After her husband, Peter Snowe, was killed in a car accident, Olympia Snowe was urged by family and friends to run for his seat in the Maine House of Representatives. She won that election and every election afterward, including runs for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. On her first day of legislative session in Maine, she remembers standing in the doorway. She had just been sworn in, and a veteran lawmaker approached her and said, “Olympia, I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking around and wondering how you got here.” He assured her that soon enough, she’d be “looking around and wondering how everybody else got here.”
Snowe shared this moment, the one that began a 40-year career in public service, when she spoke in Swasey Chapel on April 18 as part of the Richard G. Lugar Symposium in Public Policy, named for Denison alumnus, trustee and former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar ’54, who joined her on stage.
Throughout her career, Snowe became known as one of Congress’ most respected moderates, often reaching across the aisle to work on major issues pertaining to the national budget, education and technology, and women’s issues, among others. Her success was often praised outside Capitol Hill. In 2005 Forbes Magazine named her one of the most powerful women in the world, and in 2006, TIME listed her as one of the Top 10 U.S. Senators, calling her the Senate’s “caretaker.”
Snowe’s Senate career ended in February when she retired, citing partisan gridlock and an inability of Congress to solve problems. “I was embarrassed to go home and tell my constituents, ‘Well, we didn’t get any work done,'” she told students earlier that afternoon in Professor Eric Boehme’s American Presidency course, where she talked politics and posed for photos. To combat the growth of partisan politics, Snowe said, she decided to take her voice outside Congress and begin Olympia’s List, a website dedicated to recognizing and supporting candidates who put politics aside to get the nation’s work done. She also recently joined the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank dedicated to public policy.
The problems in Washington were a common theme in Snowe’s classroom discussion and at the podium in Swasey. “We are more polarized now than at any other moment in 134 years,” she told the audience of students, faculty, staff, and community members.
To prove her point, she cited the 80th Congress of 1947. Nicknamed the “Do Nothing Congress” by then-President Harry Truman, it passed 906 bills. This Congress by comparison, said Snowe, has passed 283.
The political divide runs deep and way beyond the Capitol Building, even extending to retirement celebrations. It used to be, said Snowe, that those retiring from the Senate—Republican or Democrat—were honored at a joint dinner in the Rotunda. When Snowe retired, she was honored with other Republicans, while Democrats held a separate celebration for their retiring senators. “We couldn’t even say goodbye on a bipartisan basis,” she said. “It’s a sad commentary.”
It’s up to the public to hold the House and Senate responsible. “We have got to get away from this notion that ‘compromise’ is a dirty word,” she said, urging those in the audience to begin to reward candidates who find common ground with their opposing parties and withhold support for those unwilling to compromise. “If you keep reinforcing [polarization],” Snowe said. “This is what you get. This is the government you get.”