Jack Kennedy once said that people read biography to answer the age-old question, “What was he like?” That question can also be asked of an institution like the U.S. Senate. What’s it like to walk into that chamber and be called by your first name?
Patrick Leahy (Vermont Democrat, president pro tempore of the Senate, third in line for the presidency) has written a remarkable book on what it’s like to have inhabited that world for 48 years—a world where historical figures like Howard Baker and Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey and Robert Dole, call you “Patrick.”
The Road Taken: A Memoir begins in 1974, when Leahy, a Georgetown Law School–trained prosecutor, became the first (and still only) Democrat ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Vermont. The 35-year-old was part of the post-Watergate Democratic wave that swept Congress that year. The book ends at the present as the Senate’s leading Batman and Grateful Dead fan readies for retirement at 83. (The senator’s cameo in The Dark Knight is one of the great pol-in-a-movie moments. And he once brought the Dead’s late frontman, Jerry Garcia, to the Senate Dining Room and surreally introduced him to the former segregationist Strom Thurmond.) Leahy, the Irish-Italian kid from Montpelier whose parents owned a small printing company, is the third-longest-serving senator, behind the late Republican Thurmond and the late Democrat Daniel Inouye.
Owing its title to Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken,” Leahy’s memoir depicts a Senate transformed, and especially how, back then, bipartisanship was built into the system because the parties overlapped. When Leahy arrived, there were still plenty of conservative recent segregationist Democrats in the chamber, like John Stennis and Russell Long, and plenty of liberal Republicans, such as Charles “Mac” Mathias, Jacob Javits, and Ed Brooke. The body wasn’t all white, but it was all male.
Leahy’s hero, his lodestar, is surprising. It’s not a senator or a liberal but the conservative icon Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British parliamentarian whose name is synonymous with caution, modesty, and tradition. Burke famously condoned the American Revolution for its limited aims but condemned the bloody utopianism of the French Revolution. Burke’s mandate for what makes a good legislator inspires Leahy: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Burke believed that only by following their conscience can a senator truly serve their country—not by, say, following the dictate of a former president or pandering to voters who call him a hero. The Senate’s fawning Donald Trump acolytes offend Leahy because he knows that almost none of them are sincere. Their obsequiousness, he writes,
reminded me first of the president’s personal physician, who wrote that he’d never seen a healthier patient than Donald Trump, or then of Press Secretary Sean Spicer, early in the Trump presidency, racing out to the cameras to argue the inaugural crowd size was far greater than it was. It was the ventriloquist act—and, in absentia, the former president was pulling the strings.
Of course, senators have to play hardball—politics as it is in the real world. That’s why Leahy (and his fellow Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders) has brought home tons of federal spending for Vermont, like basing and support for the costly F-35 fighter. But Leahy believes that conscience has to guide one’s position on the most significant matters.
He notes that in 2005, he and then Illinois Senator Barack Obama cast opposing votes on the nomination of John Roberts to become chief justice of the Supreme Court. Leahy announced that he would support Roberts and was attacked by the left. Obama opposed the George W. Bush nominee but chided progressives for their carping at Leahy, who, Obama said, had given the matter great thought. Leahy has been bipartisan during his many decades on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He voted to confirm several jurists nominated by Republican residents to the Court in addition to Roberts, including John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter. (He voted against Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.)
Leahy’s Senate is also a crucible where politics shows its ugly side. After President Bush took the nation to war in Iraq, Leahy asked Vice President Dick Cheney to share his thoughts with the Senate’s Democratic members. Sitting at the Senate president’s desk, Cheney famously said, “Go fuck yourself!”—an outburst that never really made sense but befit the then imperial vice president and not today’s Never Trumper.
Leahy also bears eyewitness to Mitch McConnell’s cynical manipulation of senatorial rules and power, the promiscuous use of the filibuster, and even the upending of how we select judges to the highest court. When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016, McConnell prevented Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland from receiving a vote. “He pledged that the Senate would not consider or confirm a replacement for Scalia—the next President would choose the next justice, well over a year from this new vacancy,” Leahy recalls of the Kentuckian. He continues,
Mitch didn’t like Trump. But he knew that Republican voters would’ve taken Trump over their incumbent senators any day. He reminded me a little of the leaders I’d gotten to know in the Middle East over many years. When we spoke to them in private and asked why they couldn’t hold free elections, the answer was always the same: “If we did, Osama bin Laden would win.”
Given the abject cynicism and constant dysfunction in the Senate, why does Leahy remain optimistic about the chamber? Much of it has to do with personal connections. An avid photographer, the Vermont liberal bonded with the late conservative patriarch Senator Barry Goldwater over taking pictures. A few years ago, he connected with Representative Kay Granger, a leading Republican, over how to end what was then a lengthy government shutdown. They met in Leahy’s office, adorned with his photos, and the Texan noted that she’d taught high school photography. “So, then we started talking. It was like, ‘Well, what kind of an f-stop would you use on this? Blah, blah, blah.’ We had something in common. And away we went to work out our differences,” Leahy told The Washington Post.
After reading this first-rate memoir, I wish we, in the press, could have done more to tell the people how complex politicians are.
The late Bob Dole is a politician whose image, the Vermont senator tells us, was different from his image in the press: “Dole, whom so many had caricatured as mean or dour, was an early lesson to me in just how wrong the mainstream representations of a person could be.”
Leahy tells how Republican and Democratic senators who fought in Vietnam used their battle-tested credibility to defend each other: “It was the Vietnam vets—Bob Kerrey, John Kerry, John McCain, Chuck Robb, and, later, Chuck Hagel and Max Cleland—who formed a phalanx to defend each other for making peace if they were attacked for being ‘weak’ on Vietnam.” Leahy recalls them with empathy, especially Kerry, who “once told me about his nomadic childhood, moving from country to country as a foreign service brat, a string of boarding schools, missing out on having a paper route.” He writes,
It was always interesting to me how every colleague had their own unique story, their own individual path that shaped who they were and who they’d become as U.S. senators. There’s a lot you can learn about a person if you listen, and particularly if you’re not too eager to fill in the silences and actually let someone share with you.
The importance of listening is not a new insight, but it’s a timeless one.
Yet even in these adversarial times, Leahy retires from the Senate offering hope that the old days, when the chamber most resembled “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” can be reclaimed. He writes about how a great senator like the late Ted Kennedy can inspire his colleagues with “the art of the possible” and hopes that Mitt Romney might perform the same role today.
Leahy’s tribute to the Senate includes the January 6 insurrection, when senators were led off the floor by a phalanx of heavily armed Capitol Police and taken to another building for safety. There was talk among the besieged lawmakers about whether to return to the Capitol later to continue the electoral vote count. Leahy gave a stirring speech, imploring them not to let the rioters win. The senators dropped all thoughts of abandoning their watch and vowed to return when safety allowed. Many of those who were going to contest the electoral results in states such as Arizona and Wisconsin changed their minds. As awful as the moment was, for Leahy, it captured the Senate’s capacity for growth. He also recalls one of the Capitol Police officers guarding him and using the senator’s code name to reassure the octogenarian that he’d make it through the day.
“Don’t worry, Shamrock,” the officer said. “We will keep you safe.”