Government & Politics

Does the past foretell Patrick Leahy’s U.S. Senate future?

Patrick Leahy first ran for his U.S. Senate term in 1974 alongside fellow aspirants U.S. Rep. Richard Mallary, R-Vt., and then Liberty Union Party candidate Bernie Sanders. Archive Photo

After an almost half-century-long political career, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is weighing a seemingly singular choice: Seek reelection as the 81-year-old dean of his chamber or retire.

Historians, however, have seen this script before.

Leahy’s predecessor, the late George Aiken, was the same age and in the same honorary position when he kept the public, press and fellow politicos guessing as he faced the same question in the year preceding the 1974 election.

“We’ll take that up when we come to it,” Aiken told reporters that fall. “We don’t want to disturb the people now or start them drooling.”

Aiken, a party-defying moderate Republican like Gov. Phil Scott, waited until Valentine’s Day 1974 to reveal he’d decided to step down.

“I gave out the only news that had come out of Washington for a long time without being leaked,” he went on to write in his diary. “The media were a little short of material that day, so my announcement came in handy.”

Indeed, reporters from the halls of Congress to Honolulu reveled in sharing the “most intriguing and best-kept political secret,” sparking an electoral scramble back home that ended in Leahy becoming the first Vermont Democrat to win a U.S. Senate seat.

But turn to Aiken’s personal papers and talk to his younger confidants and you’ll discover the late senator had made up his mind way before anyone ever surmised.

“I am advised that the Republican State Committee has hired a pollster to determine whether I should be a candidate for reelection or not next year, and what my prospects would be if I decided to seek another term,” Aiken wrote in his diary in December 1973. “I could tell them right now that the results of the poll won’t have the slightest effect on my decision, which in fact was made a long time ago.”

Almost 50 years later, Vermonters are wondering if Leahy is about to relive history — or remake it.

U.S. Sen. George Aiken views a 1960s bill signing by President John F. Kennedy. Archive Photo

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‘In retrospect it was clear’

Aiken — a Putney horticulturalist who was elected a state legislator in 1930, speaker of the House in 1933, lieutenant governor in 1934, governor in 1936 and U.S. senator in 1940 — is often remembered for choosing green as the color of the state’s license plates, coining the term “Northeast Kingdom” and offering a 1966 speech on the Vietnam War that the press would paraphrase down to “declare victory and get out.”

But at the close of his career, Aiken increasingly was summed up simply as “old.” One newswire story of November 1973 — headlined “Aiken Termed ‘Vulnerable,’ With 50-50 Chance to Retire” — featured former Democratic Gov. Phil Hoff calling for the senator to step aside because of his advancing age.

“The big question is whether Vermont’s 81-year-old U.S. Sen. George D. Aiken, R-Vt., will seek another term,” another article said. “The dean of U.S. senators is keeping his reelection plans a tightly guarded secret.”

What people didn’t know: Aiken not only had decided to bow out but almost hadn’t run in what would be his last campaign in 1968.

During his congressional tenure, the Republican raised a few eyebrows by sharing breakfast every morning with then-Democratic U.S. Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield.

“In the aviary of the Senate,” Mansfield once observed, “George Aiken is catalogued as neither a hawk nor dove but as a very wise owl.”

Steve Terry, the Middlebury-based author of two Aiken books, says that friendship swayed the Vermonter’s 1968 decision to seek reelection.

“The only reason he ran again was because Mike Mansfield asked him to,” Terry says today. “Mansfield wanted Aiken’s help on legislation to stop the war in Vietnam.”

The fact Aiken almost didn’t mount that last race might surprise those who know the resulting legend that his campaign spent only $17.09 — mostly for 6-cent postage stamps and phone calls to place his name on the ballot.

Terry, a former reporter and editor, joined Aiken’s staff after the 1968 win.

“There was no talk about the 1974 election in his office and no preparations underway for any campaign,” Terry recalls. “He never asked for any campaign contributions and returned all to people who sent them. In retrospect it was clear he had no intention of running again. He would often talk about going back home to plant his garden and tend to his blueberries.”

U.S. Sen. George Aiken and President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. Archive Photo

‘Is he still an effective senator?’

But only Aiken and his wife and chief aide, Lola Pierotti Aiken, officially knew of his retirement plans, and they kept them private so no one could cast him as a lame duck.

Take, for example, the freelancer who soon persuaded Vermont Life magazine to pay him 10 cents a word to interview the elder statesman. 

His name: Bernie Sanders.

The contrast between Sanders and Aiken couldn’t be more striking: A young Brooklyn-born revolutionary conversing with the small-town Republican. But the resulting story that ran in Vermont Life’s spring 1973 issue features a surprising degree of consensus, with the two men finding common ground in the need for cultivating the grassroots, championing the working class and challenging party machinery.

The magazine spread was a rare rose in an increasingly thorny media landscape. At the start of 1974, the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus published a story headlined “Aiken’s Seniority Helps and Hurts Him” that reported on an appearance in which “his speech at times was halting or confused.”

