Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy's life in American politics

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U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) listens during the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense at the U.S. Capitol on May 3, 2022  in Washington, DC.  (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) listens during the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense at the U.S. Capitol on May 3, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades-Pool/Getty Images)

Vermont’s Patrick Leahy has served in the U.S. Senate for half a century.

"I never expected to see the arc of history that I’ve seen. Starting out as the junior-most member of the Senate, immediately post-Watergate, Republicans and Democrats trying to come together to put the country back together," Leahy says.

"Going from there to today, and seeing a often dysfunctional, polarized Senate."

Now, this senior-most member of the Senate is wrapping up his last term in office and getting ready to retire.

"There are some pieces of legislation I wish I had pushed harder for, but I don't regret the opportunity to be there working with very good people, both Republicans and Democrats," he says. "And I don't regret my decision to retire. It's time to go home."

Today, On Point: Senator Patrick Leahy and the history he has lived through.


Senator Patrick Leahy, Democratic senator from Vermont. President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate. Author of The Road Taken. (@SenatorLeahy)

Interview Highlights

You began in the Senate, post-Watergate. And you're preparing to retire as the Capitol and the nation still reels from the insurrection of last year. How different are things now than when you started?

Sen. Patrick Leahy: "Oh, the arc is so significant. In fact, that's one of the reasons I started writing the book. I've taken notes almost every day from the time I first came there as an awe-struck 34 year old. And when, as I was wrapping up the writing of the book, January 6th hit us. And the insurrection at the Capitol. I never saw anything like that. I never thought anything like that would be possible. And it just shook me to the core. It shook a whole lot of people to the core, and I don't think I'll ever forget that time. But I also think about what it means to people who actually supported that insurrection. What does that mean to the direction our country is going?"

How is 34-year-old Senator Leahy different from the Senator Leahy of today?

Sen. Patrick Leahy: "In some ways, I wrote the book for 34-year-olds who might be coming in. So they could see the arc of history that we had during that time. And, you know, I was an awestruck young man. I'd been a prosecutor for eight years. I came from a state, the only state in the union that never elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate. And certainly never elected anybody under 50, since the popular election of senators. And I do recall one of the very senior senators saying to me, How old are you, boy? And I said, Well, I'm 34. He said, Anybody ever tell you you're too young to be in the United States Senate? I said, yeah, my opponent, for one. He actually liked that and thought, Well, okay, I could probably pass the test.

"But I also walked in there and saw the people who had made history. Remember, this was shortly after Richard Nixon resigned. I saw two of the pillars of the Republican Party. Hugh Scott, the Republican leader. Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative. They had the unenviable task of going down to the White House and telling President Nixon he had to leave or he was going to be impeached. They took no pleasure in that.

"And I got to know both of them quite well, and talked to them about it. They said it was one of the most difficult things they did. They're both are Republicans. They strongly supported having a Republican as president, but they knew the country came first. And they had to set aside their politics and set aside their own personal feelings, and they had to tell a president who had broken the law, It's time to go."

On whether the Senate and Congress can recover from Jan. 6th

Sen. Patrick Leahy: "If it does not release its hold, then the whole country suffers. Whether Republican or a Democrat, the country suffers, if we have this happen. I'll tell you a short story. While we were in the room, the secure room, somebody pointed out that as the Senate, we were all there, we could have voted to have the Senate meet there. I stood up, said, Look, I'm the dean of the Senate. I'm totally opposed to that. I don't want me here in a hidden room. Let's wait till it's safe to go back into the Senate chamber, and meet where the American public can see us doing our job. I was surprised to have almost a standing ovation from everybody, Republican and Democrat, to say they agreed. Let's go back and show who we are.

"And a couple of the senators who originally were going to oppose the certification of the ballots said they weren't going to oppose anymore. It was time for us to come together. So for that short period, while we are still, you know, walking over broken glass and saying, What's going on? There was a coming together. Unfortunately, it hasn't lasted long enough. I applaud Mike Pence for not leaving the Capitol even though they told him he should. He stayed there because he felt his duties as vice president and president of the U.S. Senate required him to stay there, even though he knew this wouldn't be ending of certifying that he and Donald Trump had lost the reelection."

On his close friendship with Barry Goldwater 

Sen. Patrick Leahy: "My first reelection, I had the second closest election in America, and I was giving a speech somewhere in Vermont. And somebody stands up and says, Leahy, didn't the closeness of that election teach you nothing? And I said, Well, I figured it must be have something to do with my political philosophy, but I couldn't figure out what the lesson was. I called the senator who had the closest election in the country, and I said, Barry Goldwater, what's the lesson? That got printed in the press out in Arizona. He called me up, just laughing his head off. He said, to think of the two of us being the two closest elections in the country. We're million miles apart ... in our philosophy. He said, I tell you what, I'm moving my office to a nicer office. You ought to move into mine. Change your luck.

