Olympia J Snowe

Speech to the John F. Kennedy School of Government- June 3, 1997

Olympia J Snowe
June 03, 1997— Cambridge, Massachusetts
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Thank you very much, Dean Nye. And I appreciate you not giving my age. You know, I now have the honor of being the Senior Senator from the state of Maine since Secretary Cohen, now Senator Cohen, became Secretary Cohen. And I was introduced recently at an event in Maine. And the man said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you the next senior citizen from the state of Maine." So, I figured he must have known I was having a certain milestone birthday this year.

Dean Nye, I want to thank you. And my thanks to you, Rachel, and the class of 1997 to extend to me this kind invitation for me to address this year's graduates of the Kennedy School.

Dean Nye, America's system of higher education was invented at Harvard. And under your guidance, the Kennedy School continues that legacy.

And I also want to say that I'm delighted to see Sheila Burke here. Sheila is certainly missed in the Senate. I have no doubt that Sheila's vast political and policy experience with Senator Dole is a superb resource for all the students here, as she was for all of us in the United States Senate.

But, let me offer my highest accolades for you, the members of the 1997 graduating class, who along with families and friends are appropriately our focus today. You are securing one of the most prestigious and renowned academic degrees in America, and you deserve the warm congratulations of everyone here. I'd like to begin today by quoting Homer from The Odyssey. This is probably the last time you'll sit through the ancient Greeks. I'm referring to Homer, not myself. In the Eleventh Book of The Odyssey he writes, "There's a time for many words, and there's also a time for sleep." That's true. And I just hope my remarks won't be a time for both.

The ceremony here today reminds me also of a commencement speaker at, I hate to say it, Yale a few years ago. There isn't a ...(inaudible) in Yale who said that does not tell its tale of wonderment and glory. Y, for instance, stands for "youth." And for half an hour he told of the joys of youth in tones of rapture. With scarcely a pause for breath he went on. "A" is for ambition. And when I think of the importance of ambition joined with youth, words fail me. Except they did not, for another half hour of exposition.

It was when he was well into the third half hour portion of his speech, devoting it to "L" for labor, that one graduate turned to another and whispered, "Thank God, this isn't the John F. Kennedy School of Government." Well, I don't plan to keep you here that long because you have important work to do. You're about to embark upon an honorable and noble journey. One that may well influence the future of our nation and world. And if that's not enough pressure for you, hopefully your journey, as well, will help restore the lustre of public service that has slowly and steadily been dulled by the course of the past 30 years.

That's why I applied to you for taking on the solemn, and yet sometimes imposing responsibility. And as you prepare to enter public service, I want to speak with you today about the great tasks facing our nation's political leaders. And that is, making government work.

It's a task made more daunting by the mounting chorus of partisanship that has engulfed our nation's politics. While many have embraced this approach, to paraphrase Shakespeare, I come here today not to praise partisanship but to bury it.

As you are aware, it seems that we live in a time where partisanship and ideology are held in greater value by many of our nation's elected officials in service to the American people. We live in a time when the campaigning never stops, and the governing all too frequently never begins. When public disenchantment with politic runs high. In an age where issues and outcomes are spun often by spin doctors. I go back far enough in politics, where I remember a world without spin.

The enduring fact is we are a great nation with resilient citizens who have overcome the most powerful trials of the 20th century. Our success in the 21st century will require cooperation, not confrontation. Civility not hostility. Vision not division. In short, it will require the restoration of confidence in our nation's leaders and our political institutions. And that confidence, I believe, will only be secured by evidence of a new and lasting bipartisanship among our leaders.

Now I have it on good authority that the J.F.K. School has a bible, composed of two testaments. The Old Testament is a classic text by Edith Stokey and Richard Zeckhauser. A primer for public policy analysis. Familiar?

