Vermont's Leahy

A public man with a passion for privacy

In his Vermont home-the family’s longtime tree farm-U.S. Senator Patrick J. Leahy has on display only two clippings from his long political life. One, a headline from the Rutland Herald predicting his sure defeat in his 1974 Senate race; the other a sidebar from the New York Times. A reporter from the Times was on his way to interview the senior senator from Vermont and, as one can do in Vermont, wasn’t sure which country road led to the Leahy farm. He inquired of the proverbial local perched on the front steps of a nearby house. The following conversation ensued:

Reporter: Does this road lead to Senator Leahy’s house?

Vermonter: You a relative of his?

Reporter : No.

Vermonter: You a friend of his?

Reporter : No.

Vermonter : You got an appointment with him?

Reporter : No.

Vermonter : Never heard of him!

Because Leahy is very much "at home" in Vermont, it is no wonder that the Times had a hard time finding him-or featuring him in its daily headlines. But you’ve probably seen Leahy on TV. Tall, thin-lipped, and balding, the carefully spoken liberal Democrat is a regular on news programs like PBS’s "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and ABC’s "This Week."

He was not always a balding pillar of the establishment, especially not as a Democrat in a notoriously Republican state. When Leahy, now sixty, first announced his candidacy for the Senate in 1974, it was an act of considerable bravado. He was then only thirty-four, and he would be running against the revered, eighty-four-year-old Republican icon, George Aiken. Aiken, however, suddenly announced his retirement, leaving the Republican nomination to Vermont’s lone member of the House of Representatives, Richard Mallary. Despite Mallary’s high name recognition across the state, Leahy, then a county prosecutor, won and became the first and only Democratic senator ever elected from Vermont. He has gone on to be reelected four times, scoring a crowning victory in November 1998 when he garnered 72 percent of the vote. And there is a Vermont story in that.

Leahy’s opponent in the ’98 election was seventy-nine-year-old dairy farmer turned amateur actor, Fred Tuttle. Two years earlier, Tuttle had played himself in a film produced by his neighbor, John O’Brien (no relation). In the film, Tuttle decides to run for Congress: "I’ve spent most of my life in the barn, now it’s time to spend time in the House." Tuttle trounces his stuffy, out-of-touch fictional opponent. In 1998, film nearly became fact. Jack McMullen, the Senate candidate supported by the Republican establishment, had only recently moved to Vermont. His candidacy rankled a nativist streak. O’Brien, no fan of Republicans anyhow, persuaded Fred Tuttle to run in the primary against McMullen. Tuttle, whose political views remain quite unknown to this day, trounced his opponent in a radio debate by asking, "How many teats are there on a cow?" McMullen’s flunking that test led to Tuttle’s 20 percent victory margin in the primary, and Leahy’s subsequent margin of victory over Tuttle-who voted for him-in the general election.

Any Vermont politician had better know cows. Vermont is a dairy state, and Leahy has been indefatigable in defending local interests through such legislation as the Northeast Dairy Compact, a price floor for New England dairy farmers. He’s even sponsored a law forbidding schools to sell or give away soda pop and other foods of "minimal nutritional value" when federally funded lunches are being served. "Any parent knows that filling up on soda before lunch is not the way to encourage children to eat a healthy lunch," Leahy explained. Milk, went the subtext, is always the better choice. What is good for Vermont’s dairy farmers, the senator is sometimes accused of thinking, is good for the nation.

f local dairy farms entrench Leahy in Vermont and New England, his work on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry demonstrates his national scope. With bipartisan support, Leahy has sponsored a wide range of nutrition, hunger-prevention, and conservation programs. For Leahy, federal efforts like the school lunch program are simple moral responsibilities. "Here we are, the richest nation in the world," he said in a recent interview, "a nation which can feed not only all its own people but export food across the world. What we throw away as garbage would feed millions. Not to provide for our own children would be just immoral."

By common designation, Leahy is a liberal. Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) consistently gives him a 90 percent or above voting approval rating. In 1995 he received 100 percent approval from ADA and 0 percent from the American Conservative Union (ACU). Still, Jeff Hollingsworth of the ACU admits that Leahy "knows where the power is and how it works. He knows what to do in a chamber that doesn’t share his views."

In his Vermont campaigns the dreaded "L" word has been brandished against Leahy, but it has not stuck, for two reasons. First, Vermont Republicans are themselves quite liberal. Vermont’s junior senator, Republican James Jeffords, has been a staunch supporter of such an object of conservative disdain as the National Endowment for the Arts. He has voted with the Clinton administration more than any other Republican senator. Then there is the contrast between Leahy’s image and that of Vermont’s lone congressman, Bernard Sanders. Bernie, as everyone calls him, is the only Independent member of the House (he sometimes claims to be a "socialist") and is everybody’s image of a slightly scruffy, uncombed radical, even down to his Brooklyn accent. (Vermont does accept some transplants.) Leahy’s genuine Vermont accent (several of them), height, sonorous voice, and conservative sartorial manner prevent any label of radical from sticking.

