First Biography Of Sen. Patrick Leahy Describes 'A Life in Scenes'

May 4, 2017

Sent from Vermont to Washington as a U.S. senator for the first time in 1974, Patrick Leahy has served longer than any other current member of the Senate.

He also comes with colorful sidebar stories, from cameo appearances in Batman movies to an unabashed love of the Grateful Dead and stories about backstage conversations with the late Jerry Garcia.

And now there’s a biography out about the fifth longest-serving senator in U.S. history: Patrick Leahy: A Life in Scenes.

Philip Baruth, an English professor at the University of Vermont and a Democratic state senator from Chittenden County, decided to pen the first biography of Patrick Leahy. He spoke to VPR about his new book.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full audio above.

VPR: Why was it important for you to write this biography?

Baruth: "So, let me go back to 2008. I was in Stockholm, Sweden. My wife is Swedish and we were there visiting her family, and my brother-in-law took me to the multiplex in Stockholm because The Dark Knight was premiering.

"Vermonters had never sent somebody under 50, had never sent a Catholic senator and had certainly never sent a Democrat in over 100 years. So there was no reason for Pat Leahy, who had all three of those attributes, to think that he could get in." — Philip Baruth

"At a certain point, Heath Ledger, the greatest most ghastly Joker ever, comes out, and facing off against him is Patrick Leahy. And in my seat I said, ‘That's Pat Leahy!’ and all the Swedes kind of looked at me, you know, without any understanding of what I was saying.

"And later on I tried to explain to my brother-in-law who Pat Leahy was why it was crazy that he was in a movie. So I literally went to the library looking for a biography, and found that there was none, which told me the time was ripe for this sort of book."

Can you understand how some people might be skeptical that they're getting an objective view of the senator in this book given that you are a Democrat in the Vermont Senate?

"I understand that. I think readers go to biographies skeptically in general. With that said, I was a Vermont writer long before I was a Vermont politician and I plan to be a Vermont writer long after I leave office, so if anybody thinks that I would trade in my integrity as a writer in order to get short-term gain somehow politically, they really don't know me very well.

"I admire Pat Leahy very much, but if you're going to draw a portrait of a subject there has to be shading. In any career of four-plus decades there are things that go well and things that don't go so well. And the things that don't go so well tell you a lot about who the person is and their core."

This is not a typical biography that tracks the senator's life story from childhood up through his working life as a politician to the present. Instead, you focus on three big scenes that mark major flash-points in his career. What are they and why did you focus on them?

"I would say I focus on three questions. One question is, why was Pat Leahy elected in 1974 in the first place? When you think about it in retrospect, it's crazy and impossible, because he was 34 years old, he was a Catholic and worst of the three, he was a Democrat. And Vermonters had never sent somebody under 50, had never sent a Catholic senator and had certainly never sent a Democrat in over 100 years. So there was no reason for Pat Leahy, who had all three of those attributes, to think that he could get in.

"The second question was, why was Pat Leahy targeted in 2001, the subject of an anthrax letter that ultimately killed five people? That's never been satisfied, that particular question.

"And then the last was my own question from 2008: What is Pat Leahy doing in The Dark Knight? And if I had to boil it all down I would say it traces back to Pat Leahy's obsession with and fabulous skill with media of all sorts."

I understand that there has been some criticism that Leahy’s appearance in The Dark Knight was because he pushed copyright legislation that favored the movie industry. What was the controversy there?

"He comes forward with a bill in 2010 known as COICA [Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act] which was one of several bills designed to stop internet piracy, specifically of films. So Pat Leahy, who had been a champion of the internet and somebody who had argued for years and years that it should be free, evolved in his thinking on that issue. Critics viewed that evolution as not savory.

"What I try to do is present a balanced take on it. So I go back and forth between Pat Leahy's point of view and the point of view of internet privacy advocates who are opposing him. And then at the same time I'm cutting to The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, which were timed and sequenced with those bills."

You mentioned that you think Patrick Leahy had this intuitive grasp of the media. Do you think that skill helped him win his first election to the Senate in 1974?

"Absolutely it helped him win. He would have been just another failed Democratic politician. But he and his team decided to debut a 30-minute campaign film produced by Vermont filmmaker Dorothy Todd, a sort of sentimental spectacle about Pat Leahy, his life, his family and his ambitions if he goes to Washington.

"They ran it in 30-minute blocks; it preempted Jeopardy! and they ran it all through the last week, and all of the polling shows that it moved the polls about 10-plus points.

"Now, that's a nuclear device in electoral terms. He went from being an almost certain loser to eking out a 4,000-vote margin on the strength of that technology."