Truckin': The Pat Leahy Story

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Truckin': The Pat Leahy Story

Tue, 11/16/2021 - 10:44am -- tim

This profile of Senator Patrick Leahy was first published in the May 2009 issue of Vermont Business Magazine.

by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine

Patrick J Leahy is the stuff of legend and he isn't finished yet. Passionate native Vermonter, devoted family man, land mine opponent, free-speech advocate, storyteller, defender of the US Constitution, published photographer, early Obama supporter, six-term US senator (the only Democrat Vermont has ever sent to the Senate), caster of 13,000 senatorial votes (only eight have achieved this longevity), fourth in seniority in a place where seniority really matters, highly publicized enemy of former Vice President Dick Cheney (by your enemies shall you know them), pop culture fan, and such an interesting politician that he was supported in one election by his opponent (the late, great Fred Tuttle) - you can say one thing for certain about Leahy: Vermont has elected him to lead a wonderful life.

Leahy, 69, whom Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid once called a "Senator's Senator," has been in the public eye for a very long time. Most Vermonters know that he's a Grateful Dead fan, and such a Batman fan that he's had bit parts in three "Batman" films - in "The Dark Knight," the late Heath Ledger held a knife to his throat. But here are some things you might not know about him:

He can read upside down and sideways.

In his first senatorial election, in 1974, most people know that he beat Republican Congressman Richard W Mallary. They don't know that he also beat a little-known third-party candidate (and now Vermont's junior US Senator), Bernie Sanders.

"I got maybe 4 percent of the vote, as Leahy occasionally reminds me," Sanders said.

His wife, Marcelle Pomerleau Leahy, was Michelle Obama's "Big Sister" when Barack Obama first joined the Senate.

Placido Domingo once sang "Happy Birthday" to him at a surprise birthday party.

In the "Millionaires Club" that is the US Senate, Leahy is regularly one of the poorest members. In 2007, his net worth was under $210,000.

His son-in-law, once an Associated Press reporter, is now one of the three regular White House photojournalists. Talk about being a fly on the wall!

When Leahy is at home in DC, according to one close friend, he likes to grill fish and sip Irish whiskey - very good Irish whiskey.

Although Leahy doesn't keep a very high profile in Washington, he's been involved in an impressive number of issues.

"The difference between the average senior Senator and an authentic Senate legend is the scale of the opponents they face," said Vermont author, professor and blogger Philip Baruth. "You're blessed with big enemies, or you're not. Leahy jumped to the Senate over the head of a sitting Republican Congressman back when Vermont was still more Red than Blue. He took down Alberto Gonzales and almost single-handedly put the kibosh on Bush-era politicization of the Justice Department. The guy has faced down an actual anthrax attack. This is no average man, and he is now no average Senate legend."

One of Leahy's early hires was John Podesta, who went on to work as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff from 1998 to 2001 and who also ran Barack Obama's transition team. Now the CEO of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, Podesta said that Leahy "harkens back to something of the old school - old-fashioned leadership and rock-solid values."

Podesta has the highest praise for Leahy.

"It was an honor and pleasure to work for him," he said. "I've worked for some great guys, and I think Patrick stands up well in a class that includes Bill Clinton and Barack Obama."

Leahy - soft-spoken husky-voiced 6'4" and 200 pounds of US Senator - recently made news by floating the idea that the country would benefit from a "truth commission" to explore the misdeeds of the Bush-Cheney administration.

But the bigger Leahy news concerns his 35 years of Senate longevity. Of the current senators, only three others - Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy and Daniel Inouye - have served longer. And when, on March 10, Leahy - who hasn't missed a vote this session - pulled the lever for the 13,000 time, the Senate stopped.

"There have been 1,900 people in the Senate and only eight have cast 13,000 votes," Leahy told me. "And I'm one of them. I was touched by the fact that the Senate came to halt and I got praise from both sides of the aisle."

For our Sunday evening interview, Leahy was dressed casually in a blue sweater over a striped shirt. He looked well cared for, cheerful and avuncular. He was the absolute opposite of pompous - sometimes serious, sometimes openly emotional and often entertaining with a sly, offbeat kind of humor. And as everyone who has been lucky enough to follow him around one of his photo exhibitions knows, he tells great stories about people with last names like Bush, Glenn, McCain and Obama.

One other thing Leahy has - by the wheelbarrow - is confidence. Maybe it comes from his precociousness - he was the youngest in his class at Georgetown University Law Center, the youngest member of the Vermont bar and the youngest senator Vermont has sent to DC. Or maybe he gets it from the Constitution. At one point in our conversation, he said, "I've served with six presidents. Served with, not under. With. We're an equal rank of government. And," he added, "I've got along well with all of them."

Leahy may be graceful in his power, but he is certainly aware of it. Luckily for Vermonters, he's devoted to using it for Vermont.

"The Leahy family has been in Vermont for 150 years," he said. "It's in my blood. Every single meeting, every staff thing, I always emphasize, 'What does it do for Vermont?' This is the second-smallest state in the union, I'm fourth in seniority in the US Senate. How can we use this to help Vermont? What can we do to improve people's lives in Vermont? To make Vermont an even better state for this generation and the next? How can we protect what is best in Vermont, what makes us unique?"

