This commentary is by Tim Rieser, a native of Norwich who served on the staff of former senator Patrick Leahy for 37 years, most of them as his senior foreign policy aide on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
For 37 years, five days a week, I wore blue jeans and a green Patagonia fleece to my office at the U.S. Senate. Envious staff in suits, ties and uncomfortable shoes often asked how I got away with it. I told them, “You need to work in the Senate for at least 25 years and have a boss like Senator Leahy.”
That usually ended the conversation. There wasn’t anyone else like him.
I joined Sen. Leahy’s staff in 1985 after a job interview walking around a snowy parking lot in Rutland. This Jan. 3, my 71st birthday and the senator’s last day in office, marked the end of my nearly four decades working as his foreign policy adviser and for the Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, of which he was either chairman or ranking minority member.
The senator and I grew up in Vermont. Before arriving at the Senate, we worked on opposite sides of the Vermont criminal justice system — he a prosecutor in Burlington and, a decade later, me a public defender in Barre. We shared a belief in the importance of an independent judiciary, of due process, and of accountability for abuses of power, which became a dominant theme during our many years together.
Although neither of us served in the military, we were old enough to have been affected by the war in Vietnam and to have seen what a needless disaster it was for both countries. That tragedy helped guide us in many future interactions with the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department, and the White House.
Much has been written about Sen. Leahy — his many accomplishments for Vermont, the country, and the world. The actual tally is far longer, since a lot never made the headlines. But very little has been written about what it meant to be able to work for him.
Almost no one works for the same senator for 37 years. For me, besides the blue jeans, there were two key reasons.
The first was something rarely discussed: how senators treat their staff. There are senators whose interactions with staff are stiff and businesslike. Others are more lighthearted and informal, but no less professional. Some senators think nothing of berating and humiliating their staff, who leave for other jobs.
Then there were Sen. Leahy and Marcelle, who treated the staff as a professional family, which created a camaraderie and loyalty that brought out the best in us. This wasn’t unique to his office, but I doubt there were any others whose chief of staff and I would have conceived of some of our best ideas for legislation while splitting firewood.
When I wanted to move back to Vermont for five months to help care for my dying father, Sen. Leahy told me to take as much time as necessary. He knew my father, and often spoke admiringly of him. If a member of his staff or their spouse had a baby or lost a family member, the senator would call from wherever he was to see how they were doing.
The senator was never without his camera, but besides capturing important events in history, meetings with famous people, or scenes of Vermont, he took photos of us — often during lighthearted moments — which would unexpectedly appear in an envelope on our desks.
Second, Sen. Leahy knew that the way to get the best results from his staff was to empower and trust us to make critically important decisions, so we had a real stake in the process and the outcomes. He would often joke, “Senators are mere constitutional impediments to their staff.” He delegated power to us, confident that we knew what he wanted.
This might seem obvious, but some senators want to make all the decisions. With so much going on and so little time, that means a lot fewer decisions get made and a lot less gets done.
What a difference it made for me, and for Vermonters who care a lot about what happens beyond our borders — those serving in the Peace Corps, the armed forces, humanitarian organizations, and building people-to-people bridges where our governments disagree. Vermonters shared their concerns and their ideas, and we listened.
Because he gave me the leeway, I had the privilege to work with Sen. Leahy on some important issues that many have heard about:
— Focusing the world’s attention on the need to ban anti-personnel landmines, and creating the “Leahy War Victims Fund” to aid mine victims.
— Dealing with some of the worst legacies of the Vietnam War by getting rid of unexploded munitions, cleaning up former U.S. military bases contaminated by Agent Orange, and helping identify the remains of some of the estimated 500,000 Vietnamese missing from the war.
— Restoring U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba.
— Increasing U.S. funding for global health, environmental protection, and aid for refugees by billions of dollars.
— Writing legislation to protect human rights, including what became known as the “Leahy Law” to prevent foreign soldiers and police who violate human rights from receiving U.S. training and equipment.
Less well known was the funding to locate and identify the victims of war crimes, the work we did for the release of political prisoners and to hold perpetrators accountable, and enacting procedures and providing funds to make amends to the families of Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed as a result of the U.S. military’s mistakes.
I worked with the senator to protect the dwindling habitat of great apes, migratory birds and other endangered species, to support environmental activists and journalists who in many countries are threatened and killed, and to create a program to get affordable eyeglasses to people in poor countries.
There was a great deal more, and far more work is needed on everything. But who wouldn’t stick with the same job for decades if it meant being able to affect policy and provide the funds to help solve problems like these, with someone who holds a key to the U.S. Treasury?
Senate staff, who work long hours to help solve problems of every kind imaginable, experience their bosses firsthand in ways that others see on TV and social media. Each day we are reminded that the Senate is a microcosm of a fractured, troubled country with great potential for good, and of how much better it could and should be.
During my time with Sen. Leahy, the Senate became a lot more partisan, power became increasingly centralized, and procedures that are necessary for debate, compromise and voting were weakened or abandoned altogether. Poor leadership put partisan advantage over what was best for the institution and the country.
Neither side deserves all the blame. But despite the frustrations and disappointments, I always felt I had the best job and never wanted another one. Sen. Leahy and the people of Vermont made that possible.