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From Watergate to Jan. 6: Patrick Leahy leaves the Senate after nearly 50 years

In a new interview, the Vermont Democrat recalled Republicans' telling Richard Nixon to step aside and expressed alarm that the GOP hasn't done the same for Donald Trump.
Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.Frank Thorp V

WASHINGTON — Patrick Leahy was swept into the Senate nearly a half-century ago in the wake of the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s resignation and pardon.

After a historic career, the Vermont Democrat — the last of the so-called “Watergate Babies” of that 1974 class — departs Congress with his mind set on another constitutional crisis: President Donald Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election and the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Here’s a man who doesn’t believe in the Constitution, has probably never read the Constitution. I’m talking about Trump, who announced just a week or so ago, ‘Well, we should set aside parts of the Constitution,’” said Leahy, who rose from state prosecutor in Chittenden County to Senate president pro tempore, third in line in presidential succession.

“It’s something that becomes almost a cliche in some of these countries where a general or somebody just takes over and throws everybody out. We say, ‘Well, thank God that never happened in America.’ And here, [Trump’s] suggesting it be done," he continued. "That was very, very frightening.”

In an interview in his Capitol office with a crackling fireplace and views of the Washington Monument, Leahy, 82, recalled how two prominent Republicans — Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott and Sen. Barry Goldwater — relayed to him, a brand-new 34-year-old senator, how they had told Nixon at the White House that he had to resign or face certain impeachment and removal by Congress.

“They took no pleasure in that, but they felt as senators, and following their duty, they had to explain to him,” Leahy said. “And I do well recall Sen. Goldwater telling me Nixon said, ‘Well, how many Republicans will vote to impeach me?’ He said, ‘Most of us.’”

The major difference today is that many Republicans are not willing to take on the leader of their own party as he tramples on the Constitution, said Leahy, who presided over Trump’s second impeachment trial, which focused on the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“To see what’s happening and not to see every single Republican and Democrat stand up and condemn it — that’s what worries me,” he said.

A unique view of history

The Senate offices Leahy will be vacating have an almost museum quality to them, the walls adorned with photographs of the history he has witnessed through his decades of service. Some of them were taken by award-winning photographers he got to know through the years, but many of them were taken by Leahy himself.

Leahy’s passion for photography has become a part of his personality on the Hill. He is often seen walking through the Capitol with a camera in hand, taking pictures of the media, colleagues or newsworthy events.

Patrick Leahy holding a camera
Sen. Leahy's passion for photography has become a part of his personality on the Hill.Ron Frehm / AP
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., takes photos on the inaugural stand during Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration Ceremony at the Capitol
Sen. Leahy take photos on the inaugural stand during Barack Obama's presidential inauguration at the Capitol on Jan. 21, 2013.Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post via Getty Images
Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., during an exhibit in the Russell rotunda in July 2008 showcasing his photos from over three decades of senatorial service.
Sen. Leahy at an exhibition in the Russell rotunda in July 2008 showcasing his photos from over three decades.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

“When I was 4, I loved watching my mother and father photographing things. I started doing it then,” Leahy said. “I’ve just done it forever. I love doing it.”

Leahy has come a long way from the 1950s-era Hopalong Cassidy Brownie his parents bought him as a child, now shooting with a Leica point-and-shoot, just one of the many cameras in his arsenal.

Photographer Robert Capa famously said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough.” For Leahy, that’s never a problem. His position as a high-ranking senator constantly puts him in a position to capture unique moments, none more so than a shot he has become famous for: the view over the shoulder of a president as he signs a bill into law at the White House.

“Nobody has a picture of them signing it,” Leahy said. “You have members of Congress behind him. They’re all trying to get in the picture. The press is in front of them. I’m the guy who’s usually staying back."

Leahy has served in the Senate during the terms of nine presidents. His bill-signing photos hang in some of their presidential libraries.

Some of his shots are picked up by news magazines, and he donates the money he makes to the children’s library in Montpelier, Vermont, the same library that receives the money he has made by making cameos in five Batman movies.

“I had my first library card there when I was 4, and it was just like a little basement room,” he said. “But a wonderful librarian urged me, and by the third grade, I’d read all the Dickens and all these Mark Twain. But it was so small. Now it’s a beautiful wing.”