The New Testament is Graham Allison's Essence of Decision. While the Old Testament recognizes the need to identify the public good and pursue it, the New Testament examines the intangible quality and uses of leadership in the public arena. It is my thesis this afternoon that these fundamental themes of leadership and the public good, forever and eternally intertwined, are too often the missing ingredients from political debate today. A predicament that forces those of us dedicated to public service, you and I to ask the question, "Can we govern?"

I don't arrive at this question as some sort of above the fray Monday morning quarterback. I've spent nearly a quarter of a century in the electoral politics serving in four different legislative bodies during the past three decades. It's been a time during which the dynamics of politics and of government have changed dramatically. But thank goodness, not irreparably.

My journey to public office began on the road to the State House in Augusta, Maine in 1973. I was a young widow with a political science degree, running for the legislative seat held by my late husband. And I was honored when the people of my home town of Auburn elected me to represent them in the Maine House of Representatives. It was important to look at the life beyond oneself, "to climb of hills of you" in Robert Frost's words, and to be immersed in the times of my life.

I felt then, as I do now, that public service was a high calling. It was, and is, my deepest conviction that no pursuit is as valuable or worthy of, than the simple idea of helping others. Of enabling individuals to improve their lives. Of softening the hardest days and brightening the darkest. Put simply, I felt that as a public servant, my job was to solve problems.

Now, if you think that sounds innocent or naive, consider the credo of the school you're about to depart. And I quote, "The Kennedy School serves the public interest by preparing leaders for service in government, and other institutions in democratic societies. And by contributing to the solutions of important public problems."

Indeed, consider for a moment how strangely quaint, even peculiar that sounds in today's political environment. Contributing to the solutions of important public problems.

I mentioned my early days of public life, because I've reflected back many times in this period, which stands in both contrast to the political ethos that exists today. In Augusta I found that politics and public life were positive and constructive endeavors. Once the elections were over, my colleagues in the Maine legislature and I put campaigns and party labels behind us, so that we could enact laws that genuinely improve the lives of the citizens of our state.

It was a sort of political environment that fulfilled my vision of what I thought public service should be. Let me give you an example of what you might call the Augusta model, a model I'm sure you won't find in any of their textbooks, that provides a compelling allegory of politics circa 1975. Several days before the adjournment at a legislative session, I was appointed by the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives to a bipartisan group of legislatures, given something out of a script of Mission Impossible. Our assignment was to develop a constitutional amendment to disband an antiquated government entity called The Executive Council, which existed solely to approve gubernatorial appointments. We in the group were frankly skeptical about our mission. Given numerous past failed efforts to disband this administrative dinosaur, our apologies to New Hampshire which still has one. And not to mention that we were in the final hectic days of the legislative session, hardly an opportune time to try to abolish anything, let along 150 year old political institution.

Nonetheless, I have always remembered the resoluteness with which we approached the task. We researched the question, we considered the concerns about colleagues, we looked at past history, we negotiated. We reached a consensus recommendation. And despite, as I said, being tasked with this project as a final session of the legislature, we passed our legislation creating a confirmation process that passed both Houses of the Maine legislature. Now this process probably sounds like something from an undergraduate Poli.Sci 101 class. A logical and efficient way to solve an important public problem. In 1975, yes, in 1997, sadly no. Today in Washington it might unfold something like this.

There would be endless bickering over the membership of the working group. You might even appoint a working group to study the membership of the working group. Some would call for the working group to be disbanded. Others would seek to limit its funding. Still others would demand that the scope of the working group be shrunk or expanded. And then presuming the working group in its original mandate survived at all, it almost certainly would be bogged down in partisan disagreements reaching either a highly politicized conclusion, or maybe no conclusion at all.

While it is true that government today can work like this, it simply doesn't have to be inevitable. Indeed, my first defining experience in Washington, after service in the Maine State House of Representatives, the Maine State Senate, demonstrates that problems can be solved, even under the most unlikely of conditions.

When I first came to Washington in January of 1979, as the U.S. representative for Maine's congressional district, it became clear to me rather quickly that Congress was practically oblivious to a critical set of issues, those of particular importance to our nation's women. One thing he emphasized, this observation was not fueled by a super-charge sense of radical feminism, or greed group politics; it was simply the truth.

