David Moats: What I’ve learned over the decades about Patrick Leahy

Patrick Leahy first ran for his U.S. Senate term in 1974 alongside fellow aspirants U.S. Rep. Richard Mallary, R-Vt., and then Liberty Union Party candidate Bernie Sanders. Archive Photo

Patrick Leahy began his career in the U.S. Senate at about the same time I began my career in Vermont journalism. For more than four decades since then, two young men have grown old, experiencing from different vantage points the turbulent events, crises and challenges of Vermont and the nation. 

I don’t know Leahy well, but my sympathy with his views and respect for his efforts have only grown over the years. Now that he has announced he won’t run in 2022, I’m moved to offer a personal reflection on the man and his times.

Leahy first came to my notice in a memorable way when he was singled out in an article by the liberal columnist Mary McGrory for his opposition to the B-1 bomber, an unnecessary and overpriced piece of weaponry that died in Congress in the mid-1970s. She characterized him as one of the new young liberals willing to take on the military establishment that had just dragged itself out of the catastrophe of the Vietnam War. 

I had only recently arrived in Vermont, and I knew next to nothing about Leahy’s history as state’s attorney in Chittenden County. I was still becoming acquainted with the cast of characters populating Vermont politics at the time. The big names then were Robert Stafford, Tom Salmon, Jim Jeffords, Richard Snelling, and Leahy. That he had opposed the Vietnam War was a major plus.

Leahy next came to my attention when he escorted Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland to a muddy field on a farm in Bridport. I was editor at a weekly paper in Middlebury, and this seemed like a big deal. It was important for Leahy to establish himself as a friend of the farmer — partly because he was a Democrat in a traditionally Republican state and partly because winning the favor of the farm community would establish him as a dependable political player. For Jimmy Carter’s agriculture secretary to show up in Bridport gave Leahy credibility.

Over the years, members of the press have joked among themselves about Leahy’s habit of name-dropping and consciously associating himself with important people. It probably grew out of the insecurity he felt arriving in Washington as the youngest member of the Senate. “As I told the president …” is something Leahy might have said more than once. But on the whole, it was an endearing foible. He wanted to be among those making a difference.

I had an embarrassing encounter with Leahy early in my career when I was still working in Middlebury. I was editor of a weekly there, and I wondered what was next. I sent a letter to Leahy’s press secretary at the time, asking if there was a possibility that I might work for Leahy. Much to my shock, he arranged an interview with Leahy’s chief of staff and Leahy himself. 

I was totally green. I was still new to Vermont. I went to meet Leahy at his office in Burlington, nervous, out of my depth, with a shirt collar that was too tight around my neck. He was kind enough but could see what a neophyte I was, and he hired a veteran of Vermont journalism and politics. Thank goodness.

The decades passed, and Leahy engaged in the kind of routine politics that makes the world go round — proud of the money he could secure for Vermont, willing to engage in the log-rolling and other compromises that legislators must do to get anything done. Some of those compromises may have brought forth mild criticism from me as an editorial writer, but I found nothing especially egregious about it.

Mostly, he associated himself with issues that made a difference to people. In his retirement speech he listed the high points. He worked to promote land conservation and nutrition, to combat violence against women, to protect civil liberties and freedom of information.

Two of the causes that Leahy takes greatest pride in are his work to help land mine victims around the world and to curb the export of land mines. He is also author of what is known as the Leahy Law, which curtails military assistance to nations guilty of human rights violations.

Politicians choose the issues they will focus on. Leahy had nothing to gain politically by devoting himself to the welfare of children whose legs have been blown off. He did not choose issues that the high rollers with the big bucks would reward him for. The high rollers generally have little interest in the freedom of information or the prosthetics provided for Afghan villagers.

Leahy has never revealed much about himself personally. Like many politicians, he is guarded, perhaps shy, relying on the familiar rhetoric about “Vermont values.” He uses a few quirky interests — his fondness for Batman, his photography — to show that he is not all serious. 

He mentioned in his retirement announcement that as a boy he used to ride his tricycle in the corridors of the Statehouse. He hasn’t forgotten that boy.

One time he and I had been having a lengthy conversation, and I suggested to him that, of all his accomplishments over the years, he may be most proud of his work during the Obama administration to bring about normalized relations with Cuba. His office had been intimately involved in a complex, convoluted chain of events leading to the breakthrough. Leahy smiled and nodded as if I’d touched on something that mattered to him. I took it as a personal revelation.

Leahy has become a Vermont institution. His office in Washington has always been a friendly, welcoming place, providing employment on his staff to some of Vermont’s best and brightest, including a friend of my daughter and the son of a friend.

Leahy has always been kind to me, arousing the suspicion of the newsman wary of politicians trying to be too chummy. But over the years I’ve seen that he is the genuine article, and if he has won me over, so be it. 

He called me once while he was on vacation in the Virgin Islands with a message of congratulations. After my job was eliminated at the newspaper where I had worked for many years, he called me at home and his first words were, “They’re hard on us old guys, aren’t they.” He used a word other than “guys.”

Leahy is the only senator serving now who was also serving during the administration of President Gerald Ford. I am seven years younger than he is, but I was a journalist in Vermont during the Ford administration. Part of the sadness produced by Leahy’s announced retirement is the sense of an era ending. We have relied on him for so long. 

In raw political terms, his retirement prompts a degree of dread. The Democrats’ hold on the Senate majority is as narrow as it could be, and the Republican Party, under the sway of the previous president, has become a party promoting violence and the erosion of democracy. 

But Leahy spoke with hope about the new generation of leaders ready to take on the fight. The problems are numerous and grave — climate change, immigration, racial justice, economic inequality. But Leahy has shown how to fight that fight with honesty and dignity. 

He’ll be going home soon. He has earned it.

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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: [email protected]

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