Calling Olympia Snowe: Help!

Snowe is the first woman to be elected to both houses of her state legislature and both houses of the U.S. Congress. For four decades, she was a sentinel of good sense in American politics and a member of a vanishing breed in our civic life: a moderate who earned her notoriety not by yelling, but by whispering.

But her greatest contribution may have come two decades ago, during a 20th-century period we thought was contentious before we knew what 21st-century contention would be like. Even so, the parties were at war with each other, there was more shouting than contemplating, and a president had just been impeached. It was the Bill Clinton era, and suddenly there was an Olympia Snowe moment.

Here is what happened after it became clear that an impeached Clinton would soon face a blistering Senate trial:

Snowe approached the Senate majority leader of her own party, Trent Lott. Lott was a bitter partisan, no friend of the 42nd president, and no pushover. But Lott, of Mississippi, and Snowe, of Maine — two lawmakers with yawning geographical and ideological differences — had served together in the House for a decade. They knew each other. They had grudging respect for each other.

Snowe had read deeply into the history of impeachment. She knew the role one of her predecessors, William Cohen, had played as a young member of the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings in the Richard Nixon years; a quarter-century earlier, Cohen, a Republican who actually became the secretary of defense in the Democratic Clinton administration, voted to impeach a president of his own party. She worried that the Clinton impeachment episode would plant a black mark of partisanship on the Senate, already riven by dissension.

“Convicting a president on charges of impeachment is more complex than just determining guilt or innocence,” she wrote to Lott of her examination of the past. “It meant deciding if wrongdoing rose to the level the Constitution established for removal from office.”

Then the two began to consult often, and by the time the Senate reconvened in early January 1999, she had assembled the architecture of a bipartisan approach to the trial in the chamber. At the heart of her thinking: As much as possible, the Senate trial should resemble a court trial, with senators able to “identify the materials and credible facts” of the charges against Clinton.

This was critical because the leaders of the two parties were sparring over the rules for the trial. “This is wrong,” she told a meeting of her GOP colleagues; and soon plans took shape for an unusual meeting of senators in an unusual setting — the Old Senate Chamber, ordinarily used for benign ceremonies and innocuous formalities. The result: bipartisan agreement on how to proceed, and less partisan rancor than might otherwise have been displayed for the world to see in a televised spectacle.

Snowe is gone from the Senate; she left in 2013, but before departing she issued a warning to her colleagues in the form of an op-ed in The Washington Post, speaking of the necessity of “reversing the corrosive trend of winner-take-all politics” in the chamber. Obviously, no one listened.

But for an important time, Lott had listened, even though he surely suspected that Snowe did not see the Clinton matter quite the way he did. Indeed, Lott voted twice to convict Clinton, while Snowe voted twice to acquit him. The president’s opponents lacked the two-thirds vote to convict, and thus to propel him from office.

Today we live in a far different world. Partisanship has grown, the conversation has become even more toxic, and there is more incentive to practice eye-for-an-eye politics than to attempt to see eye-to-eye. No Republicans voted to impeach Donald J. Trump. All but three Democrats voted to send both articles to the Senate trial with the hope Trump might be stripped of the presidency.

No matter how you feel about impeachment — or how you feel about Trump, or the Democrats — it is difficult to deny that our current passage would be more palatable if at least a handful on each side broke with the majority.

A plurality of the most important things this country has done have been with the support of both Republicans and Democrats. Members of both parties voted for Social Security in 1935, for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for both the Medicare and Voting Rights Acts of 1965, for the initiation of military action in both world wars, Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan. Some of those military conflicts begat bitter political conflict later, but they began with bipartisan backing.

The new century reveals a new political landscape. Not one Republican — not even Snowe, who toyed with the notion — voted for Obamacare. Only three Democrats voted for the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, arguably as ardent a jurist on the left as Gorsuch is on the right — perhaps even more so — had been confirmed by a 96-3 vote. That was only a quarter-century ago.

Of course, the parties have changed, in fatal contradiction to the nostrum set forth by Harry Truman in a 1960 memoir:

“I have been fiercely partisan in politics and always militantly liberal,” Truman wrote. “Yet I think we would lose something important to our political life if the conservatives were all in one party and the liberals all in the other. This would make us a nation divided either into two opposing and irreconcilable camps or into even smaller and more contentious groups.”

Truman once was derided by Republicans. Now his no-nonsense sensibility has bipartisan appeal. But the appeal he set forth in the last year of the presidency of a man he reviled (Dwight Eisenhower) and a year before the presidency of one he respected only sparingly (John F. Kennedy) is beyond our ken or capacity.

More’s the pity. Still, there is a deep yearning in a deeply divided country for leadership that is not divisive, and though the chances are minimal, some gestures of bipartisanship in what surely will be the partisan process of a Senate trial would provide a national, perhaps Olympic, sense of relief. Summoning Sen. Snowe.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Recommended for you