In fact, there seem to be few colleagues or political observers who are eager to find fault with Leahy. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) was amused by the very idea of there being a serious Leahy antagonist. "Well, you might try [Senator] Orrin Hatch [R-Utah]," Moynihan said, "but, on the other hand, he is a very polite Mormon."

If the "L" word defines the political "left," Leahy’s "left" leanings could more accurately be resloganized: "Left alone (Yes!), left out (No!)." As one the leading privacy advocates in Congress, Leahy thinks people have a broad right to be left alone; as champion of the federal school-lunch program, he wants to make sure that no one is "left out" of America’s abundance. Left alone/left out has limits and there are times when the balance between the two is problematic. But they do catch the polarities of Leahy’s politics, and have their roots in Leahy the Vermonter as well as Leahy the Catholic.

The right to privacy has been a theme in Leahy’s career. A member of the Judiciary Committee during its hearings on the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court, Leahy became incensed when the proposal was made that Bork’s video rental records should be subpoenaed. Leahy-no supporter of Bork by a Vermont country mile-later sponsored a bill to make such records confidential. Furthermore, to assure privacy rights for health records, Leahy has frequently found himself in opposition to the Clinton administration.

A concern for individual privacy has been matched by Leahy’s efforts to prevent too much "privacy" in government. He led the congressional fight for the Electronic Freedom of Information Act [EFOIA], which became law in 1996. EFOIA opens government electronic records. In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Leahy said the act protects "the right of Americans to know what their government is doing-and not doing. Press releases tell us when federal agencies do something right, but [EFOIA] lets us know when they do not."

Respect for privacy also shapes the senator’s defense of the legal right to abortion. As a Catholic, supporting abortion rights has not been an easy decision for Leahy, and he has been denounced from the pulpit. Ruth Charlesworth, director of the Respect Life Office for the Diocese of Burlington, and a Leahy critic, points out that "the church teaches that human life begins at the moment of conception. It deeply saddens me that Senator Leahy has not listened to the church’s teaching on this matter."

Leahy, however, is not a pro-choice absolutist. He says that the Roe v. Wade ruling did not establish a right to abortion on demand. His vote to override President Bill Clinton’s veto of the so-called "partial-birth" abortion bill cost Leahy the endorsement of NOW in his 1998 reelection bid. Ruth Charlesworth, among others, commends Leahy for that decision. "I am very happy that he voted for the ban on partial-birth abortion," she says. "He called it a matter of conscience."

President Clinton has asserted that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." Leahy says that his early experience as a state’s attorney made him vividly aware of the importance of "safe." Roe and subsequent rulings have certainly made abortion legal. But just how "safe" is open to dispute. Helen Alvaré, spokesperson for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, notes that the number of maternal mortalities has actually risen sharply since Roe. Many more abortions are now performed each year, and since abortion is a lucrative business, it also attracts more dubious practitioners. As for the Vermont senator’s justification of legalized abortion on privacy grounds, Alvaré expressed skepticism. How far "privacy" can justify the taking of fetal life is precisely the question, she said.

I asked Leahy whether there was anything government should do to make abortion rare. His answer was predictable, but I thought sincere. "What does society offer in the way of support services for the woman carrying the child? What’s wrong with encouraging a pregnant teenager to have her child? Say ’We’ll help you. We’ll pay all expenses, and we have a good family for the child if that’s what you want. We’ll give you money to get started if you want to keep the baby.’"

He went on to recount how a couple he knew was willing to pay the costs of pregnancy for a woman who did not choose to keep her child. There could be no guarantee that the birth mother would not finally change her mind, but the couple was willing to risk it. Leahy connected the couple with a woman who wished to give up her baby. The child was born, adopted, and named "Patrick." Leahy beamed as he contemplated that outcome.

