Patrick Leahy’s memoir reveals more big names than big news

Patrick Leahy’s new memoir, “The Road Taken,” joins such past titles from fellow Vermont U.S. senators as Ralph Flanders’ “Senator from Vermont,” George Aiken’s “Senate Diary” and James Jeffords’ “An Independent Man.” Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

When the late Ralph Flanders retired from Congress and wrote his autobiography, “Senator from Vermont,” he focused on the historic moment he introduced a 1954 censure resolution against his overzealous Communist-fighting colleague, Joseph McCarthy.

“Is the necessary housecleaning the great task before the United States, or do we face far more dangerous problems, from the serious consideration of which we are being diverted by the dust and the racket?” wrote Flanders, who served from 1946 to 1959.

Vermont seatmate George Aiken continued the publishing tradition with his “Senate Diary,” which featured his famously paraphrased “declare ourselves winners and get out” take on the Vietnam War.

“If the Devil himself could bring an end to the Indochina war I would give him full credit,” wrote Aiken, who served from 1940 to 1975.

A quarter-century later, U.S. Sen. James Jeffords built his book “An Independent Man” around his seismic 2001 political departure from the Republican Party — a switch that single-handedly tipped control of a 50-50 chamber to the Democrats.

“I was not sure it was right personally, but I was very confident it was the right thing to do for the country,” wrote Jeffords, who served from 1988 to 2007.

Enter Patrick Leahy, the retiring dean and president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, who’s set to publish his memoir, “The Road Taken,” on Tuesday. The book by the first Vermont Democrat to win his office doesn’t hinge on one specific instance of big news. Instead, the 480-page hardcover spills with a tsunami of big names.

Take the story of Leahy giving Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who reciprocated with bottle upon bottle of rum.

“The product of your state was good, now try a product of mine,” Leahy recounts Castro saying.

Or the time Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau depicted former Vice President Dick Cheney telling off Leahy with a headline-grabbing four-letter word, spurring the Vermonter to print the drawing on campaign T-shirts.

“Patrick, with the intellectual property laws, I’d have to be compensated,” Leahy recalls Trudeau saying. “How about five T-shirts?”

Or when newly elected U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois talked up Leahy as they walked up StairMasters in the congressional gym in 2005.

“Pat, the eighties called, they want their sneakers back,” Leahy remembers Obama saying.

This photo from Patrick Leahy’s memoir shows President Barack Obama surprising the senator in 2012 with a birthday cake on Air Force One. Photo by Marcelle Leahy

The 82-year-old Vermonter’s book, whose title is a play on the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken,” is less a hard look at history than a labor of love — in more ways than one.

Leahy, working with a team of collaborators named in the acknowledgments, has received an $18,333 payment from publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster, according to Senate financial disclosure forms.

That’s a far cry from the $1 million in advance fees and royalties the smaller Macmillan company paid fellow Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for his 2016 bestseller “Our Revolution.”

It’s also a long way from when Leahy and Sanders, once a candidate of the Liberty Union (now the Green Mountain Peace and Justice) Party, shared a babysitter when they both ran for the U.S. Senate in 1974.

“In the thick of a campaign, it was one of those rare genuine win-wins: competitors, never enemies; just two dads coming up with a solution that, coincidentally, would make the little ones in both families happier,” writes Leahy, who won that year and would welcome Sanders as a colleague in 2007.

The memoir opens with a 4-year-old Leahy pedaling a tricycle inside the Statehouse near his Montpelier home, only to go to Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. There, the sight of the U.S. Capitol made him realize, “This is the only place I want to be.”

“As I huffed and puffed on the stationary bike, I told Barack about growing up in Montpelier,” Leahy goes on to recount about his gym time with Obama. “My Italian American grandparents just thirty miles away, the stone carvers from Italy who immigrated to Vermont and the quarry workers who emigrated from Ireland, and the modest house that was both home and the print shop for my parents.”

“That’s a Norman Rockwell painting,” Leahy recalls Obama replying.

This photo from Patrick Leahy’s memoir shows the newly elected senator with 1975 colleagues (from left) Alan Simpson, Bob Dole, Joe Biden and Charles Mathias.

The book quickly springboards its author into the Senate, where Leahy won election in 1974 as the youngest Vermonter (at age 34) ever to land in the seat. Having worked under nine presidents starting with Republican Gerald Ford, Leahy recalls voting in the Armed Services Committee against continued funding of the Vietnam War.

“Vermont’s largest newspaper made it very clear that it supported the Vietnam War and editorialized that if I voted against it, I’d never be reelected,” he writes. “I could not accept my own conscience if I didn’t vote to stop the war. If that made me a one-term senator, so be it.”

Leahy was on the Judiciary Committee when he voted for Ronald Reagan’s 1981 nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court.

“It struck me that the court would benefit from having a perspective beyond the old judicial monastery,” he writes, “someone who had lived experiences beyond the bench — let alone the first woman to serve.”

But future historians won’t find a single word in Leahy’s book about the author being one of the lead questioners of George H. W. Bush’s 1991 nominee Clarence Thomas (who the senator voted against) and the woman who accused the now Supreme Court justice of sexual harassment, Anita Hill.

Leahy is also silent on his 1987 resignation from the Senate Intelligence Committee after he leaked a draft report on the Iran-Contra affair; his push for a controversial plan to base F-35 fighter jets in Burlington; and his support of the EB-5 immigrant-investor program before several Northeast Kingdom projects were declared part of a “Ponzi-like” scheme in the largest fraud case in Vermont history.

Leahy’s biggest admission is the fact that he tried to sneak wording into a 1998 bill that would have designated Champlain as the nation’s sixth “Great Lake,” prompting a representative of the original five to announce, “If Lake Champlain ends up as a Great Lake, I propose we rename it ‘Lake Plain Sham.’”

The author instead favors stories about what he calls “the hurly-burly of Washington.”

U.S. Sen Patrick Leahy acknowledges a standing ovation in the House of Representatives chamber at the Statehouse after a surprise joint assembly honoring his career in Montpelier on April 20. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Take the time Leahy read a 1977 Life magazine interview of John Wayne in which the late American actor revealed he had a vacation home in Panama. That spurred the senator to stop then Vice President Walter Mondale in the congressional gym (seemingly the Capitol’s true power center, if book references count) to suggest the star as a spokesperson for the Panama Canal Treaty.

Or when Leahy, adding the Organic Foods Production Act to the 1990 Farm Bill, received an invitation from newly elected President George H. W. Bush to celebrate with a drink stronger than milk.

Or when Leahy took a photo in 2008 of then fellow senator Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, in front of Paris’ Eiffel Tower, only to pretend it didn’t come out so the now first lady could surprise her husband with it for their wedding anniversary.

“Patrick, you’re a terrible liar — but I forgive you,” Leahy recalls the current president saying.

The book has so many such memories, Chapter 38 is titled “Pinch Me Moments, Still.”

Leahy concludes his memoir with the 2016 election and presidency of Donald Trump.

“His face was heavily made up, maybe for the cameras,” the author writes of the Republican’s inauguration. “His hair was a multicolored nest — reddish brown and almost blond in places — and it was stiffly sprayed with I don’t know how much hairspray to stay in place. … All in all, his presentation threw off kind of a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? effect.”

Leahy would bookend that first impression by presiding over Trump’s second impeachment trial.

“I had to think of all the history I’d seen over these years and how the Senate had evolved, in many ways not for the best,” he writes. “I wished I could wave a magic wand and restore just a little bit of the Senate of old.”

Leahy’s book, in the end, is his attempt to do so.

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