As a Republican senator from Maine, Olympia Snowe was known for her willingness to stand alone. A moderate with independent views, she had substantial influence in the health care debate as both sides vied for her vote. Earlier this year she left the Senate, out of frustration, she says, with the inability to get anything done.
Her new book, Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress, is both a political prescription and a personal memoir. In it, she describes growing up and withstanding tragedy; when she was 8, she lost her mother, and a year later, her father died of a heart attack.
Snowe joins NPR's David Greene to talk about how her early difficulties fostered independence, why the Senate's problems aren't institutional, and how a five-day workweek could help Congress get things done.
On how she learned of her father's death when she was 9, while attending boarding school
"I ran down to the main building to make a call to the restaurant [where he worked] to have some kind of affirmation. It was a collect call, and the man who answered the phone at the restaurant told the operator ... 'I don't want to tell [her] their father is dead.' And so of course I heard that. ... In those days, many times you could hear the conversation as the operator is negotiating the collect call ... and so the man was obviously caught in a very difficult situation, not realizing, probably, that I was at the other end and could hear it. ... I threw the phone against the wall and ran out of the building, ran up the hill, obviously distraught."
On the independence she learned as a child after her parents died, and how she carried that independence into her career
"[I learned] to stand alone in some ways. Not that I was alone, but nevertheless you feel somewhat on your own at that early age, making decisions — that somebody's not always there to make decisions for you, to think for you, to work through your problems on a day-to-day basis. So it does engender some confidence and the independence that ultimately I derived from those experiences."
On whether her elevated influence during the health care debate is an indication that there's something fundamentally wrong with the U.S. Senate
"The United States Senate wasn't designed to be a majority-rule institution. It was designed to include and accommodate the rights of the minority and small states as well as large states. And so I think that the balance is right. ...
"It's actually the human behavior — the institution is flexible and resilient. It's the members of the Senate that have changed the equation, regrettably. If you think about it, how many major events that we've managed to transcend on a bipartisan basis, you know, in the 1990s or in the early 2000s, and think about what we transcended: We had a government shutdown, we had impeachment, we had [a] 50-50 Senate. But we did that because we recognized ultimately that we would have our differences but we could overcome them. And that's what's not happening and transpiring today. It's all about the politics. It's leveraging one's political position to the disadvantage of the other side so that they can advance it in the next election."
On why she left the Senate
"It was a hard, cold reality that descended upon me in a very short period of time, actually, because I had been fully immersed in running for re-election for the better part of two years, and traveling the country and of course my state. So I was essentially in a good place organizationally and financially to win re-election, but I became concerned about the tenor in the Senate and what would transpire over the next six years, and came to the regrettable conclusion that it might not change.
"So then I began thinking about my role and how I could best contribute. Was it better to work on the outside to reaffirm the voices of those people who are so frustrated and want things to change and want their government to work? And I thought that that's where I could best contribute at this stage of my life."
On one of her book's recommendations: a five-day workweek for Congress
"Isn't that amazing? To work a five-day workweek? Because what happens is that, you know, on Mondays — at least in the Senate — Monday night we'd have what you'd call a bed-check vote. Just to get, you know, the machinery of the Senate up and running so that we can start the committee process on Tuesday morning ...
"By Thursday, you know, jet fumes, the smell of jet fumes. ... Everybody's heading home, wanting to know when they can adjourn on Thursday so they can leave. [This] very short version of a workweek makes it very difficult to deal with complex issues. And basically they're not even getting the routine matters of business accomplished. We can't pass a budget, which is preposterous."
On whether she's worried that the gridlock in the Senate can't be fixed
"I don't worry about that. I never think about what I can't do. No, absolutely not. It has to change, for the country. People deserve ... better representation. They deserve institutions that are going to solve problems. That means the president and the Congress have to work hand in glove and override their political differences or their political ambitions for the sake of the country. There's never a point now where they put the politics behind them. I mean, they're already talking about the 2016 presidential campaign! We just had an election. Can we now concentrate on the future of this country?"
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Olympia Snowe is known for her willingness to stand alone. The Republican from Maine spent nearly 20 years in the U.S. Senate, often defying party politics and playing a key role in big debates like healthcare reform. Snowe retired this year and says she left out of frustration over the inability to get anything done.
Now the former senator has written a new book. It's called "Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress." The book is also a memoir of her years growing up. Snowe lost her mother when she was eight years old. The next year, her father died of a heart attack in the restaurant where he worked. She was away at boarding school when she heard the news about her dad, and she refused to believe it.
OLYMPIA SNOWE: I ran down to the main building to use the public telephone to make a call to the restaurant, to have some kind of affirmation. And so the operator, you know, makes the call. It was a collect call, and the man at the other end who answered the phone at the restaurant told the operator, said I don't want to tell her that her father is dead. And so of course I heard that.
GREENE: You're nine years old on the phone. The person at the restaurant told the operator, I don't want to talk to her because I don't want to tell her that her father died, not knowing that you were listening.
SNOWE: Right. And so I threw the phone against the wall and ran out of the building, ran up the hill, you know, obviously distraught.
