Sen. Patrick Leahy lingered on a narrow balcony on the west side of the U.S. Capitol, soaking in a panoramic view of the National Mall, the Washington Monument and, beyond, the Lincoln Memorial.
“Now this I will miss,” he said.
As Leahy closes out a Senate career that has spanned 48 years, the Vermont senator is saying goodbye to Washington with a mix of resignation and resolve, lamenting the hyperpartisanship that now grips Congress while expressing hope that the institution as he once knew it can someday return.
“If we don’t get back to it, this country is going to be severely damaged,” he said. “We’re the wealthiest, most powerful powerful nation on Earth. And we have over 300 million Americans. We have responsibility to the Americans. We have a responsibility to the rest of the world.”
Leahy, 82, is president pro tempore of the Senate and third in line to the presidency. He reflected on his career during a wide-ranging interview Monday with The Associated Press in his office at the Capitol, recalling how when he first joined the Senate in 1975, colleagues with starkly different views could still find ways to get things done.
“I think then, most of (the senators) knew there were basic things the Senate should do, basic things the country needed, and we should find a way to come together,” Leahy said.
“Now, there are too many people who think, ‘What can I say that will get me on the evening news or give me a sound bite or get me on this Twitter account,’ or something else. They don’t care about the country. They care about their political ambitions.”
The willingness to work across the aisle isn’t gone entirely. Leahy, who shapes federal spending as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, pointed to this week’s unveiling of a compromise $1.7 trillion government funding package. It’s a capstone of sorts to Leahy’s career, and one he helped negotiate largely in private.
“I never called a press conference during that time, nor did the other senators in there,” he said. “We just tried to work. There is so much legislation that doesn’t get passed but it should because everybody’s running out trying to get their spin on it, and say, ‘See, I’m the only one who knows what I’m doing.’ But you’re not.”
Leahy will officially leave office on Jan. 3, when his successor — Vermont’s Democratic Rep. Peter Welch — will be sworn into office. After that Leahy is planning to return to Vermont and work out of an office at the University of Vermont in Burlington, which will become home to his Senate records. The first in his family to go to college, Leahy said he wants to help young people from rural areas obtain higher education.
With tearful colleagues gathered in the chamber, Leahy gave his final address to the Senate on Tuesday, exhorting his colleagues to carry on the work.
“What a journey. What an abiding hope that someday after I’ve gone, the Senate in both parties will come back together to be the conscience of the nation,” he said in his address. “Together, you can build a Senate defined not by soundbites, but one strengthened when women and men with a sense of history insist that our republic move forward.”
During his eight terms in the Senate, Leahy racked up a lengthy list of accomplishments, chairing or serving as the top member of the opposing party on the Senate Appropriations, Judiciary and Agriculture committees, among others. He’s currently the longest-serving senator and third in line to the presidency as president pro tempore. He’s the fourth-longest serving senator in history and has cast nearly 17,000 votes.
Leahy has been active on judicial, criminal justice, gay rights, human rights, privacy and environmental issues. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he led the Senate’s negotiations with the Bush administration on the Patriot Act, the sweeping anti-terrorism bill responding to the attacks.
One of his first significant votes in 1975 was against continued funding for the Vietnam War. In 2002 he voted against authorizing the use of force in Iraq.
He helped establish what is now the nearly $60 billion organic food industry. He helped bring about the world’s first ban on the export of antipersonnel landmines, and he’s helped bring hundreds of jobs to Vermont and millions of dollars to help clean up his beloved Lake Champlain.
Leahy took office when Vermont was still considered a largely Republican bastion. Now it’s considered by many to be among the most progressive places in the country.
“We changed. We have become more diverse and that’s better for Vermont,” he said. “What we have to do now is rely not just on rhetoric, but do the hard work to create real jobs, housing for people (so they) can stay in Vermont.”
After the 1997 shooting deaths of two New Hampshire state troopers, a judge and a newspaper editor in Colebrook, New Hampshire — violence that spilled over into Vermont — Leahy began a push to fund bulletproof vests for police officers. Since then, 1.4 million vests have been distributed nationwide under the Patrick Leahy Bulletproof Vest Partnership Act.
Known as an accomplished photographer, Leahy has used his proximity to power to take his camera into areas where others couldn’t. He captured candid images of President George H.W. Bush in a goofy hat and Sen. Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, on a bench near the Eiffel Tower during a NATO meeting.
Among his favorite photos, which hangs in his office, is a haunting image taken in a Central American refugee camp in the 1980s. The photo shows an older man, with white hair and stubble.
“What I read in his face is, ‘You don’t know me. You can’t speak my language. I can never do anything to help you. What do you do to help people like me?’” Leahy said. “Every day I’ve looked at that conscience picture and thought, how do I make life better for Vermonters, for our country, but for the rest of the world.”
Leahy has a quirky side. He’s a lover of Batman comic books — he’s made cameo appearances in five Batman movies and did the voice for a character in an animated Batman movie — and the Grateful Dead. He could have fun in the Senate, too, remembering how he once parachuted with the Army’s Golden Knights skydiving team.
Asked how he wanted to be remembered, he responded: “I want the legacy (to be) that I kept my word,” he said, adding that he sought solutions to the problems of the nation, the world and his home state of Vermont.
Later, giving a tour of his favorite spots around the Capitol, Leahy paused in the Rotunda, with its immense domed ceiling, paintings and statues. It’s at the heart of American democracy, the place where former presidents and national heroes lay in state.
“I was in awe the first time I came in here as a teenager with my parents,” Leahy said. “Every time I walk through here I’m as lost as the tourists are, and I still am today. And I’ll walk out of here my last day looking at it again.”