have led to some changes and the discovery that McLain’s death was part of a larger pattern of so-called “friendly” Afghan troops turning their weapons on Americans and allied troops.
She said she’s still pushing and still not satisfied with the answers the Army and others in the military have provided.
Snowe credits her staff in Washington and Maine for their efforts and outreach. Without them, she said, her work wouldn’t have been possible.
Snowe said she’s in the process of working on a book about her time in politics. She’s also launched a new PAC-like organization dubbed “Olympia’s List” that she intends to use to support candidates running for office who share her moderate and consensus-building views.
She joined the Speakers Bureau and intends to speak to various organizations around the country on her career, her views on American politics and how to fix the problems facing the country.
In her farewell address she said she intended to work from the outside to fix what she couldn’t manage from inside the government.
“I’ve spoken to many of you who came here to get things done, to solve problems and achieve great things for our nation,” she told her colleagues in her closing remarks. She said people ask if Washington has always been this polarized. She tells them it hasn’t, and she intends to work to remove the polarizing dysfunction of the deep partisanship in the institution.
“I am so passionate about changing the tenor in Congress because I’ve seen that it can be different,” Snowe said. “It hasn’t always been this way. And it absolutely does not have to be this way.”