Vermont returns the affection by regularly returning him to the Senate every six years; in the 2004 election, his margin was 74 percent to 25 percent.

The true mark of a good senator is the amount of federal money he brings to the state. According to Sanders, this is where Leahy excels.

"He has brought hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe $30 million or $40 million a year - and after a while, you're talking real money," Sanders said. "What it means is that when you go around the state, there are very few towns that have not been impacted by his efforts. He's been very strong on affordable housing, on downtown redevelopment, on environmental issues. He's obviously very strong in bringing money in to protect Lake Champlain - which some might argue is the single most important resource of the state. He has in many ways directly supported a number of important businesses in the state. Patrick Leahy has played a very import role in our economy."

Leahy has many, many friends in Washington. When Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) was elected in 2007, Leahy took him under his wing.

"It's not necessary for someone who has been in the Senate for 35 years to look out for somebody in his first year, but it helps a lot in the very personal institution that the Senate, in its heart, is," Whitehouse said. "How we get along and the confidence and trust we have in one another has a lot to do with what we get accomplished. Over many years, Leahy's plainspoken-ness, his willingness to sweat the details, and the rock-solid integrity he's always displayed has put him in a position where he can get a lot of things accomplished. He's very, very effective. And he's also always talking about Vermont and his grandchildren. If you slow down the least bit while passing him, he'll catch you and show you the latest pictures. He's a wonderful man, and I'm honored to talk about him."

Even some Republicans praise Leahy. New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, for example, called at 7 pm one night to make sure he was on the record about their "strong and positive relationship that has benefited both states," especially with the Connecticut River Watershed Council and the Silvio O Conte National Wildlife Preserve.

"Patrick is easy to work with," Gregg said. "It's a very good sort of classic Senate relationship - the way they should be. You're going to have differences. But when you agree, you work well together."

Leahy even enjoys a warm personal friendship with conservative Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), now the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"I remember in 1980, I think, he invited me to come up to St Johnsbury for a public review of rural development," Cochran said. "It was the middle of winter and I nearly froze to death. But it was beautiful. So to get even, I invited him to Mississippi in the summertime. He spoke at our annual meeting of the Mississippi Delta Council, a business and farm organization. He learned a little about Mississippi and talked about the challenges of small towns and keeping job opportunities and the quality of life. We had that mutuality of interests and experiences. Since then, we've worked across a wide range of area and remained good personal friends."

But not everyone loves Leahy. For one thing, he can drive the far right mad. In 2001, the National Review published a long story describing him as "no day at the beach" and "the meanest, most partisan, most ruthless Democrat in the Senate." Ask a Republican about Leahy, the article said, and you get "a left-wing brute," "nasty," "a pile of pure malice," and "obnoxious." John Ashcroft called him "soft on terrorism." Vice President Dick Cheney told him to "go f--- yourself" on the Senate floor.

And just to show that there are no heroes in politics, the left often piles on him, too. A recent story on CommonDreams.org, for example, accused him of "bailing on the truth commission plan."

Leahy's most notable career mishap happened back in 1987, when he voluntarily resigned as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee after leaking an unclassified report to a reporter. It was a dismal time for him. In Vermont he picked up the nickname "Leaky Leahy." Rush Limbaugh started calling him "Senator Depends." At the time, Leahy himself released a statement expressing his "anger and regret" for "carelessly allowing the press person to examine the unclassified draft and to be alone with it."

Still, that may have been the only serious misstep in the Senator's long and illustrious career - OK, maybe his attempt to reclassify Lake Champlain as one of the Great Lakes brought a certain amount of derision from the rest of the country, but Vermonters knew his heart was in the right place and that he was taking one for the team. But it's been a career that seems to be guided more by common sense than by partisan politics.

Just some of Leahy's achievements:

He is currently chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which means he will play a significant role in the choice of the next US Supreme Court Justice.

He's a senior member on the Senate Appropriations and Agriculture Committees.

He opposed US military support for the Contras in their fight against the Marxist Sandinistas.

In 1989, Leahy started a fund to get medical aid to victims of land mines. According to Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams, "Without the pivotal work of Senator Patrick Leahy of the great state of Vermont, it is hard to assess where we would be today in the now 'famous' movement to ban antipersonnel land mines," she wrote in an e-mail. "His early establishment of the fund was an expression of his understanding of the horrific impact of war on survivors, particularly land mine survivors. Leahy essentially single-handed got through the Senate the first legislation in the world to stop the export of land mines - this was in August of 1992. The fact that the 'sole remaining superpower' would voluntarily stop exporting what was then considered a legal weapon was honestly transformative in the thinking of countries and militaries around the world. Senator Leahy didn't stop at that. He continued his leadership through the establishment of the Mine Ban Treaty and is still a tireless promoter of that treaty as well as the new treaty, signed in Norway in December 2008, that bans cluster bombs. He's heroic on the issue of disarmament, whether dressed as the 'Dark Knight' or in his business suit."

