Politics & Policy

The ‘Nastiest’ Democrat

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Republican nightmare.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the July 9, 2001, issue of National Review.

The other Vermont senator’s no day at the beach. He is Patrick Leahy, and when James Jeffords pulled his big switch, Leahy landed a big job: chairman of the Judiciary Committee. It’s a job Leahy has always wanted; and a Republican nightmare has begun.

By consensus–a consensus of Hill Republicans–Pat Leahy is the meanest, most partisan, most ruthless Democrat in the Senate. Ask a Republican about Leahy, and he’ll shudder. Then he will say that, though Leahy can be nice and smiling on the surface, underneath he is–take your pick–”a left-wing brute,” “nasty,” “a pile of pure malice.” Republicans are not in complete agreement, however: One says, “He’s the most obnoxious [SOB] in the Senate now that Howard Metzenbaum’s gone”; another says, “Nah, he was always worse than Metzenbaum, it’s just that the general public didn’t know it.” Republicans, to a man, swear that they would take Ted Kennedy, Christopher Dodd, Joe Biden, John Kerry–any famously partisan Democrat over Leahy. They were very much hoping that Biden, for example, would resume his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee; he was chairman, recall, during the years that included the pummeling of Robert Bork and the pummeling of Clarence Thomas. Instead, however, Biden chose the Foreign Relations post, leaving Judiciary to Leahy.

And, following the ancient rule that a staff reflects the politician at its head, the consensus is that Leahy’s staff is just as partisan, just as ruthless as the senator himself. Not even Democrats much trust or like that bunch. Says one veteran GOP staffer, “You can work with Kennedy’s staff, you can work with Biden’s–and chances are, they won’t stab you in the back. Leahy’s staff, however, plays to win, whatever it takes. And they’ll roll over Democrats just as fast.”

So, what about this “junkyard dog in a Vermont sweater” (to quote yet another staffer)? Several different Senate-watchers cite one recent episode. It’s a relatively small thing, they say, but an instance in which the underside of Leahy was revealed. Sen. Strom Thurmond is almost 100 now, and when he appears at a committee meeting, he generally reads a short statement from a card, and shuffles off. You don’t try to engage him in debate, or much else, anymore, and most everyone knows it, and accepts it. At a meeting in April, Thurmond read his statement as usual–and Leahy jumped in to question him about it. Orrin Hatch, then Judiciary chairman, intervened, saying he would handle Leahy’s questions himself, trying to spare Thurmond embarrassment. But Leahy kept it up. Witnesses were appalled, seeing no purpose in it except to humiliate the old man.

The public got a little taste of what a Leahy chairmanship would be like back in January, when he conducted the confirmation hearings of attorney-general nominee John Ashcroft. (Because Dick Cheney had not yet been sworn in as vice president, and the Senate was 50-50, presided over by Al Gore, Leahy had the gavel for a little over two weeks.) Leahy threw at Ashcroft everything he had, trying to sink the nomination. There were hostile witness panels, hostile allegations–the works. Says one person close to the Ashcroft team, “Our reaction was, Wow! I mean, holy Moses! The guy’s trying to slay us!” In the end, Ashcroft squeaked through, but not before being tarred before the nation as a racist, reactionary nut.

Leahy was just warming up, perhaps, for the confirmation hearings of Ted Olson, to be solicitor general. Leahy did not have the gavel then, but he led a crude assault on the nominee’s integrity. Olson had been a lawyer and board member for The American Spectator magazine, which for a time ran something called “the Arkansas Project,” to pursue stories in Bill Clinton’s home state. Olson testified that he had nothing to do with this “project”–but Leahy essentially accused him of lying, based on the tales of a couple of left-wing journalists with a high flake quotient. These tales had been thoroughly discredited, and were again. Yet Leahy persisted, casting aspersions on Olson and demanding records and testimony from the Spectator (which galled First Amendment defenders in particular). Olson, like Ashcroft, in the end squeaked through–but it seems likely that Leahy as chairman could have stopped him. From now on, he will be chairman. According to Republican fears, the Leahy years (if years they be) will make the Biden years seem like a golden age of fair play and collegiality.

