Editorial: Sen. Leahy’s legacy is a window into bipartisan politics not to be forgotten


In the past couple of weeks, I was fortunate to spend several hours with former Sen. Patrick Leahy, first during an in-person interview at his new offices at UVM for a story in the Addison Independent, then a week later at a group dinner with the Senator and his wife, Marcelle, followed by listening to his 90-minute talk at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalists Society sanctuary in Middlebury.

During each meeting, the spotlight was on his 48-year career in the Senate, largely told through the stories that meant the most to him.

What emerged was a more revealing portrait of a man long moved by social justice, but also as a legislator keen on serving his beloved Vermont to the best of his ability, and of serving humankind in many ways.

After graduating from law school from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., he returned to Vermont to practice law, joining the firm headed up by former Gov. Phil Hoff. He was appointed state’s attorney for Chittenden County and served eight years doing something he loved: prosecuting cases in a court of law and sharing his knowledge with law enforcement officers and other prosecutors throughout the state. In 1974, at 33 years old, he decided to run for the U.S. Senate, with hopes to follow in the footsteps of Sen. George Aiken.

It was an audacious move. Never elected to a previous office with just eight years as a county prosecutor under his belt, he sought to be the youngest and first-ever Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Vermont.

That he won a narrow victory over Republican Richard Mallary is testament to the times (in the aftermath of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation), but also to Leahy’s hard work and astute understanding of the issues and of Vermonters.

Once elected, he pledged to follow his conscience, not the politics of the moment, on the tough issues. To that end, one of his earliest consequential votes was to deny continued funding of the war in Vietnam. Even with presidential pressure, Sec. of State Henry Kissinger paying a personal visit, and many visits from widely respected senators, the freshman senator held his ground on five consecutive votes — with the issue losing by a single vote several times. Leahy recalled that staunch conservative Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WV, was asked if he really meant to cast a no-vote on the final tally, and he replied: “Yes, they’ve lied to me long enough.” 

Such vignettes of important moments in the nation’s history are made all the more poignant by Leahy’s personal recollections — almost always mixed with a sense of humor, or drama, and often both. 

Leahy would go on to lead the effort to ban the export and use of land mines, oppose entering the Iraq war, and authoring the Leahy Law — a provision that requires the U.S. to deny military funds to nations who are violating human rights with that aid. Along with his establishment of The Leahy War Victims Fund, which among other things provided wheelchairs to land mine victims throughout the world, his humanitarian work and his judgement in times of war sets him apart, if not as a pacifist, then certainly as someone who read the intelligence thoroughly before committing U.S. resources to conflict and someone who sought to limit the tragedy of war among civilian populations. He would also go on to promote the Violence Against Women Act (which dealt with intimate partner violence), which later extended protections to the LBGTQ community.

That sense of justice and goodwill to all people, yet with a prosecutor’s determination to hold the guilty responsible, comes across in Leahy’s 90-minute conversation he had with Middlebury-area residents this past Wednesday evening. While reporter John Flowers captures the highlights of the conversation, do yourself a favor and set aside 90-minutes to watch the tape of that conversation with Leahy as captured by Middlebury Community TV. It’s a window into history, but it’s also a peek into a bipartisan era of national politics that shouldn’t be forgotten. Watch the video here.

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