In 1990, as author of the Organic Foods Production Act, Leahy wrote the standards for organic farming and opened the door to what has since become an explosion in organic agriculture. He's sometimes called the "father of organic farming." Vermont now leads the nation on a per capita basis in conversions from regular to organic farms - with financial support from the federal government.

He opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Early on, Leahy understood the importance of IT to Vermont and the country. "In part because of IBM, I think Patrick was one of the first to get how important high-tech innovation and business investment is to the growth of the economy," Podesta said. "That's showed a lot of foresight back then. By the time I served in the Clinton Administration, Clinton and Gore were thought of as early recognizers of IT's importance. But Patrick was a decade before that."

"He particularly distinguished himself in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks," said Senator Richard Durbin (D-Il) in the Senate on the day Leahy cast his 13,000 vote. "At a time when some were calling for us to sacrifice our rights in the fight against terrorism, Pat Leahy said that we could be both safe and free."

Leahy voted against funding the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

He led efforts to create the basic safety net for dairy farmers when milk prices plummet, the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) Program, which he included in the 2002 Farm Bill. He again led a bipartisan coalition in renewing and improving the MILC Program in last year's (2008) Farm Bill. By the end of long and difficult negotiations, the MILC program had received one of the largest funding boosts of any commodity in the Farm Bill.

He voted against protecting US military personnel from the International Criminal Court.

He called the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba "an international embarrassment to our nation, to our ideals and it remains a festering threat to our security."

He has the 10th-highest lifetime liberal ranking in the Senate, according to the nonpartisan magazine National Journal.

He worked to include civil liberties in the first Patriot Act, but did not vote to renew it in 2005 because of his disappointment at "the missed opportunities to get it right."

He has brought many, many jobs to Vermont, including law enforcement, immigration and homeland security jobs for the northern border areas.

In terms of business, Leahy easily straddles the aisle. His in-laws, for example, are strong Republicans - the Pomerleaus of Burlington's Pomerleau Real Estate. Yet his cousin-in-law, Ernie Pomerleau, says that Leahy has one of the best staffs in Washington and that they work tirelessly on business issues.

"Patrick's staff is constantly interfacing with the business community and trying to help foster the economics of the region," Pomerleau said. "If you looked at the numbers in all of the elections, the percentage that Patrick gets has a huge embodiment of Republican votes. He's very responsive to all constituencies. In the Vermont way, Patrick has huge support in the business community. They say you can pick your politicians but you can't pick your family, and I'd say we have 10 fairly strong differences but there are 50 things we agree upon."

One of Leahy's closest friends in Vermont is J. Garvan Murtha, federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Vermont. The two men met in the early 1970s, when they were both young prosecutors. Murtha praised Leahy's intelligence and perception about people.

"What amazes me is that he's able to remember people's names even if he's just met them for a brief period of time," Murtha said. "He's a very down-to-earth person. He's not a person who's stuck on himself. Of course, he does like to talk to the press. And he likes to be on television. He's a wonderful family man. He adores his children and grandchildren. He doesn't really participate much in the social affairs of Washington. He's been known to be a great griller of fish. He likes to spend time on his back porch down in DC, cooking fish and having an occasional sip of Irish whiskey - very good Irish whiskey."

Former Associated Press Vermont Bureau Chief Chris Graff has covered Leahy since the 1974 senatorial election. He thinks Leahy's best days are still to come.

"In the past 34 years, Pat Leahy has accomplished a great deal in the Senate, both for Vermont and as a champion of specific causes," Graff said. "His influence increases every day, and in his next term the odds are he will become the senator with the most seniority. And, depending on which party is in the majority, he will either become the chair or ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which means that he will have incredible say over the country's spending."

Another Leahy fan is Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, who respects Leahy's love of the Constitution.

"Pat Leahy single handily defended the Constitution of the United States during its eight-year assault by George Bush and company," Shumlin said. "His power in Congress and ability to deliver for Vermont make him our Washington legend in the history of our little state."

Early Years

Leahy was born and raised in Montpelier, one of the three children of Alba and Howard Francis Leahy. His mother's parents came from Italy; his father's family - the Irish side - has been in Vermont for generations.

Vermont was a more racist place back then.

"My grandfather died so young my father had to go to work to support his mother and sister," Leahy said. "There were signs, 'No Irish need apply.' 'No Catholics need apply.' When my mother met him, he worked as a printer at one of the local printing places. They told him he couldn't advance because of his race and religion, so he started his own business."

The Leahy Press (still in business, but no longer in the family), was on State Street. The family lived in front of the shop.

"You walked through the kitchen door and went into the Leahy Press," Leahy said. "The beauty of being around all that was learning to read at an early age. I remember coming home from school, finishing my homework and going out to the kitchen to help collate. I would run the presses. I learned to proofread. I can still read upside down and side to side and spot typos, which is sometimes distressing to my staff. If someone comes to my office and hands me a memo, before it gets to the desk I'm saying, 'You've got a typo third paragraph second line.' And I have no idea of how I do it."

Leahy's parents had strong social consciences.

