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Sen. Patrick Leahy reflects on his career ahead of retirement

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In what are, today, the very empty, echoey hallways of the U.S. Senate - specifically, we are outside the office of the Senate president pro tem. For another 11 days and counting, that title belongs to Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, third in line to the presidency. Now, there are a lot of superlatives that you could use to describe the man first elected to the Senate in 1974. He's the longest-serving member of Congress, the third-longest-serving senator of all time. And I haven't fact-checked this last one, but I'm guessing it's a safe bet that Patrick Leahy is the only U.S. senator to appear in five "Batman" movies. Today Leahy is packing up.

Senator, it's good to see you.

PATRICK LEAHY: Great to see you.

KELLY: Pictures are coming off the walls.

LEAHY: Boxes after boxes - every single room.

KELLY: And the stories are flowing. Leahy tells me about old times with Ted Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, the Dalai Lama.

LEAHY: When I first met Fidel Castro, he said, you got to admit, we have the best cigars in the world.

I said, I do. I said, I occasionally have one. Back then, I did.

So how do you explain yourself?

I said, I'm burning Castro's crops, that communist.

KELLY: (Laughter).

LEAHY: He just roared with laughter.

KELLY: Senator Leahy and I sat down as he had just presided over his very last bill on the Senate floor.

I got to ask about yesterday - big day - your last vote of, I don't even know, thousands. How was it? What was on your mind?

LEAHY: A little over 17,000 votes - it kind of all came back to me, seeing the chamber I saw as a young law student at Georgetown for the first time, and then to be sitting there realizing I'm presiding over the financial well-being of our whole nation for the next year.

KELLY: This was the big spending bill that you were presiding over.

LEAHY: Yes, and a trillion, 700 billion - but also looking at all these senators I've served with, I've gotten to know so well - Republicans and Democrats - and it really brought it back home.

KELLY: Well, that prompts me to ask - I was preparing to interview you and thinking of the votes that must have stood out and thinking of two specific ones, both to do with war, that seem among the most significant votes you've cast. One, at the very beginning of your career, you voted against funding the Vietnam War and got all kinds of flak for it. You had the president on the phone calling you. You had Henry Kissinger on the phone calling you, asking you, you know, to get on board. Most of your party was voting against you. People were telling you you wouldn't win reelection. What gave you the nerve to vote that way?

LEAHY: Because it's the way I felt, and I had said right from the beginning, I'll vote my conscience even if I have to go against the wish of my constituents. And I did. We had five votes in the Armed Services Committee. Each one to continue the war lost by one vote. I was the junior, most - newest member. And when I cast the last no vote, I remember turning to an aide and said, you'd best get the president on the phone. He needs to know about this. I still think it was the right vote.

KELLY: You also voted against the war in Iraq.

LEAHY: Yep.

KELLY: You were at a very different point in your career - more senior, more established - but still voting against most of your party. Why'd you do it?

LEAHY: I'd gone to all of the intelligence meetings. And what I was hearing just didn't ring true from the administration. I was asking questions, and I was frustrated by the answers. I didn't believe them.

KELLY: We're sitting in this beautiful room with, I don't know, 30-foot ceilings, this stunning view you've got looking down the Mall toward the Washington Monument - all the monuments - at a table piled high with your memoir, "The Road Taken," which I have enjoyed reading.

LEAHY: Thank you.

KELLY: One of the lines that will stick with me from your book is about the values of the Senate - how they have eroded, how the integrity of the institution has been severely damaged - your words. How so? Can it be repaired?

LEAHY: Well, the Senate was never a perfect place. It probably was never expected to be. But it always tried to be better. And it should be the conscience of the nation - oftentimes has been. Currently, there's a hundred men and women who serve there. Too many care about what outrageous thing can I do to get on the news or get on social media? And it makes it harder and harder to get the consensus that we need of both Republicans and Democrats coming together to reflect the best of the country. January 6 was the most telling part of that.

I recall all of us being rushed to one of the tunnels here in the Capitol to a secure room. We were stunned when men came in with guns onto the Senate floor and say, we got to get you out of here. And somebody pointed out that, as the Senate, we could vote to meet anywhere. We could meet in a hamburger stand if we wanted. They said, why don't we meet here and continue what we're doing? And I stood up, and I practically screamed. I said, no, I'm the dean of the Senate. I'm the longest-serving one here. I will not hide in this secure room and vote on what's best for our country. We should all be on the floor of the Senate. It may take hours for them to clear it - have dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs - but we should all be there where the American people can see every one of us. Surprisingly, I got this standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats. They said, you're right. See if we can order in some food. We're going to be here a long time, but...

KELLY: Going to be here a while.

LEAHY: ...We're going back to the Senate chamber. And we did.

KELLY: Do you think January 6 was the low point?

LEAHY: Yes.

KELLY: Our democracy is healthier now than it was then?

LEAHY: No, I think democracy is on a tightrope, but it's more clear that it's on a tightrope, if that makes any sense. I think January 6 was a wake-up call to a lot of people - stop this nonsense - but also to some others, Proud Boys and so on - look how close we came. If we keep on doing this, we could take over. I think the American people are saying, why don't you guys get it right? Everybody say, why aren't you talking about the American people and what we need? Why aren't you coming together what we need?

KELLY: So what advice would 82-year-old Senator Leahy give to 34-year-old Senator Leahy when you showed up here, Day 1, green behind the ears?

LEAHY: So while it's a pretty exciting place, it's a pretty beautiful place, but think why it's here. Read the history, and vote your conscience. It's very easy to say that to 34-year-olds. Some of you are sitting in the Oval Office and the president is saying, please don't vote this way. These are a lot bigger issues than you ever faced in your life. But that's why you learn the history. But don't sacrifice your principles, and always tell the truth.

KELLY: Patrick Leahy - until January 3, he is the senior senator from Vermont and the president pro tem of the United States Senate. Senator Leahy, thank you. Best of luck.

LEAHY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.