GREENE: That's enough hardship for anyone to ever go through, far too much. But I mean, you then lose your first husband very suddenly. I mean a lot of tragedy. I wonder, how did all of that shape you, your life and career?
SNOWE: Well, it did actually, David, different stages. First of all, obviously losing my parents created a resiliency and an independence. And then, of course, when my first husband died, what I tried to do is to sort of, you know, try to bring some rationale to the circumstance and think about worse circumstances, and also open the door to what other women experienced when all of a sudden they were left alone. And particularly if they had children.
GREENE: I'm struck by using the term independent because obviously a nine-year-old losing both her parents by that young age, you feel a certain independence, and independence becomes something you are very known for in your career in politics and in the Senate, that you really connect that back to what you experienced as a child.
SNOWE: I did. And also to stand alone at that early age and making decisions, that somebody's not always there to make decisions for you, to think for you, to work through your problems on a day-to-day basis. So it does engender some of the confidence that - and the independence that ultimately I derived from those experiences.
GREENE: There was a time when you were standing alone, when President Obama was working on his new law for healthcare, so much alone that everyone was kind of vying for your vote. One Democrat said this is the United States of America, not the United States of Maine, talking about - that you had such elevated importance. Is there something fundamentally wrong, unrepresentative about this body, the U.S. Senate, if one senator from a small state can have that much influence and power in a debate?
SNOWE: Well, you would certainly hope that others would have been involved in that legislation and the back and forth that it necessitated. The United States Senate wasn't designed to be a majority-rule institution. It was designed to include and accommodate the rights of the minority in small states as well as large states.
GREENE: You believe in the institution.
SNOWE: I do.
GREENE: You feel like it's just flawed right now.
SNOWE: No, it's actually the human behavior. The institution is flexible and it's resilient. It's the members of the Senate that have changed the equation.
GREENE: You said that you had the stamina to stay. You have the passion to stay. Tell me why you decided to leave.
SNOWE: It was a hard, cold reality that, you know, descended upon me in a very short period of time, actually, because I had been fully immersed in running for re-election for the better part of two years. So I was essentially in a good place organizationally and financially to win, but I became concerned about the tenor in the Senate and what would transpire over the next six years, and came to the regrettable conclusion that it might not change.
So then I began thinking about my role and how I could best contribute. Was it better to work on the outside to reaffirm the voices of those people who are so frustrated and want things to change and want their government to work?
GREENE: Are you open to criticism from some who say, if you're really a fighter, as hard it got, it was better to stay on the inside and work for change from there?
SNOWE: You can't change what's happening in the United States Senate within the United States Senate. I think that's obvious. I mean I think to some slight degree it may happen, but there's so many forces on the outside that really ties down these institutions overall. I mean you've seen the struggle that's occurring.
I think, you know, on the universal background check, now on immigration, yet to determine whether or not it's going to be possible to achieve a grand bargain for the long-term looming debts. So it's from that standpoint that I made that decision.
GREENE: But what does it say about the state of the Senate if someone who wants change reaches a point where you say I can't do it from the inside, I got to get out?
SNOWE: Well, I had to get out to make - force change on the outside, and I've been travelling the country so my schedule is as ambitious, if not more, in what I'm doing right now. Being part of the Bipartisan Policy Center...
GREENE: And this is one of your main venues for trying to bring change.
GREENE: Well, I wonder, can you tell me something that the Bipartisan Policy Center, that you've now joined on the outside, one concrete thing you feel like they have done that you can point to as a success story for bringing about change in the Senate?
SNOWE: Well, for example, you know, they have already developed a health care cost containment initiative, which is an issue that Congress currently ought to be addressing, but isn't. In addition to that, we will be creating a link that will be called Citizens For Political Reform. This link can be a gathering point for frustrated Americans, but more importantly is to give them, you know, real solutions. Here are the options to break the stalemate, for example.
Go to your elected officials, you know. Tell them this is what they ought to do. Maybe they shouldn't take a recess, you know.
GREENE: Well, this is one thing I wanted to ask you about. One of the prescriptions in your book seems so basic. Lawmakers need to spend more time together.
SNOWE: Right. Isn't that amazing? To work a five-day work week? What happens is that, you know, on Mondays, at least in the Senate, you know, Monday night we'd have what you'd call a bed-check vote. Just to get, you know, the machinery of the Senate up and running so they can start the committee process; on Tuesday morning thing go. By Thursday, you know, jet fumes, the smell of jet fumes.
GREENE: Everyone's heading home.
SNOWE: Everybody's heading home, wanting to know when they can adjourn on Thursday so they can leave. Very short version of a work week makes it very difficult to deal with complex issues. And basically they're not even getting the routine matters of business accomplished. We can't pass a budget. And so when you ask me, well, this is unusual to be on the outside fighting - absolutely, because these are unusual times.
GREENE: Senator Snowe, thanks so much for coming in and talking to us.
SNOWE: Thank you.
GREENE: Olympia Snowe is the former Republican senator from the state of Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.