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Senate's Leahy finds peace on his Vermont farm

Sen. Patrick Leahy calls his Vermont home Drawbridge Farm for the shelter and solace it can offer him from the rigors of life in Washington. But its 300 acres is not enough to keep out the politics of Sonia Sotomayor's upcoming confirmation hearings.
Leahy's Drawbridge
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., stands on the front porch of his home in Middlesex, Vt., Thursday, July 2.Alden Pellett / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sen. Patrick Leahy calls his Vermont home Drawbridge Farm for the shelter and solace it can offer him from the rigors of life in Washington. But its 300 acres is not enough to keep out the politics of Sonia Sotomayor's upcoming confirmation hearings.

Settled into an overstuffed chair in the tiny living room of the 1850s farm house one recent day, the six-term senator and grandfather of five shuffles through the federal judge's legal opinions, speeches and life story as he contemplates her fitness for the high court. His view: She will be confirmed.

But Leahy prefers the view from the farm — a 20-mile mountain vista can be seen from the faded green Adirondack chair outside the front door — one that is nothing like Capitol Hill. And he undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts when he takes up the committee's gavel.

"I'll be here dressed in chinos and a T-shirt and I'll see a deer or flocks of wild turkey land in the field outside, you'll even seen an occasional bear," says Leahy, 69. "Grandchildren half a mile away, part of the original property. Then I'm in suit and tie in Washington a few hours later and it's a jolt."

Confirmation hearings
A bigger jolt than usual will come on July 13 when Leahy opens Sotomayor's confirmation hearings in front of TV cameras. He will have his hands full managing the questioning and traditional showboating by other senators energized by coverage of the proceedings beamed around the globe.

The white-haired, balding chairman will be the lead player in that drama, and he wants to be prepared. He has staff in Washington researching the minutiae of Sotomayor's record on the federal bench, her remarks to countless groups and her life story.

But it will be Leahy's face on-screen; unlike other committee members, he'll have freedom to counter any Republican arguments outside of his allotted question time. When he considers the upcoming proceedings, his tough political instincts show.

"She'll be confirmed," Leahy says, adding that Sotomayor is likely to win the Senate's consent overwhelmingly. Republicans are objecting, but that's more about the state of the GOP than Sotomayor, he says.

They "were going to object no matter who it was. And several of them have told me that privately," Leahy said.

The remark, of course, gives committee Republicans an unsavory choice: Dispute it or ignore it. When contacted by The Associated Press, they choose the latter.

The trappings of Washington power don't show much in the Leahy home in Middlesex, a town of about 1,900 people five miles west of Montpelier. Leahy and his wife, Marcelle, don't have household help and their phone number is in the book.

Leahy's Irish and Italian grandparents came to Vermont in the 19th century to work the granite that came from the quarries around Barre. His father, a printer, bought the Middlesex house and the land in the 1950s, when Leahy was a teenager.

Earned law degree at Georgetown
Leahy and his sister became the first two of the family to get college degrees. The future senator earned a law degree at Georgetown and entered politics as a state prosecutor before becoming the only Democrat ever elected to the Senate from Vermont.

The Leahys renovated the house in the 1970s. When they pulled up the old linoleum they found wide boards floors and, when the old ceiling was pulled down, hand hewn ceiling beams — all of which are now part of the decor. Despite the renovations, the house still has the faint earthy smell of an old Vermont farmhouse.

To be sure, Leahy has invited select parts of his Washington life to his island in the woods. The late musician Harry Chapin played and sang in his living room. Former FBI director Louis Freeh joined Leahy in his backyard shooting range, where the two blasted away at targets while two startled joggers happened by.

Then there's Leahy's recreational Hollywood career, which he likely would not have were he not a senator. He's a bit player in the Batman movies, and even had a one-line speaking part in "The Dark Knight."

"We're not intimidated by thugs," Leahy tells the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger. The Joker puts a knife to Leahy's face and replies: "You know, you remind me of my father. I hated my father."

Would he rather be in Vermont with his family or in Washington steering important Senate business? It's hard to say, muses an old friend, federal Judge William Sessions III.

"He loves his job, finds his job especially challenging," Sessions said in a telephone interview. "But really, he draws his strength from his solid family connections."