One Leahy foe puts the beef of many this way: The senator “always likes to have an ethical veneer for his purely partisan attacks. He can’t just say [for example] that he despises Ted Olson’s views, that he resents his representation of [George W.] Bush in Bush v. Gore, that he’s sorry there has to be a conservative solicitor general at all. No, he has to say that Olson lacks integrity, that he lacks honesty, and that’s what stinks about Patrick Leahy.”

Leahy is only 61 years old, but he is one of the most senior members of the Senate: He was 34 when he was first elected, in 1974. He was, and remains, the only Democrat ever elected to the Senate from Vermont. But times, they clearly have a-changed. Once the home of rock-ribbed Republicanism, the state is now the home of gay marriage and a remarkably left-wing congressional lineup: Leahy and Jeffords are the two senators, and Bernie Sanders, a socialist–that is, an avowed socialist–is the (lone) House rep. Vermont seems to have passed Massachusetts as the American Sweden; must be something in the milk.

In his 25 years as a senator, Leahy has built a solidly left-liberal record. He has his share of fans. He likes photography and the Grateful Dead. He is said to be affable in hallways, and to be a wiz at constituent services. He styles himself “the cybersenator,” because of his interest in computers and the Internet. He crusades against capital punishment, and against the use of land mines. He is a great champion of trial lawyers: For example, he led the fight (a successful one) to remove the liability cap on the tobacco industry; for the lawyers, the sky was the limit. In all, Leahy is the perfect left-liberal senator, voting for higher taxes, opposing welfare reform, vilifying Ronald Reagan, denouncing Kenneth Starr as a Constitution-destroying zealot, decrying the Supreme Court that ruled after the Florida deadlock, and so on.

Throughout the ’80s, Leahy was one of those Democrats most passionately opposed to Reagan in Central America–one of those who traveled to Nicaragua and tried to block the (U.S.) president at every turn. With Chris Dodd, he sponsored a bill to cut aid to El Salvador. More recently, in 1999, he traveled to Cuba, where he dined with Fidel Castro. Cuba, of course, is a country with thousands of political prisoners, a country where oppression is pervasive and torture routine. The major issue to come out of Leahy’s huddle with Castro? Ice cream. You see, Fidel had spoken up for Cuba’s ice cream, and Pat had put in a word for Ben & Jerry’s (Vermont’s own). Said the senator in a post- huddle interview, “Now my major diplomatic effort will be to get a hold of Ben Cohen [the “Ben” of the company] and figure out how they can send down a case of Ben & Jerry’s. Castro made me promise I would get Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to him.” Then the big concern was what the dictator’s favorite flavor was. It’s not clear whether Castro ever got his Ben & Jerry’s; it’s pretty clear, however, that Leahy is not overly troubled by the fates of the ice-cream lover’s victims. The statements Leahy has made about Cuba show a profound ignorance, whether willful or not, about that battered island.

Also in the ’80s, Leahy gained some notoriety as a member of the Intelligence Committee. He was charged with revealing classified information during the Achille Lauro terrorist incident, outraging administration officials. And he leaked a draft report on the Iran-contra affair, leading to his resignation from the intelligence panel. Behavior like this earned for him the sobriquet “Leaky Leahy.”

It is in the field of the judiciary, of course, that Leahy has made his main reputation. More than any of his colleagues, he has been “Senator No” for judges nominated by Republican presidents. He voted against William Rehnquist’s elevation to chief justice. And he was a major tormentor of Robert Bork during those awful hearings of 1987. In fact, he was responsible for one of their moments of highest drama. He scolded Bork for doing insufficient charity work while a professor at Yale, and recited the fees he earned as an outside consultant during the years 1979 to 1981. Responded Bork, “Those are the only years I ever made any money in consulting.” He continued, emotional, “There was a reason to get money, and I don’t want to get into it here.” Leahy acknowledged that the judge had his reasons. Then Sen. Gordon Humphrey, a Republican, broke in, saying, “Judge Bork, this is a very personal question, and if you prefer not to answer it, by all means do not–but were those years [ones that] coincided with heavy medical bills in your family?” Bork spoke one syllable: “Yeah.” The bills to which Humphrey had referred were for Bork’s first wife, Claire, who died in December 1980. This was not only a moment of high drama, but one that turned the stomachs of many of those watching.

