Editorial: Senator Leahy’s legacy is a window into bipartisan politics that should not be forgotten


In recent weeks I was fortunate to spend several hours with former Senator Patrick Leahy, first during an in-person interview in his new office at UVM for a story in the Addison Independentand a week later at a group dinner with the senator and his wife Marcelle, followed by listening to his 90-minute speech at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalists Society sanctuary in Middlebury.

At each meeting, his 48-year Senate career was in the spotlight, told largely 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 who wanted to serve his beloved Vermont as best he could, and to serve humanity in many ways.

After completing his law degree at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, he returned to Vermont to practice law, where he joined the firm led by former Governor Phil Hoff. He was appointed Chittenden County State’s Attorney and spent eight years doing something he loved: prosecuting cases in court and sharing his knowledge with law enforcement and other prosecutors across the state. In 1974, at the age of 33, he decided to run for the U.S. Senate, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Senator George Aiken.

It was a bold move. With only eight years as attorney general under his belt, he was never elected to any previous office. He sought to be the youngest and very first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Vermont.

That he won a narrow victory over Republican Richard Mallary is a testament to the times (in the wake 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 promised that on difficult issues he would follow his conscience and not the politics of the moment. To that end, one of his first subsequent votes was to deny continued financing of the Vietnam War. Even under presidential pressure, Sec. After Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a personal visit, and many visits from widely respected senators, the freshman senator stood his ground five times in a row — losing on the issue by one vote several times. Leahy recalled that staunch conservative Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WV, was asked if he really intended to cast a no vote on the final outcome, and he replied, “Yes, they’ve lied to me long enough. ”

Such vignettes of important moments in the country’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 lead efforts to ban the export and use of landmines, oppose participation in the Iraq War and draft the Leahy Act – a provision requiring the US to deny military funds to countries who violate human rights with that help. . Together with his founding of The Leahy War Victims Fund, which, among other things, provided wheelchairs to landmine victims around the world, his humanitarian work and his judgment in times of war distinguish him, if not as a pacifist, then certainly as someone who Read the intelligence thoroughly before committing US resources to conflict and anyone who tried to limit the tragedy of war among the civilian population. He would also 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 for all people, yet with the prosecutor’s determination to hold the guilty accountable, is evident in Leahy’s 90-minute conversation he had with Middlebury residents last 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 glimpse into a bipartisan era of national politics that should not be forgotten. Watch the video here.

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