"I remember when my father died," Leahy said. "At his wake there was a long line, way down the street, of people I'd never known. My brother and sister and I heard story after story like this: 'I was out of a job, and your mom and dad bought me groceries for a month.' 'I was ill, and they paid the doctors' bills.' And, 'I went to pay them back, and they said no, do something like that for somebody else.' I get emotional thinking about it. Hundreds of people who came up and said that my parents gave them a break."

Besides the print shop, Leahy had the usual kid jobs - shoveling walks, mowing lawns, a paper route.

"We didn't have a great deal of money, so I had no choice in the matter," he said. "I had a savings account when I was 10 years old to save money for college. When I was old enough, I got paid to work at the Leahy Press - whatever the minimum wage was at that time. I came home from college one year and they signed me up for a job with a pick and a shovel to help build the National Life building. It focused my attention. I decided to go back and make sure I stayed on the Dean's List. If I hadn't, I never would have gotten into Georgetown Law School."

Despite financial limitations, Leahy remembers growing up in a warm home that was filled with people.

"We took in boarders," he said. "During the legislative session, we rented out part of the house as a little apartment. It really wasn't until I was married that I knew it was like to live in a house when we were the only ones in the house. But we had everything we needed. We had wonderful food and a strong sense of family and community. Dad was very much a part of the community. He and my mother had so many friends it was like open house in our house all the time."

Vermont then was staunchly Republican. The Leahys, who were Democrats, stood out.

"The joke used to be, 'That's where Howard and Alba Leahy live. You know them. They're Montpelier's Democrats,'" Leahy said. "Dad was very fond of Franklin Roosevelt. But Vermont was a one-party state, and the Republicans could practically pick and choose - 'OK, you can run for governor this time, and you'll run next time.' We even had the Mountain Rule. There had to be one US Senator from east of the mountains and one from the western side of the mountains. I'm the only Democrat ever elected in Vermont's history, but from Montpelier because it's right in the middle."

Because of his family's ethnic backgrounds, Leahy grew up comfortable in several cultures.

"My mother taught me it was good to know about other people's cultures and languages," he said. "You wouldn't know that English wasn't her first language."

The French language entered Leahy's life when he met Marcelle Pomerleau. They were very young - she was 17 and he was 19 - but they weren't high school sweethearts.

"I was a junior in college," he said. "I skipped a grade or two. We got married between my first and second year of law school."

Marcelle's parents came from Quebec and spoke French at home.

"It improved my French considerably, because I wanted to know what her parents were saying about me," Leahy said.

According to Ernie Pomerleau, Leahy quickly became a member of the family.

"I knew them when they were first dating," Pomerleau said. "He became family very early on. And the two families were always very close."

Marcelle has always played a vital role in her husband's career.

"Marcelle and I are a team," Leahy said. "None of this could I have done without her. She's my sounding board. She's my confidant. We might have one of these very grandiloquent black tie dinners to go to down in Washington, with magnificent food and all, and we'll stop in for 10 minutes, say hello to the sponsors, go home, get in our jeans and sweatshirts, have a bowl of popcorn and watch a movie. That to me is the greatest thing."

Marcelle, a registered nurse, is also a cancer survivor. She serves on the Board of Cancer Prevention and on the Advisory Board of the School of Nursing at the University of Vermont. And she's on the board of the National Opera in Washington - which reminded Leahy of a story.

"It was my birthday a couple of years ago, and they were apparently having a little party to honor young opera singers at the Italian Embassy," Leahy said. "Marcelle said we should stop by and say hi. I said, 'I'm tired. It's a long day.' She said, 'Come on, Patrick. It'll be Italians. They love you. Just go for a couple of minutes.' So we stop in and she had a surprise for me. A cake, and Placido Domingo came out and sang 'Happy Birthday.' I told Placido, 'I will never, never question anything Marcelle says as long as I live.'"

Marcelle's French connections brought her to the forefront of Quebec's quadricentennial last summer.

"Quebec had a 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City by Champlain," Leahy said. "One of my wife's ancestors was one of Champlain's lieutenants, so they invited her to come up for the celebration. She sat with the prime minister at dinner and gave interviews in French and English on Canadian national television. People would come up to her and ask, 'Are you Madame Pomerleau?' and she would say, 'Yes, I am.' And they'd want to get her autograph and all. And she would say, 'Do you want to meet my husband? He's a United States senator. And they would say, 'No.' And the kids said, 'Go Mom!'"

A Senator's Schooling

Leahy got his BA from Saint Michael's College in 1961 and his JD from Georgetown University Law Center in 1964 when he was only 24.

He and Marcelle lived in a basement apartment in DC. Her nursing shifts sometimes ended at two in the morning.

"I would meet her and walk her home, then get on a bus at seven in the morning and go to classes," Leahy said. "There were two other things I liked to do. I liked going to the trial courts. That's where the most active trials were. I'd go there and watch the trial lawyers - watch the technique. Or I'd go up and watch the debates in the Senate. I'd say to Marcelle, 'If I could be anything I wanted, I'd be either a prosecutor or a US Senator. But I'm never going to be either, so I'll go back to Vermont and practice law."