I was, after all, one of only 17 women members in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979. To put this in perspective, that was about 3% of the entire U.S. Congress, in a nation in which made up more than 50% of the electorate. Frankly, I'd been preceded by a remarkable group of women. Because two years previous, Elizabeth Holtzman, a pro-choice Democrat, and Margaret Heckler, a pro-life Republican, had put aside the differences over abortion, and formed the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, which worked in a bipartisan spirit to advance issues of importance to women. Their mission was to work on issues that united them, rather than divided them. Issues that required altering federal laws to reflect women's changing role in society, and their dual responsibilities of work and family.

I joined the Caucus when I entered Congress in 1979, along with Geraldine Ferraro and Nancy Kassebaum. And in 1983, I became co-chair with Pat Schroeder of Colorado. I served until I moved to the Senate in 1995. For the past 20 years, we've been working to achieve equality of opportunity for American women, working to see that women had the same range of choices, as do men. Should there be any doubt that women in an elected office make a difference in women's lives consider this.

There was a time in America when society accepted dead beat dads, and child support was considered a women's problem. There was a time in America when a husband could cancel his wife's pension without her knowledge. There was a time in America when economic equality pertained only to equality among men. There was a time in America when women's health was a missing page in America's medical textbooks, and when women were systematically excluded from clinical medical study trials, that were funded by the National Institutes of Health, the nation's if not the world's premier research facility.

Some of you may remember the famous medical study on breast cancer that examined, you guessed it, hundreds of men. Or, what about the federally funded study involved 22,000 male physicians which examined the ability of aspirin to prevent heart attacks. Apparently, someone forgot that heart disease is a leading cause of death among women.

For years, scientists treated over half the population, women, as anomalies. These scientists complained that health research could endanger, or would be effected by women's reproductive system. Well, it seems to me that women have been bearing children for quite sometime now, and are likely to continue doing so in the future. Medical research, rather been ignoring that fact as an inconvenience, should work to accommodate it.

As I've often said, their attitude seemed to mirror Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" when he lamented, "Why can't a woman be more like a man." Outraged by these studies, and others like them, as co-chairs of the Women's Caucus, ...(inaudible) and Pat Schroeder and I asked the General Accounting Office in 1989 to document inequities in medical research at the National Institutes of Health. The findings of these GAO studies spurred the Caucus to introduce its first Women's Health Equity Act, landmark legislation on women's health.

Under our leadership, we secured more funding, and attracted more attention to breast cancer, osteoporosis, ovarian and cervical cancer research. It is now required that women be included in vital drug and medical trials where once they were excluded.

And my own legislation created an Office of Women's Health Research at the National Institutes of Health, where once also there was none. This was the Augusta model all over again. This was a case study of legislatures reaching across party lines to research, consider, negotiate, and then pass legislation addressing a critical policy issue. Those of us who led the charge for these women's issues did not agree on everything, but we shared a common vision in the needs of women. And we did not allow our differing views on abortion, or our partisan affiliations, to stand in our way.

Most of all, the political dynamic of the Caucus was governance from the center. Today the political dynamic is different. And the question, "Can we govern?" is entirely appropriate. Indeed, it is pressing. That's because our current system seems so often infused by a course partisanship, a raw ideology, ...(inaudible) something belligerent.

The political dynamic confronting the American political system is the ongoing erosion of bipartisanship, civility and cooperation. In many instances, political leaders have failed to seek compromise, and instead of approach politics is an all or nothing proposition, where there are only two outcomes, a scorched earth victory for one side, or political stagnation.

We've seen that the sensible center, the moderate center, the center of American politics, where most Americans reside, and where both political parties meet, has dissipated. Surely, our parties will not always agree on everything. That's understandable and even healthy. But, we need not always disagree. This erosion of the center has been exacerbated, of course, by the retirement from the center of some of our nation's best consensus forging leaders. Leaders like Bob Dole, now Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, Nancy Kassebaum, Sam Nunne, and the J.F.K. School's own Al Simpson.

