The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe interviews Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) about why she’s leaving the Senate, meeting her husband on the Hill and her next steps in politics. (The Washington Post)

Long before there was almost-constant speculation about a first lady somewhere running for political office, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe was serving the dual roles of first lady and lawmaker.

Elected to Congress in 1978, Snowe (R-Maine) soon started dating the other member of Maine’s House delegation, John R. “Jock” McKernan Jr.

The two frequented the Monocle and Bullfeathers, iconic Capitol Hill watering holes, before McKernan resigned to run for governor of Maine. He won in 1986, and the couple married in 1989, a year before they faced grueling reelection fights. An economic recession and prolonged budget battle fueled anti-incumbent sentiments in 1990 — a scenario not unlike today’s political environment.

“That was highly unusual to have us both on the top of the ticket running for reelection,” Snowe recalled in a recent interview. “It’s something I wouldn’t recommend to people. You put a lot on the line when you’re doing that, both having your elections at stake at the same time. It ultimately worked for us; we obviously love politics, love public service.”

McKernan (R) won another term as governor, and Snowe won another term in the House. Four years later, she joined the Senate. She is retiring next month after a combined 34 years in Congress with several historic distinctions to her name: She is the first woman in U.S. history to serve in both chambers of a state legislature and both chambers of Congress. She was the first Greek American woman to serve in Congress, the youngest Republican woman elected to the House and the first Republican woman to serve on the Senate Finance Committee.

Throughout the years, Snowe said, being married to another politician made life in Washington easier.

“We both understand what the challenges and the pressures are when you’re in the political environment,” she said. “You don’t have to explain anything. From that standpoint, he’s been great support for me over the years. It’s easy to share things with someone who understands what you’re dealing with, what you’re going through.”

In the years since Snowe married McKernan, other political couples have risen in the public eye. Former senators Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) ran separate presidential campaigns in 1996 and 2000. Former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was elected as a Democratic senator from New York in 2000 before losing her 2008 bid for president and then serving as secretary of state under President Obama. But Reps. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), the House’s only current husband-and-wife team, both lost their races this year, and former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack (D) mounted an unsuccessful run for Congress. In the years to come, polling data suggest that Michelle Obama could win Illinois’s 2016 U.S. Senate race, although the first lady has not indicated a desire to seek public office.

No matter how political spouses decide to spend their time, Snowe said, communication is key.

“Keep in touch every day if you’re separated by miles,” she said. “I was commuting, obviously, and he [McKernan] was in the capital city of Augusta. But we talked every day and shared what was going on in the day, so you always kept up so you weren’t having to catch up at the end of a week. It made a difference.”

Snowe has been one of the Senate’s more moderate Republicans, known for a willingness to cross the aisle and support Democratic initiatives. When most Republicans supported impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, she voted to acquit, saying that his alleged perjury didn’t warrant his removal from office.

More recently, Snowe’s decision not to seek another term helped Democrats maintain control of the Senate and expand their majority. (Former Maine governor Angus King won Snowe’s Senate seat as an independent and said last month that he will caucus with Democrats.)

Snowe shocked the political world in February when she announced that she planned to retire because political partisanship had made the Senate too unproductive. Almost a year later, she’s still disappointed with what has become of the institution she has cherished for most of her professional life.

“The system has been perverted in the United States Senate,” she said. “It doesn’t let us work together to design solutions to the problems facing this great country of ours at this troubling time.

She’s especially critical of Obama and congressional leaders, saying they are “going to put the country through this emotional travail, whipsawing Americans, leaving them to wonder as to whether or not they have the capacity to work together” to avoid the impending “fiscal cliff,” the series of tax increases and major spending cuts set to take effect next year.

The nation’s fiscal crisis “was manufactured and created by Congress and the president to avoid dealing with the real issues in real time,” Snowe said. “We were paid to do a job, and that begins at the beginning of a new Congress. And we didn’t make use of our time in a way that could have given us the kinds of credible solutions that could have put us on a path to heal the wounds of the recession.”

She’s also upset that Republicans didn’t foster more substantive discussions in recent years over tax and regulatory reform, which she considers the underpinnings of the nation’s economic woes. In order to refocus, she said, the GOP will need to “rebuild its positions on issues and to demonstrate more inclusiveness and tolerance.”

Republicans have “become more rigid in our views and our philosophy and our ideology,” Snowe added. “And even if we weren’t in some areas, the way in which it’s cast and the rhetoric that’s given on these particular issues, I think, raise the specter of concern among women and other minorities.”

Clearly bittersweet about leaving the Senate, Snowe said that she will not shirk from the national debate. Once she leaves, “I want to match the insider’s view with the outsider’s frustration,” she said. Although coy about her future, Snowe said her next act will include writing a book that outlines her frustrations and potential solutions to the partisan gridlock, giving a series of speeches and mounting a campaign to encourage voters to aggressively use social media to influence the political debate and track the legislative process.

“I want to make sure I can do everything I can to make this system work,” Snowe said. But she’ll do it from outside the Capitol walls because, “that’s the best way I can contribute at this point.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.