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Sen. Patrick Leahy’s new memoir highlights key lessons from nearly five decades of service

A photo of Sen. Patrick Leahy in a grey suit and a blue striped tie.
J. Scott Appelwhite
/
Associated Press
After serving 48 years in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy is retiring at the end of his term in early January. His new book, The Road Taken, is a memoir of his nearly five decades in U.S. politics.

After serving 48 years in the U.S. Senate, Patrick Leahy is retiring at the end of his term in early January.

He has just written a book about his experiences— called, The Road Taken.

Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb spoke to senior political reporter Bob Kinzel about the new memoir. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So what kind of approach did Sen. Leahy take with this book? Why did he write it?

Bob Kinzel: Well, Mitch, for nearly 50 years, Sen. Leahy really has been an eyewitness to history in Washington. I mean, think about these statistics. When he retires, he'll be the third longest serving senator in the history of the Senate. He's cast over 17,000 votes. This puts him in second place all time. And he has served under nine presidents. These are some major milestones that Vermont may never see again. And he told me that during his time in office, the tenor of political debate in Congress has definitely changed for the worse.

"I wanted new senators coming in, to know how it has been; how it can be; and how it should be," Leahy said. "You don't have to find only the people that you completely agree with. Find people of the opposite views. Work together to find a common view. Don't allow the country become so polarized that we hurt ourselves as a nation."

Mitch, he says he's hopeful that the toxic political atmosphere in Congress can be changed. But he's concerned that it won't be anytime soon.

Mitch: Given all that time that Sen. Leahy has spent in the Senate... he says one of the most important ones of his career came in his first month in office. What can you tell us about that particular vote?

Bob Kinzel: It's fascinating. Leahy had been in the Senate for about four months. And he was a member of the Armed Services Committee when a bill came up to continue funding for the war in Vietnam. And he was the swing vote on the committee. Now if he votes 'Yes,' funding for the war continues. But if he votes 'No,' the war effort would have to be phased out. And he votes 'No,' at a time when he says a majority of Vermonters still support the war in Vietnam.

"I was getting calls from President Ford, Henry Kissinger, and I was told if I voted to end the war, I would never get reelected," Leahy said. "I thought well, my vote can find a halt. This war is worth it."

And Mitch in 1980, in Leahy's first re-election bid, he won by just several 1000 votes. And he thinks his vote to end the Vietnam War might have been a big factor in that election.

Mitch: Well, one of the issues that Sen. Leahy has been the most passionate and outspoken about is an effort to ban the worldwide use of landmines. How did he get so involved with that issue?

Bob Kinzel: Leahy told me that he was on a field trip to a hospital in Nicaragua, and he met a 12 year-old-boy who had lost a leg to a landmine, and Leahy concludes that the majority of victims of landmines are civilians, not military people. And he successfully launches an effort to ban the exportation of landmines from this country. It's an approach that's adopted by many other countries as well. Leahy he was on a trip to Vietnam when he attended a special meeting to discuss funding for landmine victims. And he spotted a man across the room,

"Even staring me all the way through it," Leahy said. "He had no legs. A tiny man, I thought, 'How much he must hate me, this American?' Those areas probably were American landmine that crippled him. I lifted him into his wheelchair. He grabbed my shirt, he pulled me down and he kissed me. You never forget something like that."

This really is a legacy issue for Leahy. And he told me that he hopes to return to Vietnam before he retires.

Mitch: A powerful story. Sen. Leahy also played a key role in restoring diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba. How did that come about?

Bob Kinzel: Mitch, Leahy has always believed that imposing an economic embargo against Cuba made absolutely no sense at all. So he traveled to Cuba to learn more about the country and he developed a relationship with Fidel Castro that led to Leahy taking on the role of an emissary between the two countries. And this was at a time when the United States and Cuba didn't officially really recognize each other.

"I had long discussions with Fidel Castro," Leahy said. "And we went back and forth. I argued with him. He argued with me. Staff was amazed, because nobody ever argued with him. And we kept in touch. I would tell them the truth. I tell them good news and bad news. They'd use me to bring messages back and forth. We ended up doing that."

Leahy's work with both Fidel Castro and his brother Raul would lead to a number of important prisoner exchanges between the two countries.

Mitch: Sen. Leahy was also strongly critical of the administration of President George W. Bush, for holding hundreds of people indefinitely without a trial, legal protections or even charges in some cases, at a special detention center at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And that followed, of course, the 911 terrorist attacks against the United States. Why was this issue about Guantanamo Bay so important for Leahy?

Bob Kinzel: You know, Mitch, I think there were a couple of reasons. One, I think Sen. Leahy strongly believed that anyone in U.S. custody was entitled to some basic legal rights, regardless of the crime that they'd been charged with. And he also felt that this detention center undermined this country's legal standing around the world.

"We can't call these other countries and say, 'Hey, how come you locked up this journalist? How come you lock up this person? And you're not giving them their rights?'" Leahy said. "And they say, 'Yeah, what are you doing in Guantanamo, United States of America?'"

Leahy told me that he's very disappointed that efforts to close the detention center have not been successful over the last 20 years, and that some prisoners are still being held there.

Mitch: Bob, you've covered Sen. Leahy and his career for so long. Now. I'm wondering if you can get a sense of a general philosophical approach that has guided him through his nearly half-a-century career in the U.S. Senate.

Bob Kinzel: You know, Mitch, he told me that there was, and it was a surprise to me, it was something new to me. He mentioned that he worked with former singer-songwriter Harry Chapin on a number of hunger issues, and Leahy says some advice from Chapin molded his approach to politics. And that advice was, 'when in doubt, do something.'

"I've had so many times and people have told me this is impossible," Leahy said. "So let's try to do it. Harry Chapin was always an inspiration."

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station WBUR...as a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Karen is Vermont Public's Managing Producer of Morning News. She manages the morning news content on broadcast and digital platforms, and works with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb to bring listeners the latest news and information, along with relevant interviews. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She produces the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke. Karen recently worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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