by Chris Graff In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump ("Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.") the main character witnesses and at times influences some of the defining events of the 20th century. There's Gump as an all-American football player, serving in Vietnam, meeting President John F Kennedy, causing the resignation of President Richard Nixon and investing in Apple Computer before anyone realized its potential. The story is absolutely implausible. No person could ever be present as so much history unfolds.
Patrick J Leahy has.
He has been center stage for many of the nation's milestones in the last 40 years. The list is equally impressive and implausible. There’s Leahy as a freshman senator in the 1970s on the Armed Services Committee fighting to end the Vietnam War; there’s Leahy working with Princess Diana on a landmine ban; there he is leading the fight for civil liberties against the Bush administration following 9/11; and there he is surrounded by armed guards after he was targeted by anthrax. When President Obama announced the reopening of relations with Cuba who was standing in Havana? Patrick J Leahy.
Philip Baruth's biography of Leahy – titled Senator Leahy: A life in scenes - documents the senator’s wide-ranging and truly incredible impact. Baruth both recounts Leahy’s long history and provides color, depth and perspective.
Longevity plays a big part in the Leahy story: He has served in the Senate since 1975. To put that in perspective, more than half of Vermont’s 626,000 residents have been born since then. They do not know of a Senate without Patrick Leahy. In the US Senate longevity translates into seniority, which translates into power. Leahy is now the most senior member of the Senate.
Luck plays a role: Leahy ended up on meaningful and powerful committees that have dealt with some of the most pressing issues of the past 40 years, like Supreme Court appointments, the fights over civil liberties and the battles over budgets.
But what stands out in Baruth’s narrative is that much of Leahy’s accomplishments have been driven by the senator.
His drive and passion have never faltered. He has stepped up to fight battles others would not. He has attracted one of the most impressive staffs ever assembled in the Senate, no mean feat to maintain over four decades. He has a keen eye for meaningful issues – like landmines and Cuba – and the willingness to dedicate years if not decades to making progress on those issues.
It is something of a historic irony that at times Leahy has been overshadowed by the big news splashes of Senator Jim Jeffords’ 2001 declaration of independence, Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid and even Howard Dean’s 2004 run for president.
Baruth captures that irony and suggests that Leahy’s long play is truly more significant.
“While no single act of Leahy’s has yet produced a media shock wave to rival Jeffords’s ‘short walk across the aisle’ or Dean’s foundational fund-raising miracle, it was Leahy who provided the most consistent, productive, long-term counterbalance to Bush administration overreach.”
That comment comes in a discussion of the Bush administration, but it may well serve as a theme for Leahy’s entire Senate career.
Baruth is a novelist who is at home with colorful narratives of fiction with sweeping story arcs. He makes no apologies for bringing that style to this work of history.
“If any reader comes to this biography in search of a comprehensive history of his important committee work or votes cast, he or she will be bitterly disappointed,” he writes. “The life of Patrick Leahy is replete with powerful, dramatic, sensational moments – and I have allowed myself the luxury throughout of simply jump-cutting from one to the next.”
That approach makes for more interesting reading but lends itself to more hero worship. Leahy is described throughout in terms that taken together are over the top: He is the tough-talking prosecutor who at times “growls.”
What this leads to is a feeling that this could almost be a Leahy autobiography. Baruth loves to get into Leahy’s head to build the drama, leading to sentences like this: “Leahy was at first unbelieving, and then livid.” Later in a Senate hearing: “Never had he looked so stern.”
What knits together the story for Baruth is Leahy’s fascination with Batman, culminating with the senator’s cameo appearances in the Batman movies. The arc of the Leahy story, Baruth writes, runs from his days as Chittenden County state’s attorney to chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to his defiance of the villain The Joker in the Batman film, The Dark Knight.
“It was a truly amazing moment, when set against the long arc of Leahy’s political career: The very same Top Cop image that Leahy had developed as a young Chittenden County state’s attorney… now being explicitly deployed by a major Hollywood director to a worldwide audience.”
As much as Baruth argues this work is not a comprehensive history of Patrick J Leahy, it is. Certainly there is much missing from the 42 years of Leahy’s tenure but Senator Leahy: A Life in Scenes provides enough detail and enough color to give a reader a strong sense of the pivotal role Leahy has played for Vermont, the US Senate, and the nation.
This article first appeared in Vermont History.
Chris Graff, a former Vermont bureau chief of The Associated Press and host of VPT's Vermont This Week, is now vice president for communications at National Life Group. He is author of, Dateline Vermont: Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state - and influenced a nation.