Making the greatest difference

 
 

US Senator Patrick Leahy talks to Peter Molloy about the attraction of a career in politics.

As far as political euphoria goes, there could seldom be a more emotive time for meeting with a politician than to speak with a senior American Democrat in the aftermath of the party’s overwhelming victory in this month’s Presidential, Senatorial and Representative elections.

However, last week in UCD, Senator Patrick Leahy was happy to discuss the basics, and to explain why he’d selected the field of politics as his chosen profession. Speaking to The University Observer after receiving the Literary and Historical Society’s James Joyce Award, the 68-year-old elaborated about the appeal of a career in public service.

Of Irish-American and Italian-American heritage, Senator Leahy was born in the northern US state of Vermont – the area he would ultimately go on to represent in Congress. He is able to boast of particular connections to Ireland aside from his own family background. The senator has visited the island on several previous occasions, most notably when accompanying then Democratic President Bill Clinton in the 1990s during peace negotiations in Northern Ireland.

“I was born in Vermont, the second smallest State, with 600,000 people. I’d gone to law school in Georgetown in Washington D.C , and spent a lot of time up on Capitol Hill. I said ‘you know, the one place where Vermont is equal to the rest of the nation is in the US Senate’. We get two senators; California with 35,000,000 people – they get two senators.”

Completing his third-level education by graduating from Georgetown University Law School in 1964, Leahy initially practised law for a period, becoming the youngest State Attorney in the history of Vermont at the age of 26.

“I spent a lot of time in the criminal courts watching trials, and I said – so young and idealistic – ‘if I could be anything I wanted to be, I’d be a prosecutor or US senator’. I figured neither would come, but by a series of coincidences I Careersbecame the youngest prosecutor in Vermont’s history. I spent eight years doing that, and ended up being picked as one of the three outstanding prosecutors in the country.”

The lure of a political career, however, was something that never quite faded for Leahy. In 1974, at the relatively junior age of 34, the then State Attorney ran for the US Senate as a Democrat in his home State of Vermont. The challenge facing him was considerable.

“[Vermont was] a state that had never elected a Democrat, never elected anybody under 50, never elected a Catholic. I ran for the Senate because that’s what I wanted to do. That’s where I thought I could make the greatest difference.” Having successfully secured his Senate seat, Leahy has subsequently maintained an unbroken spell representing Vermont in Congress, and is now the senior senator for the state.

His appointments since then have included periods spent as chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Commission, as well as his current appointment as Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. Leahy is also simultaneously the current Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, a panel charged with conducting hearings relating to the prospective appointment of federal judges.

A generally liberal politician, his past positions have included strong scrutiny and objection to the ongoing conflict in Iraq, and opposition to argued infringements of civil liberties such as 2006 amendments to the USA Patriotatriotatriotatriotatriotatriot Act.

When it was put to him that the concept of politics as a profession – especially in Ireland – is something that has arguably become tarnished by allegations of corruption and malaise, Senator Leahy was cheerfully dismissive. “You could say that about business, you could say that about academics, you could say that about any group. [Unfortunately] you see the bad actors, and not the others.”

Speaking further, the politician explained that for him, politics represented something far nobler.
“I remember as a youngster, the biggest inspiration I had was President John Kennedy. It was a hope… you’re in your twenties and the atmosphere, the Kennedy administration and the hope the came with it, I think you’re going to see that again.”

As one of the senior figures in the Democratic organisation, Senator Leahy has already played a conspicuous role in events leading up to this year’s election. In January, relatively early in the race, he endorsed Barack Obama as the Democratic Presidential nominee, explaining at the time that: “My endorsement is not in opposition to either Senator Clinton or Senator Edwards, both of whom I know and admire, but I’m looking at who can do this best, and I believe that Barack Obama can”.

Speaking to this newspaper last week, Senator Leahy was quick to reaffirm his support for his party’s newest President-elect, and to highlight the benefits he feels a new White House administration will bring from next January onwards. “I certainly am [looking forward to my role in the administration].”

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