Leahy furthered distinguished himself in 1991 as the first senator to come out against Clarence Thomas (this was even before the allegations of Anita Hill). He hammered Thomas relentlessly. At one point, in a typical Leahy flourish, he said, “You describe yourself as a conservative. Well, most Vermonters are conservative, too”–but Thomas, in Leahy’s eyes, wasn’t the right kind of conservative. Later, in a floor statement, Leahy said, “I cannot promise the people of Vermont that I’m sure this nominee will protect their rights.” And he avowed, most richly, “The last thing I seek in a Supreme Court justice is ideology.”

Leahy became a major player on the Judiciary Committee in 1987, when Democrats wrested control of the Senate from Republicans. Biden was chairman, but Leahy was named head of a task force to scrutinize (or harass or delay or upend) Republican nominees. At last, he vowed, Democrats would “play hardball” (and this was years before Chris Matthews became a national celebrity). “No iffy nominees are going to get through now,” Leahy crowed. The result was that nominees, many of them, were pecked at and left twisting in the wind. Interesting, in light of a later event, is that Leahy, back in ‘87, faulted the American Bar Association for its recommendations on judicial nominees. He said, “I have often found the ABA process to be perfunctory at best. I’ve often found it inadequate.” According to the Washington Post, “Leahy said his task force would interview more lawyers, litigants, and local citizens instead of relying on the ABA.” Leahy’s entire approach in this period was: go slow, put the screws on, block.

Then when the Clinton administration came to power, and Republicans regained the Senate two years later, Leahy turned on a dime. Now the problem was “stalling tactics” (Republican), and the nation’s courts suffered from a “vacancy crisis.” Republicans were shirking their “constitutional duty,” and mounting “nothing short of an attack on our independent judiciary.” On CNN, Greta Van Susteren asked him, helpfully, “How can they get away with that? I mean, we’ve got all these vacancies.” Answered Leahy, “Because the American public has not raised hell the way they should.”

With the George W. Bush administration and the Jeffords flip, the pendulum has swung again: Leahy is back to go-slow. There is no more talk of a vacancy crisis or raising hell (at least the kind of hell Leahy intended for Senate Republicans). The ABA, whose role the current president has reduced, seems to be back in his good graces. Leahy is preparing new and intrusive questionnaires for Republican nominees, evidently designed to embarrass them and trip them up. He is promising hearings on the sins of the Rehnquist court and of conservative jurists generally. By every indication, he is gearing up for continual battle. During the Biden years, Leahy was only Number Two, and an enthusiastic player of “hardball.” Now it may be all Borking, all the time.

No matter what the era, what the year, Leahy has been consistent on one thing: the ceaseless Republican war on “women and minorities.” When Republicans have occupied the White House, they haven’t appointed enough women and minorities (Reagan’s record, for Leahy, was “shameful”–this despite Justice O’Connor, apparently; no word on whether Leahy counted Justice Thomas for the first George Bush). When Clinton was there, Republican senators worked diligently to thwart women and minorities. Leahy portrayed the Republicans’ 1999 rejection of Judge Ronnie White as primarily a racial tragedy. The senator is utterly in keeping with his party in painting the GOP as the enemy of black Americans.

Hill Republicans say almost as one that Leahy is grossly, grossly underrated as–to quote that earlier Republican–”a left-wing brute.” In coming months and years, the country should get to know Leahy well, especially if Bush has a chance to nominate someone to the high court. On May 17, William Safire of the New York Times used his column to chide Leahy for his offenses against the First Amendment during the Ted Olson hearings. Nevertheless, he wrote, Leahy is “the best senator the Democrats have. He is my longtime friend, a stalwart on privacy [one of the columnist’s chief concerns] and totally devoid of vindictiveness.” It was this last clause, in particular, that made veteran Republicans choke. As they have experienced it, Leahy is vindictiveness, or certainly severe, raw partisanship, personified. Jim Jeffords wrought a big change when he pulled his switcheroo–and nowhere will this change be felt more acutely than on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman.


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