Before Leahy graduated, he was offered a prestigious E Barrett Prettyman Fellowship, which trains law graduates in the academic and practical aspects of courtroom advocacy. Only four fellowships are awarded each year. Leahy turned one down because he didn't think he'd need criminal law in Vermont.

He also turned down another interesting opportunity.

"I was interviewed by the then-attorney general to see if I'd be interested in coming to the Justice Department," Leahy said. "I asked the attorney general if he'd allow any interference from the White House. And he said, 'I told the president personally, neither he nor anybody over there can call and try to influence a criminal case we're prosecuting.' That attorney general was Robert Kennedy, and his brother was the president. And he ended up prosecuting somebody who was crucial to his brother getting elected. At the time, he said, 'It's a good case, he's obviously guilty, we'll prosecute him and I'll keep a low profile at the next family gathering.'"

Back in Vermont, Leahy joined the Burlington law firm of then-Governor Phillip Hoff.

"The senior partner was recovering from a heart attack," Leahy said.

"He used to do all the trial work, but the doctors told him he couldn't have any stress. So they sent the young lawyers out to try the cases. I loved it, and I got a lot of practice."

His life changed when, in May of 1966, the state's attorney for Chittenden County suddenly announced he was leaving office.

"It was a one-person office, and he was going to leave on Monday to join a law firm," Leahy said. "Governor Hoff called me up at home and said, 'I'm going to name you state's attorney on Monday.' My first thought was, 'Why didn't I take the Prettyman Fellowship?' Then I said, 'I've been doing civil law, not criminal law. He said, 'You'd better bone up on your criminal law over the weekend. It's a real mess here in Chittenden.'"

Criminal cases were stacking up and briefs needed to be filed for the Vermont Supreme Court.

"The governor said, 'Clean up the mess. I'm up for reelection in the fall and I don't want people saying look at this mess in Chittenden County ," Leahy said. He said, 'Do it for a year and then we'd love to have you back in the office and become a partner.' I said, 'Great. It couldn't be a better deal. But only for a year ."

Leahy started putting in long hours.

"I'd try a case all day, drive to Montpelier and get a quick bite to eat with my family, and then I had a key to the state library," he said. "I'd sit there and write my briefs for the Supreme Court at two or three in the morning, drive back to Burlington, get two or three hours sleep and try my cases. From May to sometime in October I tried all the cases, won them all, and was loving it."

The job required a pay cut, but Marcelle was working part-time as a nurse. So Leahy stayed.

"I did it for the trial experience," He said. "I stayed for another year, then another, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I became an officer of the national District Attorneys Association. I got picked as one of the three outstanding ones in America. We did a number of innovations. I was the first in Chittenden County to prosecute rape cases, spousal abuse cases and child neglect cases."

Run For What?

In 1974, Vermont's well-respected Senator George Aiken, a Republican, was due for reelection. When Leahy said he wanted run against him as the Democratic candidate, people thought he was crazy. Vermont was still a Republican state and who could beat Aiken anyway? But this wasn't about politics so much as passion.

"There were so many things I felt strongly about," Leahy said. "It was the height of the Vietnam War. I was against the war and said I would vote against it. It turns out I'm the only Vermonter who ever voted against it. It was the Watergate year. I took my role as a prosecutor seriously. I'd prosecuted Democrats and Republicans. I didn't play favorites at all. And I felt the Nixon White house would manipulate the Justice Department. I thought someone should go down there and give them a very strong Vermont view."

Leahy knew Aiken, but when I asked what their relationship was like, he gave me a Sphinx-like smile.

"I'd applied in law school for an internship in Senator Aiken's office, and he was very nice about it," Leahy said. "But he pointed out that my family were Democrats, so there were no internships available. I remember saying at the time that when I have an intern program, I'm not going to ask anyone about their politics. I'll pick them on merits. It's easy to say when you're a law student living in a basement apartment. But 10 years later, when I was a senator, we started an internship program and it's totally on merit."

Leahy got the nomination because no one else wanted it.

"I thought I could win," Leahy said. "It may have been foolish, of course. But even as a child, I always knew that one place where this little state of ours was equal to every place else in the world was in the Senate. California's got two senators. Vermont's got two senators. In the House, California has about 60 representatives. We have one. I did not want to leave Vermont, but I could be in the Senate and we could still live in Vermont. We decided as a family thing. Everyone told me that I could not possibly win. We were the only state in the union that had never elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate. We'd never elected anyone under 50. We'd never elected a Catholic. And I was a 34-year-old Catholic Democrat."

Then Aiken announced his retirement.

"I'm sure if he had run he would have won," Leahy said.

Congressman Mallary then became the Republican candidate. The campaign was challenging.

"We had no money and no formal organization," Leahy said. "But we put together a small congregation of friends and neighbors, friends of friends, college students, older people, veterans, volunteers, people who had never been involved in things like this before. I had a lot of volunteers from law enforcement - I've always had strong support from law enforcement. Gar Murtha was giving people posters to put up in Windham County."

Leahy's Pomerleau in-laws played an important role.

