WASHINGTON (AP) — Patrick Leahy was swept into the Senate in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s resignation and pardon nearly 50 years ago.
After a historic career, the Vermont Democrat — the last of the 1974 class’s so-called “Watergate Babies” — leaves Congress with his sights set on another constitutional crisis: President Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the 2020 election and the attack on the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“Here’s a man who doesn’t believe in the Constitution and has most likely never read it. “I’m talking about Trump, who just a few weeks ago said, ‘Well, we should set aside parts of the Constitution,'” said Leahy, who rose from state prosecutor in Chittenden County to Senate president pro tempore, third in presidential succession.
“It’s almost become a cliche in some of these countries, where a general or someone just takes over and throws everyone out. ‘Well, thank God that never happened in America,’ we say. And here, [Trump] suggests it be done,” he added. “That was extremely frightening.”
In an interview in his Capitol office with a crackling fireplace and views of the Washington Monument, Leahy, 82, recalled how two prominent Republicans — Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott and Sen. Barry Goldwater — told him, a new 34-year-old senator, that Nixon had to resign or face impeachment and removal by Congress.
“They took no pleasure in that, but as senators, they felt obligated to explain to him,” Leahy explained. “And I recall Senator Goldwater telling me Nixon said, ‘Well, how many Republicans are going to vote to impeach me?'” ‘Most of us,’ he said.
The main difference today is that many Republicans are unwilling to confront their own party’s leader as he violates the Constitution, according to Leahy, who presided over Trump’s second impeachment trial, which focused on the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
“What worries me is seeing what’s happening and not seeing every single Republican and Democrat stand up and condemn it,” he said.
A distinct historical perspective
The Senate offices Leahy will be leaving have a museum-like feel to them, with photographs of the history he has witnessed over his decades of service adorning the walls. Some were taken by award-winning photographers he had met over the years, but many were taken by Leahy himself.
On the Hill, Leahy’s passion for photography has become an extension of his personality. He is frequently seen walking through the Capitol with a camera in his hand, photographing the media, colleagues, or newsworthy events.
“When I was four, I used to enjoy watching my mother and father photograph things. “That’s when I started doing it,” Leahy explained. “I’ve been doing it for a long time. “I enjoy doing it.”
Leahy has come a long way since the 1950s. Hopalong Cassidy Brownie, a camera his parents bought him as a child, is now shooting with a Leica point-and-shoot, one of many in his arsenal.
“If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” photographer Robert Capa famously said. That’s never a problem for Leahy. His position as a high-ranking senator constantly puts him in a position to capture unique moments, none more so than a shot he has become famous for: a view over a president’s shoulder as he signs a bill into law at the White House.
“No one has a photo of them signing it,” Leahy explained. “You have members of Congress on his side. They’re all trying to get a piece of the action. They have the press in front of them. “I’m the guy who usually stays behind.”
Leahy has served in the Senate during nine presidents’ terms. Some of their presidential libraries have photos of him signing bills.
Some of his shots are picked up by news magazines, and he donates the proceeds to a children’s library in Montpelier, Vermont, the same library that receives the proceeds from his cameos in five Batman films.
“I got my first library card there when I was four, and it was like a little basement room,” he explained. “But a wonderful librarian encouraged me, and by third grade, I’d read all the Dickens and all the Mark Twain. But it was so tiny. Now it’s a lovely wing.”
‘Good morning, PPT,’ Jan. 6, 2021
On January 6, 2021, Marcelle Pomerleau, Leahy’s wife and life partner of more than 60 years, awoke him with the words, “Good morning, PPT.”
With Rafael Warnock’s expected runoff victory in Georgia, Democrats appeared poised to reclaim the majority, which meant that Leahy — the Senate’s most senior senator — would become president pro tempore for the second time.
Leahy told his wife that morning that having a driver was fine, but he didn’t need the large security detail that came with the job. He reflected on the exchange as heavily armed officers whisked him and his colleagues to a secure room in the Senate complex. A horde of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, eventually seizing control of the Senate floor in an attempt to halt the counting of electoral votes that would certify President Joe Biden’s victory. As he watched the horror unfold on television, Leahy remembered walking to the Capitol as a 21-year-old Georgetown law student, sitting in the Senate gallery, and listening to the senators debate.
As the attack continued, members of “the world’s most deliberative body” convened in the secure room to debate. Nothing in the Constitution requires senators to certify the election from the Senate and House chambers; they could do so elsewhere, such as a military installation, or even from this Senate conference room.
Leahy was not having it.
“I’m the dean who is about to take over as president pro tem. I’m the person who has been here the longest. I am concerned about the Senate. “I don’t want us hiding down here,” Leahy told his colleagues. “The American people have a right to see us on the floor, regardless of how we vote. Let us wait until it is clear. Get the bomb dogs in as soon as possible. We are paid on a yearly basis. Let us remain here and vote where we will be seen.”
Leahy stated that he received a standing ovation from colleagues from both parties in the room. Top congressional leaders, holed up at Fort McNair, and then-Vice President Mike Pence, holed up in a nearby Senate parking garage, came to the same conclusion. The next morning, Congress reconvened and finished certifying the election.
“I enjoy my job as a senator. “I love this place,” Leahy said. “It can and should be the nation’s conscience.”
There will be two Supreme Court hearings and a spending bill.
Leahy has cast over 17,000 votes and worked with over 400 senators, including Mike Mansfield, Bob Dole, John Glenn, Walter Mondale, and Hubert Humphrey. Two other colleagues, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, would go on to win the presidency. Two photos in Leahy’s office show him and his wife riding on Air Force One with the 44th and 46th presidents.
Vermont’s other long-serving senator, independent Bernie Sanders, is more well-known, but Leahy wielded more power on Capitol Hill. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he presided over the confirmation hearings for Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
This Congress, Leahy took on another powerful role on Capitol Hill as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he struck a deal with his Republican counterpart, Alabama’s Richard Shelby, on a massive year-end $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package to fund the government.
It’s a fitting send-off for Leahy and Shelby, who joined the Senate a decade later, in 1987.
“What a gentleman. He’s a good man. His word is trustworthy. He is trustworthy. He is, of course, far more liberal than I am. “I’m a lot more conservative, and we disagree, but we work together,” Shelby, who is also retiring this year, said.
“Overall, we’re attempting to fund the government, to prioritise America, not to shut down the government, not to oppose everything, but to see how we can do our best to make this work.”
Leahy imagined what he would say to a younger version of himself “nervously walking for the first time onto the Senate floor” in his farewell address, which was attended by many of his colleagues.
“Don’t lose your sense of wonder, kid. Keep it safe. Keep it safe. Never, ever forget what a privilege and responsibility it is to serve here.”
“I’ve never forgotten,” he said.