BOSTON — In November 1997, near the end of my stint as counsel to the Democratic senators on two U.S. Senate investigative committees, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan invited me to his office to say goodbye before I returned to my Boston law firm.

Levin, a strong-willed Democrat and no slouch when it came to partisan political warfare, was nevertheless pained by the acrimony that had overtaken the Senate during the course of his time there.

An old-fashioned lawmaker who feels strongly about civility and about working hard to fashion bipartisan solutions to national challenges, he was frustrated by the personal rancor that had metastasized from the House of Representatives, where it was more commonly found, to the Senate, traditionally a more civil, respectful legislative venue. “I can’t believe how bad it has gotten here,” a visibly upset Levin told me.

That was 17 years ago, and things in the Senate, as in Washington more generally, have gotten worse since then.

Levin, one of the last lions of bipartisan consensus-building, is retiring. A recently released Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 74 percent of Americans were either “dissatisfied” or “angry” with the federal government, and only 1 percent described themselves as “enthusiastic” about it. A Pew Research Center study released this summer stated the obvious succinctly: “Partisan animosity has grown more personal,” it reported.

For its part, Maine is famous for sending to Washington individuals who bring with them an old-fashioned respect for other people and their views, and a strong commitment to the kind of bipartisan spirit that continues to drain out of political life. Susan Collins is an example of this, as I was fortunate enough to observe from a vantage point on the Democratic side of the aisle in 1997.

Though she had just been elected to the Senate, Collins had been appointed by the Republican majority as chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, an extremely powerful body with investigative jurisdiction over the entire federal government. I was chief counsel for the Democratic senators on the subcommittee.

It was a charged environment, in which the Clinton administration and the Democratic National Committee were under investigation for using particularly aggressive tactics to obtain political contributions in return for access, favors and appointments, and Sen. Collins, a skilled cross-examiner, had scheduled a hearing on the performance of a less-than-stellar, somewhat suspect political appointee.

Under the subcommittee’s rules, I, as the Democrats’ counsel, could not cross-examine witnesses called by Collins, the chairman, unless a Democratic senator was present. Whether because of conflicts or because the hearing was not an especially appealing one for our side, none planned to attend. This meant that the hearing meticulously researched and planned by Sen. Collins would go forward in an especially smooth fashion.

At the last minute, a Democratic senator was persuaded to attend for the sole purpose of enabling me to question each of Sen. Collins’ witnesses, in order to attempt, as best I could, to dilute their impact and frustrate her efforts.

In the partisan and even bitter atmosphere in Washington that summer, a lesser person than Sen. Collins – who, as a former Senate staffer, knew full well the gambit that had been used to attempt to derail her hearing – would have used means available to her to limit or cut off my questioning.

To the contrary, however, and consistent with her reputation as a straight shooter, she bent over backward to ensure that I had the opportunity to cross-examine each of her witnesses fully, and did so with a civility that I have never forgotten.

That same civility extends to her work to find common ground with Democrats on issue after issue. It is one of the reasons that for the past 18 years, Democrats, no less than Republicans, regard her with uncommon respect.

Those of us who have worked with Sen. Collins know that the respect she receives flows from the respect she accords. Both are out of the ordinary.

— Special to the Press Herald