"Marcelle and her father would go north to the top of the state, where it was very heavily Franco-American," Leahy said. "They tended to vote Republican up there, but they campaigned in French."

Alba Leahy gave interviews in Italian. The doctor who delivered Leahy, a staunch Republican, made a television ad saying he was going to vote for him. On election night, the entire press corps was at Mallary's, waiting for the victory party. The only press with Leahy were college radio and newspaper reporters - and Chris Graff was among them.

"I told Chris, you better make the wires pay you for this story because you're the only one here," Leahy said.

Graff said that given Leahy's present stature in Vermont, it's hard to imagine how vulnerable he was then.

"When he first ran for the seat in 1974, few gave him a chance of winning," Graff said. "The state was still strongly Republican, and the Republican candidate, Dick Mallary, was a well respected moderate. The Friday before the election, the Rutland Herald ran a headline on its front page proclaiming, 'CHITTENDEN POLL DOOMS LEAHY.' On election night, the outcome was in doubt until after midnight, when Leahy claimed victory. He had a great line that night - a symbol of the expected outcome. He said he had been told to prepare two speeches for election night: 'One if you lose, and one if you lose badly ."

Leahy won because he correctly saw that Vermont's political landscape was changing.

"He campaigned as an activist - a consumer activist and an environmentalist," Graff said. "Leahy used television in new ways for Vermont. He aired a 30-minute documentary about his life, something that was revolutionary for the time. And of course the biggest factor that year was Watergate. Nationally, that year the Democrats picked up four seats in the Senate and 49 seats in the House."

Land Mines

In the Senate, land mines became an early cause for Leahy. While he was chairman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, he helped create a fund for their victims.

"Mitch McConnell is a very partisan Republican," Leahy said. "But he and I, depending on who was in the majority at the time, have served as chairman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee. When I was chairman, I started the war victims fund. The Republicans took over and they voted not only to continue and expand it, but Mitch McConnell moved to rename it the Patrick J Leahy War Victims Fund. He talked about it on the floor of the Senate after I cast my 13,000th vote. It was very touching."

When George HW Bush became president, he decided to use the Leahy fund to funnel financial help to Vietnam. His move was strongly backed by Republicans, Senator John McCain among them. Soon after, the Leahys found themselves in Vietnam.

"This was a very hot day," Leahy said. "We went to this place where it was all Vietnamese, except for the words 'Leahy War Victims Fund.' Here are two tiny Vietnamese men wearing starched shirts. No legs. They'd been crawling for decades. Crawling! They had no prosthetics. They were going to get their first wheelchairs.

"If a US Senator loses a leg, our medical insurance is going to buy a prosthetic. And if the doctor says, 'That's a really good prosthetic, but for $1,000 more you can have a super good one,' we'll give them the thousand dollars. This is a place where the per capita income is $200 or $300. And this guy's going to get his first. And they're explaining all this in Vietnamese and pointing toward me, and the guy sat there and just stared at me. I thought, 'This guy must really hate me.' I'm 6' 4" and weigh 200 pounds, and this little guy, he must think, 'Boy, a typical American.'

And the translator says, 'Why don't you pick him up and carry him to the wheelchair?' And Marcelle whispers to me quickly that I ought to pick him up. He probably weighed 75 or 80 pounds. I'm wearing an open-neck shirt and chinos. All the time the guy's just staring at me. So I pick him up, carry him to the wheelchair and put him down. I start to get back up and he grabs hold of my shirt, pulls me down and kisses me."

Then Senator John Glenn, who was also on the trip, had the same experience.

"Now, John Glenn's not an emotional man, but he had tears running down his face," Leahy said. "We had leased a little van for this trip, and on the way back, I heard John say, 'If I hear anybody on this trip complaining about anything, I'm throwing him out the window ."

Leahy still travels to landline fields around the world. And he uses American pop culture to warn people about the dangers.

"I even got DC Comics to do an anti-land mine Batman," Leahy said. "It's now a collector's item. We put one on every Senator's desk when we were bringing up my bill to ban the exporting of land mines. Everyone said it wouldn't get any votes, but it passed 100 to nothing in the Senate. And among the ones who were backing me the most were senators - Republican and Democrat - who had been in combat. And we did a Superman comic book for Bosnia and Slovenia and places like that. We had to use Superman because he, Coca Cola and Mickey Mouse are the three most recognizable images anywhere. We couldn't use Batman because he wears a mask. Many of these children had seen masked men come into their house, bring their parents out and shoot them dead in front of their faces. So we distributed thousands upon thousands of these Superman comics."

The F-Word Bombers

In April, The Hill put out a survey of all 99 senators that said Leahy was at the top of the list as the Senate s most partisan Democrat.

"Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are the easiest senators to work with, while Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jim Bunning (R-KY) are the most partisan members of the upper chamber, according to a survey conducted by The Hill.

The Hill asked all 99 seated senators which member of the opposing party they most enjoyed partnering with on legislation. The senators were also quizzed (on a not-for-attribution basis) about their least favorite."

The Hill is a congressional newspaper that publishes daily when Congress is in session.

