The American Political Process drives away another of the good ones

I’m sure everyone in Alfond Arena wondered who the hell I was that I rated a handshake from the senator. It was May 1995, and I was graduating from the University of Maine with my master’s degree in English. Olympia Snowe, long-time member of the House of Representatives, recently elected to the U.S. Senate, stood up from her seat on the speaker’s platform, took a few steps forward, and shook my hand.

Olympia was the Commencement speaker that afternoon. As a member of the local media, I’d interviewed her during a press availability prior to the ceremony. As the news director for a radio station in Bangor/Ellsworth, I’d covered Olympia a lot, and we’d become friendly over the years.

I know, I know—the media are supposed to remain unbiased. I happened to be Republican, though, and although I was covert about it, it made me sympathetic to Olympia Snowe’s message.

This was pre-Fox, so the notion of conservative media hardly seemed possible. Instead, in the mid-90’s the “liberal media” label was still en vogue among mediawatchers.

But what attracted me, as a voter, to Olympia is that she defied those sorts of labels. She was a Republican, yes, but more importantly, she was a moderate. She has defined her entire career in Washington that way, lauded as a “bridge builder,” as someone who could “reach across the aisles.” In 2006, Time magazine named her one of the ten best senators.

She was exactly the kind of politician I could get behind. As a Republican, I’ve been much more a Snowe moderate than, say, a Jack Kemp conservative.

That’s why I was so disappointed today to hear news of her retirement.

In announcing her decision to step away from the Senate, where she’s served since 1994, she cited her frustration “that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions.” She sees no hope that that’ll change in the short-term, either.

The station where I worked covered a third of the state, including many rural areas that had few other media outlets, in an age where the internet didn’t yet exist. Hell, by that point, my father had only been able to get cable TV for five years or so, and he lived along a major north-south state road.

Because Maine is so rural and so small, nearly everything counts as regional news. Murders happened so infrequently that they instantly made headlines across the state. Politicians for national office campaigned door to door.

In that environment, a politician needed coverage from my station as much as I needed access to them for soundbites, so it was possible to cultivate mutually beneficial relationships. At the time, one senator, George Mitchell, was Senate Majority Leader; the other, William Cohen, would soon be tapped as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense. When a national or international story would break, I could literally pick up the phone and call Washington and ask Mitchell or Cohen for a quick soundbite, and they’d happily comply.

Olympia, too, offered that kind of access. She gave good soundbite, and I tried to give fair coverage. We became familiar enough that we engaged in the kind of professional chit-chat that folks with professional relationships have. It got friendly enough that she asked about my daughter, and I’d ask about her husband (who was the state’s governor, as it happened).

I’ve never seen her in action in the Senate, but I’ve seen her plenty of times in rooms full of constituents. She was personal and friendly and had a real ease about her. At a town hall-style meeting in Ellsworth, a woman once confronted her about her pro-choice positions—the woman had had an abortion that left her emotionally troubled, and she chose to spill her anguish on everyone there, demanding anti-abortion legislation so people would not have to suffer the way she claimed she was suffering. Olympia listened respectfully, but finally she had to cut the woman off. I’ve never seen anyone be so commanding yet compassionate at the same time. That kind of interpersonal skill has always been one of her greatest political talents.

She’s earned her retirement, no doubt, and I certainly wish her well. I can’t help but believe, though, that the Senate—and our entire government—will be diminished because of her absence. I’m discouraged that the animosity and partisanship of our political system seems to be driving away the good ones.