Howard Coffin, a reporter turned Montpelier-based Civil War historian, remembers the moment.

“As the drama developed over the question of is or isn’t he going to run, I went to cover the meeting thinking what the story might be,” Coffin says. “On the way back, I knew it was that Aiken had a bad day.”

Writing about the speech in his diary, Aiken blamed the problem on speaking from notes he inadvertently shuffled.

“Of course I ramble,” Aiken added. “It is my nature to ramble when I get to speaking, but it isn’t always a question of fuzziness or uncertainty, because sometimes a speaker can fend off a more difficult situation by diverging from the subject.”

No sooner than Coffin finished his story, the Herald’s publisher — Aiken friend Robert Mitchell — was writing an editorial disavowing it.

“Vermont’s and the nation’s senior U.S. senator, George D. Aiken, got a sample of the kind of critical review he will be subjected to if he runs for reelection,” the editorial began. “If Sen. Aiken runs again, he should not be judged by his age or his speaking style but by his performance in office. Is he still an effective senator capable of carrying on the duties of his office as well as or better than other members of that august body in Washington?”

George Aiken at his Putney home during his retirement in the 1980s. Photo by Michael McDermott

‘Quit while you are ahead’

Within weeks, Democratic Gov. Thomas Salmon went 500 miles out of his way to pay Aiken a courtesy call.

“He didn’t have any special issue on his mind,” Aiken noted in his diary Feb. 9, 1974, “and folks in my outer office said he was dropping in to look me over to see if I might be healthy enough to run for reelection.” 

Aiken continued to arrive at work at 6:45 a.m. and depart as late as 11 p.m. But Terry remembers the senator often remarking, “Quit while you are ahead.” 

“I knew, privately, that this aphorism was a message for his future.”

That hunch was confirmed Feb. 14, 1974, when Aiken called his nine staffers together to reveal his impending retirement.

“That decision was a well-kept secret,” the Burlington Free Press reported, “and up until the time of the announcement, most political observers, including some of his close friends, were predicting he would seek another six-year term.”

“The announcement,” the Herald and Times Argus added, “caught Vermonters as much by surprise as it did Aiken’s personal staff.”

The news soon went national.

“The white‐haired, craggy‐faced dean of the United States Senate,” The New York Times wrote, “said that he wants to go home to his fruit trees, his farm and his fishing pole.”

Did age play a part in his decision?

“No, no, not in the least,” Aiken told The Times. “Some folks are old at 21, and then there are a lot of youngsters my age.”

In Montpelier, the capital crowd buzzed.

“The year 1974 could well be the hottest political year in the state’s history,” the Herald wrote in a story headlined “Announcement Upsets Political Bee’s Nest.”

With so many incumbents contemplating other races, seemingly every state office was up for grabs. The Washington Post speculated on many potential U.S. Senate candidates, including then Republican U.S. Rep. Richard Mallary and Democrats Hoff and Salmon.

The Free Press, for its part, floated the idea “Lola Aiken for the Senate?”

Patrick Leahy, at center, with fellow senators, from left, Alan Simpson, Bob Dole, Joe Biden and Charles Mathias in 1975. Archive Photo

‘Time now to bring a fresh new approach’

Many feared the loss of Aiken’s seniority would, in the words of then Vermont House Speaker Walter Kennedy, leave the state at “the bottom of the barrel.”

Leahy, then Chittenden County state’s attorney and not on The Post’s list, argued differently.

“It is time now to bring a fresh new approach and leadership to government,” he said at his campaign kickoff a month later.

Aiken, retiring to Putney, would live another decade before his death at age 92. Leahy, for his part, would become Vermont’s youngest-ever U.S. senator by beating Mallary and Sanders — the latter ran as a Liberty Union Party candidate before scoring his first congressional victory as an independent in 1991.

Today Leahy is Senate president pro tempore and third in line to step in for President Joe Biden after Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. If reelected next year, he could pass the late 51-year U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, as the longest-ever-serving member of his chamber.

But Leahy and his wife, Marcelle, have faced health questions this year.

The senator was briefly hospitalized for observation in January when he reported not feeling well after overseeing the start of the impeachment proceedings against former President Donald Trump. 

Marcelle Leahy announced in May she was receiving outpatient chemotherapy for a chronic form of adult leukemia diagnosed in 2019.

When asked whether he’ll seek another term in 2022, Leahy has told the press that he and his wife typically decide by the December before an election year.

“He’s always announced late,” one Republican colleague recently told Politico, “and why not if you can get away with it.”

But for all the aforementioned parallels, there’s one way the present isn’t repeating the past. Today, potential successors are waiting for the senator’s decision before expressing interest in the seat. Back in 1974, however, one aspirant sparked headlines months before Aiken’s announcement for “gearing up to run” regardless of the incumbent’s plans.

That insurgent: Patrick Leahy.

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Kevin O'Connor

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