Nearly perpetual senator Patrick Leahy published The Road Taken, his doorstopper of a memoir last fall, and boy is it ever true to the character and career of the man. Straightforward, earnest, circumspect, and, above all, eternally loyal to the institution of the U.S. Senate, which he unironically calls “the conscience of the nation.”
Myself, I’ve never met the institution I could characterize as anyone’s “conscience,” and that includes organized religion. The real consciences of a society are usually the outsiders, not the insiders; the prophets, not the priests or kings. To me, legislative bodies in general, and senior chambers in particular, are less conscience and more granfalloon, defined by Kurt Vonnegut as “a proud and meaningless collection of human beings.” So I approached Leahy’s book with, shall we say, a measure of cynicism.
Still, I can understand his point of view. Leahy entered the Senate at a particular moment in time when it was living up to its billing. He took office mere months after Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency thanks, in no small part, to the urging of three top Congressional Republicans who put the interests of country over party.
Quaint, isn’t it?
The combination of Watergate and the collapse of the Vietnam War placed the Senate at the heart of existential issues about American government. And the Senate responded well — in that moment.
And that was the moment that cemented the fresh-faced Pat Leahy’s affection for the chamber. Well, that and crusty old segregationist John Stennis being nice to him.
Leahy’s memoir revolves around the Senate, as did his life, and his book is a chronicle of its steady decline into the partisan cesspit we see today. He clearly pines for the Good Old Days and still hopes for their return, which is why people like him and, say, Joe Biden, are loath to give up Senate traditions like the filibuster and the blue slip rule.
Which assumes that even at its peak, the Senate was worth preserving. Yes, its members were somewhat insulated from the hugger-mugger of, ugh, ick, politics. They could, and often did, take a longer view. But that freedom was more than offset by the fact that (a) senators are not necessarily any better than the rest of us and (b) insulation can be a bad thing, too. Their “longer view” was not necessarily a clearer view. Senior legislative bodies tend to instill a sense of unwarranted superiority among its members, a belief that their shit doesn’t stink. (See also: Vermont Senate.)
When a person of decency and intelligence is a senator, as with Leahy or George Aiken, the powers of the Senate are a good thing. When you get people like Stennis or Jim Eastland or Joe McCarthy or Ted Cruz, you’d be forgiven in thinking that we’d be better off if we filled the Senate with 100 Americans chosen at random.
Enough about the Senate. Other notes on the Leahy tome.
Even though it’s almost 500 pages long, it often seems like a hop and a skip through recent history. (At times, the unlikely adjective “breezy” crossed my mind.) He does have to cover a hell of a lot of history, so maybe that’s inevitable. But he often contents himself with a recitation of events that could have been taken from the day’s newspapers or a reading of the Congressional Record. Once in a while he gives us a peek behind the curtain, as when he relates the insider discussions over whether Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg would retire when a Democratic president could have replaced them. (Breyer did, RBG did not.)
I was also surprised at how little Vermont there is in the book. Leahy quickly becomes a denizen of the Beltway. He was always fond of his home outside Montpelier, but it’s presented as a haven, not a real, complicated place. His re-election campaigns get short shrift, and if he played any constructive role in state politics, he didn’t bother writing about it. Maybe that’s appropriate for a memoir published by Simon and Schuster instead of Sen. Chris Bray’s Common Ground Communications, publisher of Jim Douglas’ execrable memoir The Vermont Way. But it’s disappointing if you were hoping for more insight from our state’s most powerful political figure.
Overall: Worth reading? Yes. Worth rereading? Probably not. It’s a better than average political memoir, but that’s not an especially high bar. It’ll do. Three gavels out of five.