"And I said, Well, I don't have the seniority. He said, Look, we Republicans are taking over the control of the Senate. You can move next week. And I have. And I've been in Senator Goldwater's office ever since, for over 40 years. But the point of it is he and I used to sit and talk. Sometimes it would be Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, I mean talk about two people. Each ran for president, poles apart philosophically, teasing the heck out of each other. And then agreeing on something that they could do together, to bring both conservatives and liberals together. And moderates.

"And I learned a lot from that. And I tried all my legislation to bring in both Republicans and Democrats in across the political spectrum. And I've been pretty successful. I passed the bill that started organic farming, which is now a $60 billion or so industry in the country. Certainly to pass the Leahy War Victims Fund. I called it the War Veterans Fund. And it was a Republican, Mitch McConnell, who moved to have it named the Patrick Leahy War Victims Fund. And that's to help the victims of war, usually civilians, all over the world. And it saved and rehabilitated so many lives."

What do you think is the most important vote you've taken? And is there a vote you regret?

Sen. Patrick Leahy: "I voted 17,000 times. I'm sure I could go back through there and find votes. Or I'd say, What the heck was I thinking? But I tell new senators, vote your conscience. Because even if you think later, I should have voted the other way. The issue will probably come up again and you can learn from that. But I know when they wanted to go to war in Iraq. I actually read the intelligence on that. I knew there were no weapons of mass destruction being stored in Iraq. And I voted against war. I was on the losing side, but I was part of that vote. And I heard from a number of senators, Well, we should vote against it. But politically, that would not be a good thing to do. I voted, saying the heck with politics. This is going to be life or death for a lot of people, both Americans and Iraqis. Think about that."

On how Republicans in the Senate privately discuss Jan. 6th

Sen. Patrick Leahy: "Many of them speak privately and in a different tone. They know it's a terrible time. They would like very much to put it behind them and get on to other things. Donald Trump doesn't allow them to do that. They know that he has a lot of control over their party back in their state, and I think they're concerned about upsetting him. Now, frankly, I said, why would you want to be in the Senate if you feel you have to hide your real feelings, because you're afraid of offending one person?

"Why would you want a job like that? You know, there's only 100 of us for the whole country. We should be the conscience of the nation. That's not being the conscience, if you do that. There are others who believe strongly that Trump is right. I don't know how they come to that conclusion. Many of them are themselves hoping to run for president. They're never going to be president. But as long as they have that thought in the back of their mind, I don't think they act with the kind of freedom a U.S. senator should."

Do you have any criticism of the Democratic party?

Sen. Patrick Leahy: "I think sometimes the messaging is a problem. Obviously, Roe vs. Wade, it wasn't the Congress that did away with it. It was a highly politicized Supreme Court. And one agrees or disagrees with their decision. I happen to disagree with it. The politicized way it was handled, Justice Alito and others, has damaged the Supreme Court and has damaged its credibility. And that's going to be bad for our country. If we do the same thing in the Congress, that's also going to be bad.

"The Senate has passed a lot of very good pieces of legislation creating jobs and a lot of good legislation, in the environment and others. And we don't talk enough about it. We don't point out the changes that have been made. And I feel we should be less reacting to whatever the latest charge was on the Internet, and talk more about some of the things we've accomplished, which have been significant. But I give one example. They say, what's the president doing? Well, look at Ukraine.

"... For the first time in decades, how NATO came together to support a unified support against Russia and for Ukraine. Can you imagine them doing that with the last president who denigrated NATO, denigrated other countries, and showed a strong favoritism toward Russia, praising Putin even as he committed war crimes? But Joe Biden, very quietly off the radar, worked with each one of these foreign leaders and brought them in place. Not only did NATO show a greater unity than it has in years, but then countries like Finland said, we want to join NATO. And they're right on the border of Russia."

On advice for younger generations 

Sen. Patrick Leahy: "I remind them that there's only 100 men and women to represent 325 million Americans. It's not about you. It's about the country. And the things you're doing, Is it for your own self-aggrandizement or is it something that helps the country? If you're there simply for your own ego, or your own political ambitions, you don't belong in the Senate. Be there to help the country."

Are you optimistic that the country can return to the sort of bipartisanship and respect for democracy that you write about in your memoir?

Sen. Patrick Leahy: "I go back and forth on that, I tend to be, I think, leaning more pessimistic. But by nature, I'm an optimistic person. I hope it can. ... That's one of the reasons I wrote the book. It took a lot of time putting my notes together. But I wanted it not as, look what Patrick Leahy did. But look at what the Senate was, what the Senate can be, and what the Senate should be. Because I think if the Senate returns and becomes the conscience of the nation, it could help our country, because I think we face real peril in the United States right now with lack of respect for the laws, and what we saw on January 6th."

Book Excerpt

Intro from The Road Taken by Sen. Patrick Leahy. Reprinted with permission. All Rights Reserved.

This program aired on August 23, 2022.


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Kimberly Atkins is a senior opinion writer and columnist for Boston Globe Opinion. She's also a frequent guest host for On Point. She formerly was a senior news correspondent for WBUR.


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