Now, this may sound simplistic and obvious, but democratic, that's with a small "d", democratic government works well only when political leaders work together. And when they don't, the dissension is palpable, painful, and it grinds down the gears of effective government.

It should not be surprising then that such constant friction deadens the civic impulse. Even as Americans still largely maintain faith in themselves, after years of highly partisan government and unresponsive government, they no longer trust the ability of Congress to address their concerns, or the problems of our nations, or to do the right thing.

A survey by the Roper Center revealed that 42% of Americans, surveyed that they hardly have any confidence in the executive branch. And even a higher percentage felt this way about Congress. In the full three quarters of the American people recently surveyed by the Harris Poll, reported that they felt that people in Washington are out of touch with the rest of the country.

Equally disturbing, is that the conclusion of the Hynes Foundation Democracy Project Study, which said, "Our youngest citizens are dropouts from the political process with only 28% of the 18 to 24 year olds bothering to vote in the 1996 election." According to this survey, half believe that politicians don't talk about the issues that are relevant to their lives.

The Peer Research Center knows that in their extensive surveys, they find that political activity is less popular than other kinds of civic activity. An interesting point given that their own research shows that civic activity, as a whole, has increased.

These glimpses of public opinion are a tragic indictment of our system. As though like art reflecting life, society is beginning to reflect our politics. I'm reminded of the late Everett Hill(?), a former Senate Chaplain, who was once asked if he prayed for members of the U.S. Senate, and he responded, "No, I look at the Senate and pray for the country."

But, despite the divisions that exist, the Senate can hold, and even today sometimes does. Less we think differently, we should look at last year's passage of Welfare reform, where the system very clearly did work. When the Senate began debating the Welfare Reform Bill in September of 1995, it was believed by many to be an exercise in futility. For these small groups, members of Congress sensing the exhaustion and despair, the Welfare system begun with the best of intentions, we focused on the first major overhaul since the Great Society.

Majority Leader Senator Bob Dole, as Sheila Burke well knows, was part of those discussions. Worked with I and other moderate Republicans. And with Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, truly a Senate odd couple, to reach agreement on childcare, triggering a compromise which allowed the Senate to pass Welfare reform by astonishing 87 to 12.

Ultimately, this bill became the foundation for the final reform package signed into law by the President. It was a lesson well learned, because we passed the Kassebaum/Kennedy Healthcare Reform, as well as an increase in minimum wage soon thereafter.

In my own legislative endeavors during the two and a half years that I've been in the United States Senate, I've been committed to reaching across the aisle, working with Senator Paul Simon, for example, to restore more than $9.4 billion dollars in student loans to last year's budget.

Senator J. Rockefeller and I added a key amendment to the Telecommunications Act of 1995, that gave our nation's schools, libraries and rural hospitals access to the Internet, and the technological frontiers beyond.

And just three weeks ago I introduced legislation with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, that will ensure that prescription contraceptives receive the same insurance coverage as other subscription drugs, which will reduce unintended pregnancies, and ultimately reduce the number of abortions. Together as a pro-life Democratic and a pro-choice Republican, Senator Reid and I set aside our party labels and our differences over the issue of abortion to pursue reasonable solutions to a major national problem.

And, of course, the biggest news in recent weeks, and certainly the most welcome, is a landmark bipartisan agreement to balance the budget by the year 2002. Not only has a Congress, and a president for the first time in 28 years, agreed on a balanced budget, equally important is that agreement has given Americans some reasons to have faith once again in their government.

And make no mistake, this springtime of bipartisanship represented by the budget agreement isn't a moment too soon. Because today the stakes of this nation, and its citizens, couldn't be higher. As I alluded to earlier, there is an unease in America. Some of it fueled by a swiftly changing global economy that without warning can have unforeseen impacts on lives and livelihoods.