For a longtime liberal senator from a longtime liberal state, the Bush years must have been especially trying for Leahy. Things may have come to head on June 22, 2004, when Leahy and Vice President Dick Cheney were on the floor of the Senate for the yearly class photo.

As the story goes, Cheney was only talking to the Republicans after the shoot. Leahy asked him to come over and speak to the Democrats, too. The two exchanged words, and Cheney told Leahy to "go f--- yourself."

At the time, Leahy told CNN, "I think he was just having a bad day and I was kind of shocked to hear that kind of language on the floor."

Some days later, Cheney said that several of his colleagues "felt that what I'd said badly needed to be said, that it was long overdue."

The f-bomb story went around the world. But that's not the end of it. Garry Trudeau featured the exchange in his comic strip, "Doonesbury." And that gave the irrepressible senator from Vermont an idea.

"I was up for election that year," Leahy said. "I was up at my house and somebody said, 'Why don't we get a t-shirt that says: Ignore Cheney Vote Leahy. I wonder if Trudeau would give us permission to put a panel of Doonesbury on the back?' I called him, and Garry said, 'Sure you can, but I'm going to charge you.' And I said, 'Of course. It's copyrighted. What would you charge?' And he said, 'How about one large and one medium, and you sign both of them, one for me and one for my wife?'"

At the national convention in Boston that year, the Leahy team sold several thousand t-shirts the first day.

"We had to rush-order more," Leahy said. "A few months later, of course, I get reelected. And Dick Cheney has to swear me in. The whole press corps was leaning over the gallery to see what would happen. But he just swore me in and we exchanged pleasantries. Someone asked me later what it was like. I said, 'It's far better to be sworn in than sworn at.'"

Still, Leahy and Cheney once had had a different, more collegial relationship.

"I knew Dick Cheney when he was in the House, and he was an entirely different person," Leahy said. "Others, Republicans who had spent time with him, were saying the same thing. I don't know what the story is."

Saying No To Bush

Leahy and the first President Bush enjoyed "pretty freewheeling discussions," but the second Bush was a different story.

"The most difficult thing with a president is getting somebody who says, 'No. I think you're wrong,'" Leahy said. "Everybody comes storming up to the White House saying, 'I'm going to give him a piece of my mind.' And then the president says, 'How're you doing? How's that son of yours? And it's, 'Oh fine, fine Mr President.' I don't care who the president is, that's what happens. But every president has to have a few people who tell him, 'No.' I got along well with George W, but we disagreed on so much. I told him once, about a year and a half ago, 'The worst thing for you is you have a rubber stamp Republican-controlled Congress. They never say no to you. 'Yeah,' he said. 'But you say no to me all the time.' 'Yeah,' I said. 'But you don't listen to me. But the members of your own party? You don't have any one who dares say no to you. You'd be a lot better off if you did.' I think in the end he agreed."

One strong disagreement Leahy had with Bush was the way his appointee, Alberto Gonzales, was leading the Justice Department.

"They were destroying it," Leahy said. "Thousands of men and women, among the most talented people you'd ever meet. And you could spend the next three years with them and you wouldn't have the foggiest idea if they were Republican or Democrat. All you'd know is if you needed the Department of Justice at your back, these were the people you'd want. And they were demoralized. They were hurting. Alberto Gonzales was a terribly weak person, and he allowed the White House to call the shots. He allowed Cheney's office to tell him what to do. He just rolled over. Contrast that to what Robert Kennedy said about his brother."

Because of Leahy's investigations, Gonzales and many of his top aides were forced to resign.

"A number of US attorneys around the country were also forced out," Leahy said. "There will be people probably eventually being disbarred because of that. Investigations are still going on, and there will be a major Inspectors General report coming down. These are significant, significant things that have happened. Of course, if you're a president, you want a strong presidency and a strong vice presidency. But that's not the checks and balances. You can't have, 'Now I'm going to make a rubber stamp court system and then a rubber stamp Congress.' With a country as diverse as ours, that's a terrible mistake."

Presidential Politics

Leahy was an early supporter of Barack Obama, partly because of his own world travels.

"I saw the animosity towards America and it made my blood boil," Leahy said. "I'm a very proud American, This is the only country I'd want to live in. But to see how people who had been saved by the US with the Marshall Plan and been helped by our schools and our science - the way they were opposed to our country, or at least to the leadership of our country."

Leahy believed that Obama had the power to change America's image abroad.

"Look at what happened when Obama was running for president and he was in Berlin," Leahy said. "When Obama was merely a blip on the radar, I was at the conference in Davos. I was talking to a German man who had been in Berlin as a boy when John Kennedy gave his 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech. He said, 'We revered John Kennedy. But if you send us a President Obama, we won't be able to contain the crowds.' And look at what happened when Obama was there as a candidate to give a 20 minute speech. About 200,000 people showed up. I mean, wow!"

The Leahys also had a close personal relationship with the Obama family. When Obama first joined the Senate, Marcelle volunteered to be Michelle Obama's "Big Sister."

