Ensconced in her richly decorated Senate office with its dark green walls and artful clutter, Olympia Jean Snowe is wearing exquisitely tailored black pants and a tweedy black jacket. Her long thin arms move gracefully. A heavy gold bracelet slides down her wrist. A chunky ruby ring punctuates a slim finger. Her dark hair is pulled back in that super-wavy ponytail, giving her a sense of having almost tamed something wild inside.

At 64, she has held elected office for more than half her life, which hasn’t been an easy one. “I’ve always wanted to serve others,” as she puts it, “to brighten people’s darkest days.”

Listening, she says, is the “key ingredient of my job.” And Snowe listens with her entire body. She leans forward emphatically in a hunch. Her head cranes into the room. Even when she is talking, she becomes The Listener, tilting your way. Making a connection, she says, is “critical to me.”

“It is about understanding the depths of people’s anger and despair,” she explains. “You know, I get angry, too. I understand the anxiety, not just in Maine but all across America. What people see in Washington now — that’s 24/7 media — is institutions that are totally incapable of grappling with the major issues of the day. I agree with that. I totally agree.”

She speaks in a warm deadpan, in long, stirring stretches. When she reads her chopped-up remarks in an article, or spliced in a TV segment, she feels misunderstood, unheard. “The camera,” she says, “doesn’t see my passion.”

She could be right. But what the camera does see is a strong, solitary figure who has been looking after herself for a long time.

She was 8 when she lost her mother to breast cancer. Her father died the next year. By then, young Olympia Bouchles had been sent from Augusta to live as a scholarship student at St. Basil’s Academy, a Greek Orthodox girls’ boarding school in Garrison, N.Y. She traveled back to Maine on the train alone, spending holidays and school breaks with her widowed aunt, Mary Goranides, a struggling Greek immigrant in Auburn with five children of her own.

As a 15-year-old summer waitress at Callahan’s Restaurant, she had to be encouraged to strike up conversations with the clientele at first, but once she got going, the owner had to ask her to stop gabbing so much. “I discovered that I liked talking to strangers,” she says, “finding out about people, what makes them tick.”

At St. Basil’s, she campaigned for dorm president — and won. She ran a straw poll for Richard Nixon in 1960. At the University of Maine, she became a political science major, but doesn’t know what attracted her to politics, except that “my mother used to write letters to the government,” she says. “So maybe she had an interest.” Snowe remembers seeing the replies to those letters — and the blue state seal of Maine at the top.

In college, she began dating her cousin’s friend Peter Snowe, who shared her love of politics. They had been married three years when he was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1972, and just four months into his term, while driving along an icy stretch of the turnpike between Augusta and Lewiston, his Ford Bronco skidded and flipped over. He was killed instantly. Olympia was only 26.

“I understand when people are suffering,” she says. “My family — we didn’t have a lot. And, you know, terrible things happened. You just have to pick yourself up and say, ‘Now what do I do?’ And hopefully there are people there to help you through, one way or another. … In some ways, I look at my job as making it work for people. That’s what I do.”

She was an aide to freshman congressman Bill Cohen when she decided to run for her husband’s vacant seat. She consoled herself with mountains of work, and fell in love with parliamentary procedure, making motions, offering amendments, serving on committees and bringing bills to the floor. A pioneer at 31, she was the youngest Republican woman ever elected to Congress.

Four years later, she expressed interest in running for a Senate seat against George Mitchell and was told to wait. Even though Snowe thought she had a good chance of winning, the elders of the Maine GOP put their support behind a man, Rep. David Emery, who lost.

She married again, at 42, to movie-star-handsome John “Jock” McKernan, a divorced dad and fellow state congressman whom Snowe had dated for nearly a decade. Together, they became a political phenomenon. McKernan was elected governor. Snowe, still holding a seat in Congress, did double duty as first lady of Maine. She and McKernan were devoted to his only child, Peter, a star athlete at Dartmouth College. But in the winter of 1991, during a preseason workout for the baseball team, Peter suddenly lost consciousness from a previously undetected heart condition and was taken to the hospital, where he remained in a coma for nine days before he died. He was 20. His is the one death that Snowe says still haunts her.

By the time Mitchell stepped down in 1994 and she won his seat, Snowe was an easily recognized figure in the Senate, one of just eight women there. Seventeen women are in the Senate today, almost two decades later, a group that gathers regularly, a tradition started in 1992 as “power workshops” organized by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, but which relaxed eventually into monthly dinners. “We thought it was important to get to know each other as people,” says Mikulski, who arranges the events with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

“We gossip, talk about our lives — everything’s off the record,” Snowe says. “And I think that’s why you don’t see us attacking and demonizing each other.”

Back in Maine, there isn’t much attacking, either. Whether they are former challengers or just random souls at snowy truck stops and wharfs, when Mainers talk about Snowe, they sound as though they are talking about an old friend. She used to be “O.J.” wherever she went, until those initials became unattractive, circa 1994. Now she’s “Olympia” — period. “She’s like Oprah,” said Liz Armstrong, an environmental lawyer in Portland. “All she needs is one name.”

Volunteers in the western town of Bethel built the world’s tallest snow woman, 122 feet tall with two pine trees for arms, and dubbed her “Olympia Snow Woman.”

Over Snowe’s long career in Washington, and as a member of the mighty Finance Committee, she has focused on government spending, small business and women’s issues. She relishes having leverage and being a tiebreaker. “She really knows,” says one former Senate aide, “how to make a president pull out his hair.”

In 2001, she had so many one-on-one meetings with George W. Bush as he wooed her support of his epic tax cut, that he nicknamed her “The Big O,” as if she were a mythical figure or an intangible goal. During negotiations for his stimulus bill in 2009, President Obama joked that Snowe’s office phone number was on his speed dial.

She voted for the bill — one of three Republicans to do so — after she had nitpicked, tweaked and tinkered until she had come up with ways to reduce costs by $100 billion.

“I start from scratch,” she says, describing her legislative style. “I love facts. I love memos. I am always seeking more information — and that takes time. … I am always challenging my own views for fear that I am getting it wrong.”

Opponents have criticized her for stalling, for foot-dragging and for finger-in-the-wind decisions. “Leaders lead,” groans a former New England congressman, a Democrat. “They aren’t the last to make up their minds.”

But voting with the Democrats has never fazed Snowe, especially after weeks of rumination. During the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in 1999, she hired a constitutional lawyer to advise her and went to the trial every day “taking copious notes, filling countless 8-by-14 legal pads,” says her former chief of staff, Kevin Raye, now president of the Maine Senate.

“Night after night, we would walk to the Senate parking garage together and our cars were the only two left on the lot,” Raye says. “She said to me, ‘This is a constitutional crisis. Other than a war, when you’d send your soldiers in harm’s way, what could be more important than this?’ “

Snowe voted to acquit Clinton, on grounds that perjury alone was not reason enough to impeach a president — one of five Republicans to vote against conviction on both charges. In 2005, she voted to fund the Kyoto protocols to reduce carbon emissions. Last year, she initially voted to send Obama’s health-care bill to the full Senate, but later withdrew support.

This nuanced decision making and openness to Democratic initiatives has fueled a tea party website called “Mainers for Snowe Removal,” which displays a photograph of the smiling senator with her head being scooped up by a giant snow shovel. Her stand on abortion, among other things, has driven Republicans to wonder why she doesn’t find a new party.

“It’s like I’m on ‘Survivor,’” Snowe says. “And they keep voting me off the island.”