If Patrick Leahy’s political polarities are privacy and care for those left out-issues on which he is willing to stand up to those both to his left and to his right-these interests have deep roots in his family’s Catholic history. His mother’s parents, Peter and Vincenza Zambon, were Italian immigrants who came to Vermont to find work in the granite quarries. Leahy’s Irish-American father ran a printing business in Montpelier, the state capital. To the extent there are "indigenous" Catholics in Vermont, famous for its rock-ribbed Republicans and Protestants, they are largely the descendants of French Canadians who moved south during the nineteenth century in search of better farming conditions. Leahy is married to Marcelle Pomerleau, whose parents came from Quebec in the 1930s. Because Vermonters are willing to leave their neighbors alone, the Leahys, Zambons, and Pomerleaus have been able to thrive while freely practicing their religion. Leahy’s brother-in-law, Father Claude Pomerleau, C.S.C., a professor of political science at the University of Portland (Oregon), admires Leahy’s common sense and respect for law. He characterizes Leahy as a "John Courtney Murray Catholic," not a Berrigan type. "Pat is not for ’big showy things’ but for the smaller, overlooked issues that can make a tremendous difference in people’s lives." Pomerleau describes Leahy as an "irreverent Catholic," which seems to be standard equipment for anyone with an Irish sense of humor.

Very close to his parents and grandparents, Leahy has been particularly attentive to the Italian side, visiting the home of his very traditional Catholic grandmother in Friuli, Italy, on several occasions. "If you had to choose which kind of food you wanted, Irish or Italian-which would you pick?" he jokes. Friends and acquaintances marvel at the closeness of his relationship with Marcelle, and his fierce protectiveness toward their three children.

Leahy’s sense of family fits Vermont’s small-scale politics. Over the course of his tenure as a U.S. senator, Leahy figures, he has met personally about 20 percent of all Vermont voters. Senators in large states can hardly hope to meet 1 percent of their constituents. During our interview in the Russell Building, there was a fifteen-minute interlude while the senator admired a painting of a duck. The school-boy winner of an art contest, his mother, and art teacher were in Washington to receive senatorial commendation. All politics is local.

John Carr, director of the office of social justice and world peace for the United States Catholic Conference, commended Leahy for being accessible and approachable on the church’s social-justice concerns. Often Leahy comes to the USCC to suggest a legislative initiative, as was the case in the senator’s effort to ban land mines. Most recently, Leahy has introduced the Innocence Protection Act, designed to make DNA testing available to, and improve legal representation for, death-row inmates. "People of good conscience can and will disagree about the death penalty," Leahy says. But "we should all be able to agree that a system that may sentence one innocent person to death for every seven it executes has no place in a civilized society."

Leahy was educated in Catholic schools: Saint Michael’s College in Winooski, Vermont, and Georgetown Law. The Leahy house, recalls his son Kevin, was always filled with priests and religious. A voracious reader and a fan of Teilhard de Chardin, Leahy has reread The Phenomenon of Man many times. Henri Nouwen has been an especially important influence. Introduced by Pomerleau, the two became close friends and Nouwen frequently led retreats at the Leahy household.

"Henri would follow me around in Washington," Leahy remembers. He would say, "You are always so busy every day with one item or another, one vote after another. Why do you do these things?"

Leahy’s answer: "You only live one life. It can’t be just for material comfort-I do live comfortably-but I really have wanted to have my life make a difference. There are people alive today because of me; there are people who can seek justice today because of me. When I leave here, what will they say about Pat Leahy? I want my children to be proud of what I’ve done, to say that I acted with integrity, that there are millions of children who have benefited from our nutrition programs, who have jobs because of what we’ve done."

Leahy thinks government can make a very big difference in people’s lives. Republican conservatives want to "get government off our backs." Taxes are too high, regulations are too strict, and bureaucracy blocks the free energy of the economy, they say. Leahy is skeptical. He says he wishes conservatives actually believed in their own rhetoric. Instead, he notes, they want to control textbooks in the schools, "regulate everything from TV to your bedroom. I trust families to interpret values for their children."

On October 18, 1999, Leahy cast his 10,000th roll-call vote. In a history which numbers 1,851 senators, Leahy is one of only 21 to reach the 10,000 club. He has been a heavy hitter legislatively, securing laws that benefit Vermonters in the teeth of the firmest opposition. When the Northeast Dairy Compact was proposed in 1995, the House members of the Conference Committee voted 14-0 against the idea. Many of Leahy’s usual allies in the Senate were also opposed. "If we allow this kind of price-fixing scheme to make its way through Congress, there will be no way to prevent in a logical way any other group of states setting up similar price-fixing mechanisms under the same justification, not only in dairy but in other industry," objected Democratic Senator Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin.

Leahy, however, was determined to help rescue Vermont’s farmers. As it happened, Bob Dole was running for president and he wanted a farm bill, but the Democrats were prepared to filibuster the GOP version. Republican Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, also aspiring to the presidency, made an appearance at Vermont’s Saint Albans Dairy Co-op and saw Leahy’s bill as a way into the hearts and votes of New England farmers. Having recruited Lugar to the cause, Leahy mustered enough Democrats to break the filibuster in exchange for Dole’s support of the dairy compact. Overnight the vote was reversed.

