In “The Road Taken” (published August 23 by Simon & Schuster, a division of Paramount Global, which includes CBS), Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy – who, as a young prosecutor, was elected in the aftermath of Watergate and is retiring after eight terms – writes about his path through the upper house of Congress, which he says once acted as “the nation’s conscience” – and could one day again.
Read the excerpt below, and don’t miss Robert Costa’s interview with Senator Leahy onAugust 21!
In 1974, with my parents and my wife Marcelle’s parents; our children, Kevin, Alicia, and Mark; and my sister, Mary, I stood in room 11 of the Vermont State House and announced my candidacy for the U.S. Senate. I was a thirty-three-year-old four-term Chittenden County state’s attorney, launching a campaign knowing that Vermont had never sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate.
I was running against a war in Southeast Asia that remained popular in Vermont, certainly with many editorial boards that shaped consensus. But more than any single issue, what propelled me was a belief that I understood the values of Vermont. Dublin-born parliamentarian Edmund Burke’s speech to the Electors of Bristol was my North Star. I quoted him when he said, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment.” Burke also said that a representative “ought not to sacrifice to you” his conscience.
I won, much to the shock of the political establishment in Vermont, which didn’t see a thirty-three-year-old, a Catholic, or a Democrat on a fast track to the Senate. I was all three. And now I was a senator.
Within just a few months of taking office, and as the newest and most junior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, we were asked to vote to reauthorize and continue the war in Vietnam. The authorization was defeated by one vote. I was proud to be that vote. My hope was Vermonters would respect my judgment and my conscience, even if they disagreed with my vote to end the war. I trusted that judgment and hard work were exactly what Vermonters expect from their representatives.
The chairman of that committee was a Mississippian named John C. Stennis. He ruled the Armed Services Committee with an iron fist, and he was an ardent defender of the war under the fourth president who had allowed it to drag on. I worried whether he’d punish me for my vote of conscience. Instead, he took me under his wing: “Pat, you’re not with me on this, and I’m not with you, but I do believe you did the wrong thing for the right reasons.” That’s the Senate and the politics that I came to love, and it became so much a part of my love of our country. The Senate where I arrived in 1974 for orientation wasn’t just a collection of one hundred elected individuals—it wasn’t just a “who,” but a “what.” That Senate was an idea—the idea that an institution doesn’t belong to a single party or a single ideology, nor is it exhibited or embodied in a single issue. It was a wonderful amalgam of ideologies and accents and characters—boy, there were characters, and in this book, you’ll meet them as I did, when I did, and learn from them all as I did—but more than that, the Senate was a concept, an outlook about how we might live or lead, learn or listen. It’s about keeping your word. It’s about caring for an institution and believing—really believing—that in the end, when institutions work, when common ground is fertile, something grows that belongs to all Americans and all of America wins.
I am not so naive as to assume that many—or even most—who pick up this book can remember a time when they looked at the Senate that way, not even remotely. I don’t know that any of my recent colleagues can imagine their constituents thinking of the Senate as the nation’s conscience.
But I can, and I miss those days.
I kept thinking about them as I wrote my remarks announcing my retirement. One word visited me again and again: “conscience.” Thirty years ago, I visited a refugee camp. I brought my camera, as I do everywhere, so that I could show people back in Washington the human toll of an issue. Always on visits like this, I’d ask if it was okay to take someone’s picture; to be a displaced person is to have endured enough without having someone invade your privacy. On this trip, a man encouraged me to take his picture. I looked at his worn and weary face through the range finder. We sat and talked afterward, and he said simply, “Don’t forget people like me.” The black-and-white photo has hung above my desk for thirty years since; every day I come to work, he’s looking at me, saying, “You don’t know my name, you don’t speak my language, there’s nothing I can do to help you—but what are you doing for people like me?” I refer to it as my “conscience photo.” Conscience—that’s what people are hungry for governments to stand for again.
This is the story not just of my political education, or even of the Senate’s journey, but of America’s journey—through the eyes of someone who entered public service in awe of what government can do and what the promise of America can mean, and can feel that awe still, even as it lives side by side, uncomfortably, with deep frustration.
It’s the story of what I learned after I announced my candidacy for the Senate in 1974, before I returned to that very same room in the Vermont State House on November 15, 2021, and announced that I was not going to run for a ninth term in the institution that had done so much to build the America that I love.
But I promise you, this isn’t a story that unfolds in one straight line downward from the pinnacle of 1975 to the hell of January 6, 2021.
Few journeys are that way in real life, because life isn’t that way.
This is a story about the journey—America, its institutions, and the people, many heroic and all flawed, who make and break them—most of whom do their best, all of whom matter to this precious and fragile experiment in democracy.
I do not think all was perfect in the U.S. Senate when I arrived as a thirty-four-year-old fresh-faced freshman Democrat. After eight years as a prosecutor, I’d like to think that I knew how to separate fact from hope, how to differentiate reality from a wish.
And there was much to question in the Senate to which I first became acquainted. Former segregationists still held powerful gavels as chairmen—in my own caucus. America was in a continuing struggle over civil rights, which had inspired me as a young college student—and yet the Senate was home to only one African American. The history books taught me that the Senate had gone from enabling segregation to joining with President Lyndon Johnson to end the era of Jim Crow, but to paraphrase Faulkner, around me I could see that the past wasn’t dead. It wasn’t even past. In a country where the sexual revolution and the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment marked a women’s movement that would forever change the face of the United States, I joined a Senate where I would be sworn in to serve alongside ninety-nine other men.
Progress was a long way away.
But make no mistake: as a young man elected in the Watergate Class of 1974 determined to clean out the stables of Washington, I ended up finding much to preserve and protect in the world’s most deliberative body—and learned from many imperfect people a code that I’ve tried to live by and live up to for forty-eight years since.
A Senate where members of a president’s party could unite and tell him it was time to go and he had to resign. A Senate where Republicans and Democrats kept their word, valued the freedom of a six-year term, and worked—however imperfectly—toward what most of them believed was for the good of all the country.
I look back knowing that the values of the Senate—the vision of that Senate—have been eroded, and that the integrity and conscience the institution should stand for have been severely damaged.
The question for America is whether the damage is irreparable.
What is the answer a senator writing forty-five years from now will tell us?
I hope for my children, my grandchildren, and their children that a senator forty-five years from now can say, “The conscience is back.”
But more than the wish, greater than the hope, it is because I know what the Senate can be that I have faith the Senate can be that way again. Why? Because it’s the people, not the rules, who give the Senate its conscience.
All it takes is a determined group of Americans to make the Senate the Senate again. After forty-eight years, nine presidents, and more than four hundred Senate colleagues, most of them come and gone, certain words still ring true.
The first were the words of a folk singer and fighter who became my dear friend before we lost him far too young. Harry Chapin said simply, “When in doubt, do something.”
The others were the words of Vermont poet laureate Robert Frost, which I first read in the library in Montpelier, just a boy with a library card and an imagination—words that reminded me that life is all about choices:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
To every reader and all the lives you touch: It’s up to you. Do something—and make that your road taken.
From “The Road Taken” by Senator Patrick Leahy. Copyright © 2022 by Senator Patrick Leahy. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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