WASHINGTON — Patrick Leahy came to the Senate nearly half a century ago after the Watergate scandal and the resignation and pardon of President Richard Nixon.
After a historic run, the Vermont Democrat, the last of the so-called «Watergate Babies» of that class from 1974, leaves Congress with his mind set on another constitutional crisis: President Donald Trump’s efforts to subvert the election of 2020 and the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.
“Here is a man who does not believe in the Constitution, has probably never read the Constitution. I’m talking about Trump, who announced just a week ago, ‘Well, we should drop parts of the Constitution,’” said Leahy, who rose from Chittenden County state’s attorney to Senate president pro tempore, third in line. . in the presidential succession.
“It’s something that becomes almost a cliché in some of these countries where a general or somebody takes control and throws everyone out. We say, ‘Well, thank God that never happened in America.’ And here, [Trump’s] suggesting that it be done,» he continued. «That was very, very scary.»
In an interview in his Capitol Hill office with a roaring fireplace and views of the Washington Monument, Leahy, 82, recalled how two prominent Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott and Sen. Barry Goldwater, conveyed to him a new 34 years. -old senator, how Nixon had been told in the White House that he had to resign or face some impeachment and removal by Congress.
“They didn’t like that, but they felt like senators and, doing their duty, they had to explain it to them,” Leahy said. “And I well remember Senator Goldwater telling me that Nixon said, ‘Well, how many Republicans will vote to impeach me?’ He said, ‘Most of us.’
The main difference today is that many Republicans are unwilling to stand up to their own party leader as he tramples on the Constitution, said Leahy, who presided over the second Trump impeachment trial, which focused on the deadly Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill. .
«Seeing what’s going on and not seeing all the Republicans and Democrats stand up and condemn it, that’s what worries me,» he said.
A unique vision of history.
The Senate offices that Leahy will vacate have an almost museum-like quality, the walls adorned with photographs of the history he has witnessed throughout his decades of service. Some of them were taken by award-winning photographers he knew over the years, but many of them were taken by Leahy himself.
Leahy’s passion for photography has become part of her personality on The Hill. She is often seen walking around the Capitol with a camera in hand, taking pictures of the media, colleagues, or newsworthy events.
“When I was 4 years old, I loved to watch my mother and father photograph things. I started doing it then,» Leahy said. “I have done it forever. I love doing it».
Leahy has come a long way since the 1950s Hopalong Cassidy Brownie his parents bought him as a child, and now he shoots with a point-and-shoot Leica, just one of many cameras in his arsenal.
Photographer Robert Capa said, «If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough.» For Leahy, that’s never a problem. His position as a senior senator constantly puts him in a position to capture unique moments, none more so than a shot for which he has become famous: the over-the-shoulder view of a president signing a bill in the White House. .
“Nobody has a picture of them signing it,” Leahy said. “You have members of Congress after him. Everyone is trying to get into the picture. The press is in front of them. I’m the type that usually gets left behind.»
Leahy has served in the Senate through the terms of nine presidents. Photos of him signing bills hang in some of his presidential libraries.
Some of his shots are picked up by newsmagazines, and he donates the money he earns to the children’s library in Montpelier, Vermont, the same library that receives the money he’s earned doing cameo appearances in five Batman movies.
“I got my first library card there when I was 4 years old, and it was like a little room in the basement,” he said. “But a wonderful librarian prodded me, and by third grade, she had read all of Dickens’s book and all of this Mark Twain. But it was so small. Now it’s a beautiful wing.»
January 6, 2021: ‘Good morning, PPT’
On the morning of January 6, 2021, Marcelle Pomerleau, Leahy’s wife and life partner of more than 60 years, woke him up with a greeting: «Good morning, PPT.»
With Rafael Warnock’s long-awaited runoff victory in Georgia, the Democrats seemed poised for a majority again, which meant Leahy, the ranking senator, would become Senate president pro tempore for the second time.
Having a driver was fine, Leahy told his wife that morning, but he didn’t need the big security detail that came with the paper. He thought of the exchange that afternoon as heavily armed officers led him and his fellow senators to a secure room in the Senate complex. A violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and eventually seized control of the full Senate in an attempt to stop the counting of electoral votes that would certify the victory of President Joe Biden. Watching the horror unfold on television, Leahy had flashbacks of how, as a 21-year-old Georgetown law student, he would walk up to the Capitol, sit in the Senate gallery and listen to the senators debate.
As the attack continued, members of the «most deliberative body in the world» began debating in the protected room. Nothing in the Constitution established that the senators had to certify the election of the chambers of the Senate and the Chamber; they could do it offsite at a military installation, or even from within this Senate conference room.
Leahy had none of it.
“I am the dean who is about to become acting president. I am the person with the longest service here. I care about the Senate. I don’t want us to hide down here,” Leahy recalled telling his colleagues. “The American public, no matter how we vote, has a right to see us on the floor. Let’s wait until it’s clear. Get the bomb dogs in, whatever the cost. They pay us per year. Let’s stay here and vote where they can see us.»
Leahy said he received a standing ovation in the bipartisan room. Top congressional leaders, entrenched at Fort McNair, and then-Vice President Mike Pence, sequestered in a nearby Senate parking lot, came to the same conclusion. Early the next morning, Congress returned to session and finished certifying the election.
“I love being a senator. I appreciate this place,” Leahy said. «It can be, it must be, the conscience of the nation.»
Two Supreme Court hearings and a spending bill
Over the decades, Leahy has cast more than 17,000 votes and served with more than 400 senators, including Mike Mansfield, Bob Dole, John Glenn, Walter Mondale, and Hubert Humphrey. Two other colleagues, Barack Obama and Biden, would win the White House. Leahy’s office displays two photos of him and his wife on Air Force One with the 44th and 46th presidents.
Vermont’s other veteran senator, independent Bernie Sanders, is more famous, but Leahy amassed more power in Congress. As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he presided over the nomination hearings for Obama’s two successful Supreme Court picks, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan.
This Congress, Leahy took on another important role on Capitol Hill, that of chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where, after weeks of negotiations, he reached an agreement with his Republican counterpart, Richard Shelby of Alabama, for a whopping $1 7 billion at the end of the year. general spending package to finance the government.
It’s one last legacy-building achievement for Leahy and Shelby, who came to the Senate a decade later, in 1987.
He is a gentleman. He is a decent man. His word is good. He has integrity. Of course, he is much more liberal than me. I’m much more conservative and we have our differences, but we work together,” said Shelby, who is also retiring this year.
“In general, we are trying to fund the government, put America first, not shut down the government, not be against everything, but see how we can do our best to make this work.”
In his valedictory speech, which was attended by many of his colleagues, Leahy envisioned what he would say to the younger version of himself «walking nervously into the Senate for the first time.»
“Don’t lose that sense of wonder, kid. Hold on to it. Treasure it. Don’t forget for one minute what a privilege and responsibility it is to serve here.»
«I have never forgotten it,» he said.