Maine Republican senator Olympia Snowe and Massachusetts Democratic congressman Barney Frank are studies in contrast.

The most obvious difference is, of course, party affiliation.

Then there is their manner. Snowe: cool, calm, soigné. Frank, on the other hand: excitable, passionate, and sporting a wardrobe that would be the envy of a mid-level Teamsters official.

Snowe is the soul of gentility, as at ease with a local barber or a working mother as she might be with an ambassador or a head of state.

Frank sometimes gives the impression that he's not even at ease with himself, and he certainly doesn't suffer fools gladly.

Frank is whip smart and has probably forgotten more than he knows. Snowe is more deliberate; she strives for wisdom — an almost unrecognizable virtue in the Gomorrah of today's Washington.

But for all of their differences, the senator and the congressman share a common bond: they have a deep and abiding love for public service. Over the course of their long careers, they have served their nation, their constituents, and their parties with all the imagination and energy they could muster.

And now both Snowe and Frank are calling it quits. Both shocked the political world with surprise announcements — Frank this past November and Snowe just this week.

Snowe and Frank chose different words to explain their withdrawals, but, when one cuts through the rhetoric, their reasoning was essentially the same: Washington is too corrupt, too partisan, and too brain-dead for an individual to make a difference.

A few days before Snowe announced her decision not to seek re-election, National Journal, one of the nation's most respected and thoughtful political magazines, published a long reported essay by John Aloysius Farrell. (Farrell also happens to have published the definitive biography of the late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill.) Titled "Divided We Stand," Farrell's story sounds the death knell — at least for the immediate future — for individual political initiative. Smart political mavericks of conscience are creatures of the past. Original thinking is dead. All that really matters is what the gangs within the political tribes demand.

It seems that Snowe and Frank don't want to play Lord of the Flies on the banks of the Potomac anymore. Who can blame them?

Although Snowe appeared ever ladylike and high-minded in her withdrawal, she really stuck it to the Republican leadership. This was hardball, Olympia style.

She blindsided the GOP, who had been counting on Snowe's re-election as part of their strategy to gain control of the Senate.

Snowe's withdrawal alone would give the Democrats a reasonable shot at capturing her seat. Although her state two years ago had a fit of Tea Party fever, it is in recovery now. The Tea Party may still bark in Maine, but it has lost its bite.

The fact that no Republican has had a chance to plan for her exit puts the party at an at-least-temporary disadvantage.

All this means that the Senate battles in Maine, and here in Massachusetts — between incumbent Republican Scott Brown, a former male model and one-time mediocre state legislator, and putative Democratic nominee Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law professor— will be top political news and carry real national import.

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