Patrick J. Leahy’s mind kept returning to his earliest days in the Senate as he presided over Donald Trump’s impeachment trial two years ago.
So, one night, the Vermont Democrat dug out his old notes from an evening in 1975, when a bipartisan group gathered in the Democratic majority leader’s office. The newcomer worked behind the bar serving drinks and listening as Republican legends recalled confrontations with Richard M. Nixon.
“You’ve got to resign,” then-Sen. Hugh Scott (Pa.), the GOP minority leader, told the Republican president, according to Leahy’s notes.
Nixon did just that three months before the historic 1974 midterm elections that swept dozens of young Democrats into power, including then-34-year-old Leahy.
He never imagined that 47 years later, after a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol designed to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, he would watch as dozens of Senate Republicans took the opposite path. They essentially agreed that Donald Trump was guilty of provoking the attack but found technicalities in the case to vote to acquit the former president.
“It’s a six-year term for God’s sake. Don’t keep thinking of it as a six-hour term,” Leahy recalled thinking after Trump’s acquittal.
Leahy, 82, is well aware that he can sound both naive and out of touch with changing times when he talks about the values of the Senate of yesteryear.
“There were still senators who had signed the Southern Manifesto and had filibustered landmark civil rights laws. I was sworn in to serve alongside 98 other men — all men, not a single woman out of 100. Progress was a long way away,” he said during his farewell speech last month before a large, bipartisan crowd.
The new Senate sworn in on Jan. 3 includes 25 women. Among them are Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who, respectively, are taking the powerful reins of the Appropriations Committee from Leahy and his close friend, now-retired Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.).
During his first 38 years in the Senate, Leahy served with just four Black senators, never more than one at a time; he left with three Black senators in office simultaneously.
His name does not evoke the same stature as some of his contemporaries’, such as the late Sens. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Still, he is a historic figure: He chaired the Appropriations and Judiciary committees, served longer than all but two senators, and cast the second-most votes ever.
But his most lasting contribution may come years from now — if today’s senators take to heart his words of wisdom. Leahy became a preacher of the Gospel of “Your Word,” the idea that a senator’s word once meant everything.
Over two interviews in late December, he uttered some version of the phrase — “his word … your word … my word” — 10 times.
His autobiography, “The Road Taken,” released late last summer, is punctuated with similar calls to arms for what the Senate should be: “A Senate where members of a president’s party could unite and tell him it was time to go and he had to resign. A Senate where Republicans and Democrats kept their word.”
As the most senior senator, he claimed the best hideaway, with an expansive balcony looking down the National Mall. He recreated those early days by inviting senators in to share in what he called “holy water.”
“Evening sessions, sit there, look at the view down the Mall, have some drink if they want,” Leahy said in an interview. “But just to talk about the way it was and the way it can be.”
In his final year in office, 50 senators — exactly half of the body — had served less than a decade. They knew only of the Senate where debate is rare, leadership makes the big decisions and committee work takes a back seat to the limelight of cable news and social media.
Those senators might have been surprised to see Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wistfully recalling their decades together running the subcommittee that funded the State Department and other overseas agencies.
“Pat and I made a point of working as partners. He always knew the right time to break up tense negotiations with a stemwinder of an old Irish joke,” McConnell said last month in a tribute speech.
Yet, in his book, Leahy devoted a chapter, “Breaking the Senate,” to McConnell’s blockade of the Supreme Court vacancy during the final year of the Obama administration.
How does Leahy come to terms with his bipartisan friend on the Appropriations Committee who he says broke the Senate as GOP leader?
He’s not sure, but he still appreciates that earlier iteration of McConnell.
“There was a time I wish we were still in — maybe I’m naive in thinking that — but I think the Senate would be better if we were,” he said.
In 1974, Leahy launched a long-shot Senate bid from a state that had never elected a Democrat to the Senate. Not to mention a young Bernie Sanders, espousing socialist views, ran a third-party candidacy that took 4 percent of the votes, probably anti-Nixon votes that would have gone to Leahy.
He eschewed most help from Washington, but an even younger first-term senator, Joe Biden (D-Del.), showed up to campaign for Leahy, then 33.
“Old buddy,” the 31-year-old called his future Senate wingman.
Leahy kept a newspaper front page from five days before the election (“Poll dooms Leahy”) framed on his office wall until Senate movers boxed everything up last month. He won by a little more than 4,000 votes.
Just before Christmas, the morning after casting his last vote, Leahy sat in the corner Capitol office afforded to him as the Senate president pro tempore and talked about learning from other young liberals like Kennedy and Biden.
Despite their horrible views on civil rights, they said, old segregationist senators like then-Judiciary Chairman James Eastland (D-Miss.) had a sense of honor. After Kennedy lost by a single vote on a bill, Eastland switched his vote from “nay” to “aye” because another senator had lied to Kennedy about his support.
“He always keeps his word,” Kennedy told Leahy, about Eastland. “We disagree on most things. He keeps his word.”
Leahy learned that treating staffers like senators was decent and created an immensely loyal following. David Carle, his communications director, set the record for longest-serving press aide in the Senate at 38 years, the last 26 with Leahy.
His chief of staff, J.P. Dowd, spent almost 36 years — “from intern to chief of staff” — at the senator’s side.
“I was surprised to find out, after I’d been here a few years, a lot of the senators never said ‘thank you’. I said ‘thank you’ every day,” Leahy said.
He would take his aides to White House bill signings and find a moment to introduce them to presidents, then, ever the avid amateur photographer, step back and snap a picture and send it to the aide.
Leahy wanted his book to capture what good parts of the old Senate could be reclaimed to fit the modern Senate.
Then, not long after submitting his final draft, senators, staffers, media and other workers evacuated through tunnels to a secure location in an office building across the street as the Capitol insurrection took place.
He took pictures that day but has chosen not to publish them.
That moment brought Leahy’s thinking back to his earliest Senate years and Watergate. He added new chapters and contemplated the future, ending the book on an uncertain note about the Senate.
Leahy ended on a high note, winning a vote for the $1.7 trillion funding bill. He presided over a brief session Dec. 23 with no other senators present, went to a back lobby and collected the Congressional Record from a couple of days before. It included his farewell speech and the more than 4,000 pages that made up his final bill.
His only regrets come from a fall in June that required two painful hip-replacement surgeries. He missed a family trip to Ireland and also canceled a congressional delegation trip to Vietnam — these beloved “codels” can forge bonds that, to Leahy, replicated the old Senate.
In early August, when Democrats needed every vote possible to pass a large climate-and-health bill, Leahy returned and felt, very briefly, what it was like to be young again. Everyone was so happy to see him back again.
“It felt like the old Senate,” he said, “because I got applause from both Republicans and Democrats.”