David Moats: Patrick Leahy’s only constant was change

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy announces he will retire at the end of his term during a press conference in Montpelier on Nov. 15. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On Nov. 8, for the first time in 48 years, the name Patrick Leahy will not be on the ballot for U.S. Senate from Vermont.

Apart from what that might mean for Leahy as an individual, and for the state of Vermont, the change is another indicator of the “inflection point” at which many observers say the nation’s history has arrived.

Consideration of Leahy’s career offers a long view of the last half-century. The long view may be useful in that most Vermonters were not even born when Leahy took office (the median age of Vermonters is about 42), and so the 1970s and 1980s may seem to them like the misty past.

Leahy’s new memoir, titled “The Road Taken,” offers the reader a guided tour through those years and on up to the present. His observations shed light, not only on one man’s career, but on the nation’s turbulent journey from the final days of the Vietnam War to the parlous present, which finds democracy under assault abroad and at home.

From the beginning, Leahy’s memoir suggests, he felt a wide-eyed wonder at the grandeur of American democracy and the institutions that sustain it. Thus, his memoir serves as a tribute to the (mostly) men he served with and also as a grieving valedictory message about the degradation of our institutions by partisans and demagogues who in recent years have taken their sledges to the foundations of democracy.

Those who have followed Leahy’s career from the beginning know a few things about him. He has always been proud of his early career as Chittenden County state’s attorney. His wife, Marcelle, and his family have always been at the center of his life. He is proud of his heritage as a native Vermonter with Irish and Italian roots and of his father who ran the Leahy Press in Montpelier for many years. He enjoys working with the big names of American politics and doesn’t mind telling people about it.

He admits in his memoir that he is a shy person — not a garrulous storyteller, but someone who deploys details about his life carefully, as if crafting a politically advantageous narrative about himself. But reading the memoir, one concludes that it’s all true. It’s not an act. He exhibits an almost naive fidelity to the story he’s been telling for all of these years. 

He admits that arriving in the Senate as its youngest member in 1975, he suffered a form of imposter syndrome, and he relates a story told to him about President Harry S. Truman. According to the story, when Truman first arrived in Washington as a newly elected senator, he looked around and asked himself, “How the hell did I get here?”

Leahy placed himself under the wings of the Senate’s old guard — Hubert Humphrey, Frank Church, Mike Mansfield, even the segregationist John Stennis. He schooled himself in the ways of the institution with the help of those who revered and protected the procedures, protocols and unwritten rules that allowed the Senate to function.

Over time, he encountered other senators for whom he had less respect — including outright racists such as Jesse Helms and more recent showboats such as Ted Cruz — and he remembered the other part of the Truman story. After six months, Truman said, he looked around at his colleagues and he asked himself, “How the hell did they get here?”

By the time Leahy took office in 1975, Richard Nixon had already resigned the presidency, and his vice president, Gerald Ford, had assumed office. But the Vietnam War lingered, and one of the early defining actions of Leahy’s career was to cast the deciding vote against additional money for the war. 

His memoir is full of telling anecdotes about the important figures of the time. He tells of the morning in 1974 when an emissary from the national Democratic Party, a former governor, met with him at the Hanover Inn for breakfast to talk about the campaign. “None in the restaurant recognized either of us,” Leahy wrote. It was Jimmy Carter, who “radiated warmth,” Leahy said, “and optimism that the country was ready for a break from Nixonism.” Leahy was elected senator that year, and Carter was elected president two years later.

It took years for Leahy to feel comfortable in the Senate. His closest electoral challenge came in 1980, when he survived the Reagan wave, eking out a margin of only 2,700 votes over Stewart Ledbetter. 

But times were changing. The so-called Reagan Revolution was underway. A long list of Democratic veterans who had championed pioneering legislation through the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, were gone. Among Democratic incumbents, Gary Hart and Leahy were among the few that survived. The Reagan years brought troubling changes, including the slashing of regulations and taxes, which ushered in a new era of widening economic inequality. And Reagan oversaw other disasters, such as the Iran-Contra fiasco.

Leahy lived through all the travesties and tragedies of the last half-century, holding to the belief that senators of conscience could make a difference. He watched as the decay of governance brought on by a demagogic president and his deluded followers reached its nadir on Jan. 6, 2021, when Leahy and fellow members of Congress had to flee the mob that had invaded the Capitol. With a police officer at his elbow, Leahy rushed down a stairway, explaining that because he lacks vision in one eye, he has poor depth perception. “That’s why I’m here, Senator” the officer said as he guided Leahy downstairs by the arm.

Jan. 6 hit Leahy hard. “It was treason before our very eyes,” he wrote. “I was furious.”

In their secure spot deep in the Capitol, members of the Senate wondered what they should do. One senator suggested they could carry on and certify the election from their hiding place. But Leahy would have none of it.

He recounted the speech he made to his colleagues that afternoon. “No, no, no — look, I hear what you’re saying. But I’m the dean of the Senate — this is my forty-sixth year here — and I will be damned if we cower in here and hide the people’s business for the first time in Senate history just because these bastards did this.” He recalled a previous crisis. “After 9/11 — all one hundred of us were in our seats to say we don’t cower, we are the conscience of a nation, and you don’t change who we are.”

Leahy will leave a Senate far different from the body he joined in 1975 because the country is different.

“Yes, the Senate is a broken place,” he wrote. “No, our institutions are not what Mike Mansfield and Hugh Scott and Gerry Ford and Hubert Humphrey and Ted Kennedy and John Stennis and Barry Goldwater knew them to be.

“Some of that change is good, a lot of it is tragic, and all of it is what it is: you can point fingers, or you can point the way forward to something better.”

Vietnam, Watergate, the Reagan Revolution, the Gulf War, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, George W. Bush and 9/11 and the Afghan and Iraq wars, the financial crash, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Jan. 6 — this is the half-century’s story, experienced not just by Patrick Leahy from his place in the Senate, but by all of us as we try to make sense of the world. 

If we are at an inflection point, what does that mean? It means either we regain respect for the democratic institutions and processes that allow us to live as a unified nation, or we succumb to movements seeking to fracture our democracy. Either we recognize the immense challenges of the future — the upheavals caused by climate change and fascistic movements that would exploit those upheavals — or we allow global disaster to overtake us.

This election will turn on that inflection point, one way or another, or it may lead to the continuing muddle of a struggling people. Leahy always looked to the wisdom of his elders — Mansfield, Church, Humphrey. But ultimately the newer generation took over for him, and now again for us.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly described how many Democratic incumbents survived the Reagan Revolution.

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David Moats

About David

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

Email: davidrmoats@gmail.com

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