President Ronald Reagan's inauguration, a bill signing ceremony by President Bill Clinton and on board Air Force One with President Barack Obama.
President Ronald Reagan's inauguration, a bill signing ceremony by President Bill Clinton and on board Air Force One with President Barack Obama.Patrick Leahy

Jan. 6, 2021: ‘Good morning, PPT’

On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, Marcelle Pomerleau, Leahy’s wife and life partner of more than 60 years, woke him up with a greeting: “Good morning, PPT.”

With Rafael Warnock’s expected runoff victory in Georgia, Democrats appeared poised to be back in the majority, which meant Leahy — the most senior senator — would for a second time become president pro tempore of the Senate.

Having a driver was fine, Leahy told his wife that morning, but he did not need the big security detail that came with the role. He thought about the exchange that afternoon as heavily armed officers whisked him and his fellow senators to a secure room in the Senate complex. A violent mob of Trump’s supporters had stormed the Capitol, and they eventually took control of the Senate floor in an attempt to stop the counting of electoral votes that would certify President Joe Biden’s victory. Watching the horror unfold on TV, Leahy had flashbacks to how, as a 21-year-old Georgetown law student, he would walk to the Capitol, sit in the Senate gallery and listen as the senators debated.   

As the attack continued, members of “the world’s most deliberative body” began debating in the secured room. Nothing in the Constitution stated the senators had to certify the election from the Senate and House chambers; they could do it off-site at a military installation, or even from within this Senate conference room.

Leahy was having none of it.

“I’m the dean who’s about to become president pro tem. I’m the longest-serving person here. I care about the Senate. I don’t want us hiding down here,” Leahy recalled telling his colleagues. “The American public, no matter how we vote, they have a right to see us on the floor. Let’s wait till it’s clear. Get the bomb dogs in, whatever time it takes. We get paid by the year. Let’s stay here and vote where we can be seen.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., walks to the Senate Chamber on Jan. 6, 2021.
Sen. Leahy, D-Vt., walks to the Senate Chamber on Jan. 6, 2021. Ting Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Leahy said he got a standing ovation in the room from colleagues in both parties. Top congressional leaders, hunkered down at Fort McNair, and then-Vice President Mike Pence, sequestered in a nearby Senate parking garage, reached the same conclusion. Early the next morning, Congress went back into session and finished certifying the election.

“I love being a senator. I cherish this place,” Leahy said. “It can be, it should be, the conscience of the nation.” 

Two Supreme Court hearings and a spending bill

Over the decades, Leahy has cast more than 17,000 votes and served with more than 400 senators, including Mike Mansfield, Bob Dole, John Glenn, Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey. Two other colleagues — Barack Obama and Biden — would go on to win the White House. Leahy’s office features two photos of him and his wife riding on Air Force One with the 44th and 46th presidents.

Vermont’s other longtime senator, independent Bernie Sanders, is more famous, but Leahy accumulated more power on the Hill. As the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he presided over the nomination hearings of Obama’s two successful picks for the Supreme Court, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

This Congress, Leahy assumed another powerful role on Capitol Hill, that of chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where, after weeks of negotiating, he cut a deal with his GOP counterpart, Richard Shelby of Alabama, on a massive year-end $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package to fund the government.

It’s a final legacy-making achievement for Leahy and Shelby, who arrived in the Senate a decade later, in 1987.

“He’s a gentleman. He’s a decent man. His word is good. He has integrity. Of course, he’s a lot more liberal than I am. I’m a lot more conservative, and we have our differences, but we work together,” said Shelby, who is also retiring this year.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including from left, Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kans. and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Joe Biden D-Del.., confer prior to voting to recommend the nomination of Supreme Court Nominee Sandra Day O'Connor, to the full Senate for confirmation, on Sept. 15, 1981.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including, from left, Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.; Bob Dole, R-Kan.; Leahy; and Joe Biden D-Del.., confer before a vote to recommend the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Sandra Day O'Connor to the full Senate for confirmation on Sept. 15, 1981.Ira Schwarz / AP
Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in by  committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., during her confirmation hearing on July 13, 2009 in Washington.
Leahy, the chairman, swears in Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor at during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington in 2009.Mark Wilson / Getty Images
Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in the Senate subway.
Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in the Senate subway.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

“Overall, we’re trying to fund the government, to put America first, not shut the government down, not be against everything, but to see how we can do our best to make this work.”

In his farewell address, attended by many of his colleagues, Leahy imagined what he would say to the younger version of himself "nervously walking for the first time onto the Senate floor."

Don’t lose that sense of awe, kid. Hold on to it. Treasure it. Don’t even for a minute forget what a privilege and a responsibility it is to serve here.”

"I never have forgotten," he said.