Graff: Patrick Leahy’s half century on center stage

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Graff: Patrick Leahy’s half century on center stage

Mon, 11/15/2021 - 10:27am -- tim

Patrick and Marcelle Leahy meet with then-Vice President Joe Biden in December 2012. Courtesy photos

by Chris Graff, Vermont Business Magazine

In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump ("Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.") the main character witnesses and at times influences some of the defining events of the 20th century. There's Gump as an all-American football player, serving in Vietnam, meeting President John F Kennedy, causing the resignation of President Richard Nixon and investing in Apple Computer before anyone realized its potential. The story is absolutely implausible. No person could ever be present as so much history unfolds.

Patrick J Leahy has.

He has been center stage for many of the nation's milestones for almost half a century. The list is equally impressive and implausible. There’s Leahy as a freshman senator in the 1970s on the Armed Services Committee fighting to end the Vietnam War; there’s Leahy working with Princess Diana on a landmine ban; there he is leading the fight for civil liberties against the Bush administration following 9/11; and there he is surrounded by armed guards after he was targeted by anthrax. When President Obama announced the reopening of relations with Cuba who was standing in Havana? Patrick J. Leahy. And of course he has had a central role in the confirmation of more than a dozen Supreme Court justices.

His is an amazing story. Few expected him to win his 1974 U.S. Senate race. And surely no one – even Pat Leahy himself – could have imagined how long he would serve, how powerful he would become, and how central he would be to the institution of the Senate.

Afterall, this was a guy who first ran against the Senate. He campaigned as an outsider, an activist, a consumer advocate and an environmentalist.

He was a Democrat running in a Republican state. No Vermont Democrat had ever won a U.S. Senate seat.

He was bucking the traditional political ladder in Vermont. He was merely the county prosecutor for Chittenden County. The two incumbent senators had climbed the political ladder the way you were supposed to: George Aiken had served as speaker of the House, lieutenant governor and governor while Bob Stafford had served as attorney general, lieutenant governor, governor and a member of the U.S. House.

Leahy’s 1974 Republican opponent, Dick Mallary, had been speaker of the Vermont House, a state senator and had been elected to the U.S. House in 1972.

The betting money was squarely on Mallary.

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But Leahy had his finger on the changing pulse of Vermont. He had fashioned his image as Chittenden County state’s attorney into a high-profile, television-savvy lawman. He was the “Top Cop” who was also liberal on social issues.  And he was all about campaign finance transparency before that was on the radar.

On election night 1974 the Senate race was in doubt until after midnight. In the end Leahy received 70,629 votes; Mallary won 66,223; and Bernie Sanders, on the Liberty Union ticket, received 5,901.

Richard Nixon had resigned that August and Watergate dragged down a number of Republicans across the country, boosting the fate of a number of Democrats. Joining Leahy in the Senate in 1975 as so-called Watergate babies were such Democrats as Gary Hart, of Colorado, Dale Bumpers, of Arkansas; and John Glenn, of Ohio.

They are all gone now.

Only Leahy remains from the class of 1974.

He ranks No. 1 in seniority in a body in which seniority matters almost more than anything else. He is the president pro tem of the Senate, a position that puts him third in line to the presidency. He is the longest-serving senator in the history of Vermont. More than half of all Vermonters have been born since Leahy went to the Senate in 1975.

In his half century of service in the Senate his drive and passion have never faltered. He has stepped up to fight battles others would not. He has attracted one of the most impressive staffs ever assembled in the Senate, no mean feat to maintain over four decades. He has a keen eye for meaningful issues – like landmines and Cuba – and the willingness to dedicate years if not decades to making progress on those issues.

Senator Leahy discusses the opioid crisis at a hearing in 2016.

It is something of a historic irony that at times Leahy has been overshadowed by the big news splashes of Senator Jim Jeffords’ 2001 declaration of independence, Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential bids and even Howard Dean’s 2004 run for president.

In the end, his long-term impact on the Senate and indeed on the nation has been far greater than any other Vermont leader.

The true irony of Leahy’s tenure is that when he went to Washington in 1975 he was a young man awed by the legends of the Senate.

He would often talk of his meetings with Hubert Humphrey or Barry Goldwater or of getting summoned to the White House.

Today he is a legend of the Senate. He is one of the liberal lions he looked up to almost 50 years ago.

Chris Graff, a former Vermont bureau chief of The Associated Press and host of VPT's Vermont This Week, is recently retired as vice president for communications at National Life Group. He is author of, Dateline Vermont: Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state - and influenced a nation.