There are people in Washington about whom one says, "Is there anyone who doesn't like and respect this person?" Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe is one of those people. And the only thing sadder than Snowe's decision to retire from the Senate is that hardly anyone in the nation's capital is described in such deservedly reverential terms anymore.
Snowe's departure is being characterized as the loss of one of the Senate's last moderates, and that's true. But her great contribution to public service and public discourse has not been about her moderate Republican politics. People on both ends of the political spectrum have often been some of the great negotiators and deal-makers in Congress, witnessed by the strong working relationship between the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. Snowe's value is that she puts her country and her state ahead of her own ambitions or party strategy. She is owned by no one. She listens—an unfortunately rare quality in the yell-fest that characterizes Capitol Hill nowadays. She is unfailingly gracious and dignified without being pretentious. She will stop in the Capitol hallway on a busy day to greet visiting students—not delivering a mini-speech, but asking them about their college majors and career ambitions, genuinely interested in the responses. Having dedicated much of her life to public service, Snowe is one of the last great statesmen and women of the U.S. Senate.
A supremely energetic 65, Snowe is not retiring because she is sick. She is retiring because the U.S. Senate is sick, and the partisan poison emanating from the chamber is becoming a dangerous environmental hazard. Congress is seeing a flood of departures by veteran lawmakers disgusted by what has happened to the institution they loved. Former Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd left after the 2010 elections, and it was not—despite snide and uninformed reporting to the contrary—because he was fearful of losing his seat in a tough year for Democrats. Dodd thought he was going to face former Rep. Rob Simmons, a likeable and moderate Republican who would have given Dodd a tougher race than the eventual GOP Senate nominee, wrestling executive Linda McMahon. But that wasn't the calculation for Dodd, who loved the Senate and his colleagues. The conundrum Dodd faced was this: His sister had just died of cancer. His best friend, Kennedy, had just died of cancer. Dodd had survived cancer. He had two little girls and a charming wife. Did he really want to battle 24-7 in what would likely have become a nasty campaign, just to come back to Washington, where—even with the wrongly-described "filibuster-proof" majority of 60 Democratic members—the Democrats still couldn't get done what they wanted? Dodd left.
Snowe's departure will be devastating to what's left of Senate comity. But what's more disturbing is that we now operate in a political environment where people like Snowe are not valued. Activists see compromise as capitulation, an attitude that has been unfortunately echoed on the presidential campaign trail. Some congressmen last year were willing to bring the world to the brink of global recession to make a point about the debt. The United States saw its credit rating drop over the charade, and yet the debt is still out of control. Too many people on Capitol Hill think it is more important to get their way than to get things done. Snowe is among the last of those lawmakers who put the health and wealth of the nation ahead of such selfish motivations. She will be dearly missed.