Some of this anxiety is fueled by an understanding that our young people must receive the educational and technical sophistication to succeed in a highly competitive marketplace. We know that emerging global markets, as well as established ones, will continue to compete with our nation economically, presenting threats to our economic predominance. And there is the constant concern about the erratic world outside our borders as well, a redefined NATO, a resurgent China, a staggering Russia, an unstable North Korea, a forever fractured Middle East, and the ever-present cloud of terrorism, and the threat of rogue states.

Addressing these concerns with creativity and decisiveness is a test of our leadership for our elected officials and our institutions, a situation which requires even more acutely the kind of public servants who will work together for the public good.

As you are leaders of tomorrow, I hope you embrace this ethos today: Give your credentials as the newest graduates of the foremost public policy school in America. I can assure you that your voices will be heard. And just as I have affirmed my calling in the road to Augusta a quarter of century ago, there's a similar trek for each of you. It begins with resoluteness, it involves cooperation, it understands bipartisanship, and it ends with leadership.

I hope many of you will take it. As his wonderful book, as aptly titled I might ad, Senator Simpson cites the words his grandmother would read to him at bed time as a young child. And I want to mention them here today because their application is universal. They apply to the inevitable hills and valleys of public service, of politics and of life. "There's so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, it ill behooves any of us to judge the rest of us."

Well, Senator Simpson, your grandmother was right. None of us have all the answers. As scholars in government, you know that our nation, our political system, our people have persevered in the face of enormous challenges because good people have gotten involved and have worked together.

Earlier this year, for instance, the historian David McCuller, spoke to a bipartisan retreat of members of the House of Representatives in Hershey, Pennsylvania, designed to foster a better personal working relationship among members. McCuller pointed out to the group the progress achieved by Congress when leaders work together. And I quote: "This what your institution has achieved," he observed. "It was Congress that created the Homestead Act, it was Congress that ended slavery. It was Congress that ended child labor. It was Congress that built the Panama Canal, the railroads and the interstate system. It was Congress that created Social Security. It was Congress that passed the Voting Rights Act. It was Congress that sent Lewis and Clark to the West, and sent us over the voyages to the moon. And some acts of Congress, he pointed out, like the Marshall Plan and Lensley's were achieved under crises conditions."

I can honestly say that the spirit of accomplishment lives on today. That there are plenty of us in Congress who are willing to work together across the sometimes clear, and sometimes vague political party lines, that separate us. What we need, however, is a leadership to bring the spirit to life. That means leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And on both sides of the aisle making their political points that ultimately coming together for the common good to meet our country's challenges.

Simply put, it's time for our leaders to lead and to demonstrate that their budget agreement was the beginning of a trend and not an aberration. We need to devote less energy to judging and criticizing each other, and more to forging consensus and understanding. We live in a nation, the great experiment, that was born because it came together, rose up and threw off at the time the largest standing army in the world. A nation with neither the western frontier, nor the frontier space could contain our people. Where a scourge of polio and yellow fever could not survive the onslaught of medical and scientific expertise. Where the world has turned for leadership during the torments of this century.

Every time, every single time our people and our national leadership, have responded assertively, convincingly, decisively, this is the legacy that we have inherited. The good news is that all of you here today will have the opportunity to influence how this noble mission plays out. So, as we move forward, let's promise ourselves one thing. That this new chapter in America's history will be written together with an optimism that America's greatness will not now, will not ever be compromised.

I began by asking, can we govern? My answer is, we can. As long as we do not lose sight of the two enduring elements, indeed the two testaments to our remarkable resolve as a people. A notion of the public good, combined with the leadership to attain that public good.

And so we've come full circle. More than three decades ago, John F. Kennedy issued forth a summons. "It is a task of every generation," he said, "to build a road for the next generation." This credo must be the yardstick by which we measure our success. We, the leaders of today, owe you, the leaders of tomorrow, nothing less.

To the class of 1997, good luck, God speed, and thank you.

Speech from http://gos.sbc.edu/s/snowe.html.