"The milk story shows that Leahy knew how to play the game," says Peter Eisner, managing director of The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that examines public service and ethics-related issues with an eye to how money influences politics. "It’s one of thousands of cases you could point out in which a member of Congress does something for an interest group which would end, in this case, helping a constituency affected [by] the price consumers pay for a product," Eisner says. "So milk prices went up and the dairy farmers in Vermont were happy. Our overall question is, how do the special-interest deals congressmen make help the public interest? What’s the difference between special interest and the public interest? It’s clear that [Leahy is] a participant in a system in which people have access to him who have money and want influence. They’re trading on that in return for things that may not help people." Vermonters, of course, argue that preserving the state’s dairy farms is as much a conservation issue as a consumer issue.

What should one think of Leahy’s tending so assiduously to Vermont’s cows and pork? The senator notes that when he first came to Washington he was very much opposed to the seniority system. Not surprisingly, the longer he has stayed in office, the more he has come to like it. For all its problems and for all the idiosyncrasies of the pork barrel, if you represent a state with a population of only half a million, seniority and the clout to effect special-interest legislation create a certain rough balance of power. In a demographic showdown, California would get all the government largesse. Leahy’s seniority gives Vermont some leverage.

Needless to say, providing pork often comes with a little senatorial sleight of hand. In 1998, for example, Leahy attached a rider to a bill designating Vermont’s Lake Champlain one of the Great Lakes. The intent of the designation was to make the University of Vermont eligible for research funds on issues like pollution and keeping out the lampreys. Midwestern senators eventually awakened to this piece of geographical legerdemain and demanded its reversal. But Vermont’s senior senator rarely comes away from such negotiations empty-handed. Lake Champlain lost its designation as a "Great Lake" but not before the University of Vermont received a $1 million research grant.

A person of ready humor, Leahy routinely makes allies everywhere and even has friends across the Senate’s most contested battle lines. But the search for compromise has gotten harder over the years. "When I came here [in 1975] the country was very much at risk and the Senate was in good bipartisan shape," Leahy has lamented. "Today the country is doing very well, and we sometimes break down too much along party lines. Those of us who have served here a long time know it does not have to be that way."

Leahy blames much of the problem on the high cost of campaigning. "People ask how’s this going to affect the special-interest group that’s going to get my fund-raising letter tomorrow. It’s scarier than hell," he says. One advantage of being a Vermont senator is that big money is not such a factor. George Aiken is famous for having spent $17.06 during his final campaign-for postcards he sent thanking people who had bothered to put up posters on his behalf. The cost has gone up. Leahy had $1 million in his war chest for the ’98 campaign, a large amount for Vermont but Aiken-sized for most senatorial contests. (Criticized in his 1992 campaign because 96 percent of his campaign funds came from out of state and because he had just voted for a 25 percent Senate pay raise, Leahy has since forsworn PAC money and has never again voted for a pay raise.)

Over and above his interest in nutritional standards, protection of privacy, open government, and his loyalty to constituents, Leahy considers his work to ban the use of land mines his most important achievement. In 1989, Congress passed the "Leahy War Victims Fund," a $5 million annual program to aid war victims. ( It has grown to $15 million.) The fund has been used to provide artificial limbs for land-mine survivors. In 1992, Leahy secured a one-year moratorium on the export of antipersonnel mines; this was extended for three years the following year. A series of technical changes to the weapons (so that they would self-destruct) has also been advanced. Moratoriums were reimposed on export and use. Leahy’s efforts have also had international consequences. In December 1997, 122 nations signed the Ottawa Convention, banning the production, transfer, use, and stockpiling of antipersonnel mines, and pledged to remove existing mine fields in ten years. (The United States abstained in the UN vote, but indicated it would restrict mine use and promised to stop it altogether by 2006.)

Leahy is known as a man of strong emotions, emotions that affect his person and his policies in complex ways. He commutes home almost every weekend. "This is the place where I feel most at home. I can fly up and take off my twelve-piece suit, put on my jeans, and look at that guy Leahy on the tube and tell him to snap it up." Then he is off to something like the Franklin County Dairy Co-op. Longtime observers admire his formidable political persona. He works the crowd one-on-one and ends up as a master of ceremonies raffling off feed, farm equipment, and maple syrup. He knows everybody’s name. He is such a presence in person and on the platform that one wonders whether one can get to the private man behind the practiced politician. Like so many of his fellow Vermonters, guarding what is private is a personal and political passion for Leahy. But that passion has served the citizens of Vermont and the nation well. 

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About the Author

Dennis O’Brien, former president of the University of Rochester, is a longtime contributor to Commonweal.