"Michelle tells little Sasha, 'Mrs Leahy's my big sister in the Senate ," Leahy said. "Sasha looks at Marcelle, looks at her mother, notices the obvious differences, and turns to her mother. She says, 'Is that like an aunt?' Michelle says, 'Well, yes, soft of,' And there's Sasha with this huge smile. It's wonderful."

Leahy and Obama worked out together in the Senate gym and spent a lot of time talking.

"These were very probing conversations," Leahy said. "I told him, 'You're the only person in either party who's running who can immediately reintroduce America to the rest of the world.' That's why I endorsed him. Nothing against Senator Clinton or anyone else. In fact, I'm delighted that he picked her for secretary of state. She knows how I feel. I've talked with her about it. She is a perfect secretary of state for him to send out. She's instantly recognizable."

The new president is extraordinarily bright, Leahy said. But what is more important to Leahy, he takes the Constitution seriously.

"And this goes back to what happened in the last administration," Leahy said. "I want a president that, when he takes the oath to uphold the Constitution, has, one, read the constitution; two, believes in the Constitution; and three, means what he says when he promises to uphold it. Of course Obama will make mistakes. But he wants to do what's right. He has inherited the worst mess anybody possibly could. President Bush inherited the largest surplus in American history from President Clinton, and look where we are. Anyway, I'm very supportive of President Obama."

The White House was too busy to be interviewed for this article, but since Marcelle was such a star when Quebec celebrated its quadricentennial, I asked Leahy if he could get Obama to come to Burlington this summer when Vermont celebrates its 400th anniversary. Leahy smiled and said, "I don't know, but I think he'll come at some point."

Truth Commission

If it's true that a man is known by the enemies he makes, then Leahy gets a lot of credit for standing up to Bush and Cheney. He's still challenging them.

When Cheney went on television recently to suggest that President Obama was making the country less safe, Leahy told the Huffington Post: "I just want to say here, Bush and Cheney were in charge when the last attack happened. They were warned about the last attack before it happened. On September 10th, 2001, their proposal was to cut our counter-terrorism budget substantially. I don't need any lectures from him. They screwed up badly. They are also the same people who said the war in Iraq would be over in a couple weeks, shock and awe and we would find the weapons of mass destruction. Their policy was to let Osama bin Laden get away when we had him cornered and to send the troops into a useless war in Iraq. No, no, I don't think he has a great deal of credibility."

Leahy has proposed, and strongly supports, a "truth commission" to examine the actions of the last administration.

"I think we should do it," Leahy said. "I'm afraid if we just ignore what happened, it'll just repeat itself. Frank Church said something similar at the time of Watergate. And it didn't repeat itself for decades, but it then it did. Most people don't know all of what happened under Bush and Cheney. Through our investigations in the Judiciary Committee, we're finding out more and more all the time."

Leahy thinks it would be better to dig for the truth all at once - and in a nonpartisan way.

"We will eventually get a lot of this in the Congressional hearings, but I'm afraid people see those as being partisan," Leahy said. "This could be done outside the Congress. For people who say the normal criminal justice system will take care of it? Well, no. What happened at Abu Ghraib, some of these other things? 'Boy, we're going to get those corporals and privates and things.' No. What about the colonels and the generals? We're going to get these minor figures, some US attorney somewhere who's willing to succumb to political pressure. Well, that's bad enough. He should be disbarred. But who was at the White House level or at the Department of Justice level who actually did this?"

Is it even possible to have some kind of a truth commission?

"I don't know," Leahy said. "It can only be done as a bipartisan thing, and Republicans are balking. And some Democrats. If not, we'll do it in various committees - Intelligence, Judiciary. The Senate should be the conscience of the nation. And senators should reflect that. And sometimes we do, and often we don't. But we ought to try to."

For a long time, Obama backed away from the idea of a truth commission, saying that the country should look forward, not backward. But in April, after he released a series of memos outlining in great detail America's torture practices under the Bush administration, he appeared to be moving closer to Leahy's idea. He said an investigation might be acceptable "outside of the typical hearing process" and with the participation of "independent participants who are above reproach."

The Future

Since our interview was taking place at the end of mud season, the conversation drifted - as Vermont conversations often do - to the topic of dirt roads. The Leahys live on a tree farm at the end of a dirt road in Middlesex.

"We love our dirt roads here in Vermont," Leahy said. "I remember when one of my kids, just out of high school, one of his friends said, 'Hey, I hear you live on a dirt road. What kind of vehicle do your parents prefer for mud season? And he said, 'I believe my dad prefers a rental vehicle ."

So does Leahy's immediate future include retirement to the house at end of that dirt road?

Not a chance.

"I love our home," Leahy said. "The view is spectacular. I go out sometimes in the morning when the mist is coming up off the road, and I'll walk along and never want to be anywhere else. But no. I'm not going to retire."

Where does he plan to be in January of 2011?

"Taking my oath of office," Leahy said. "And Joe Biden will be swearing me in."

Joyce Marcel is a freelance writer and author from Dummerston. Her new book, a collection of her columns called, "A Thousand Words or Less," is now available. Learn more about her and how to order the book at her Web site: www.joycemarcel.com.