by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
April 23, 2009
TAKING A STAND AGAINST TORTURE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- To say that the past two weeks have been surreal does not begin to explain why I spent the entire Easter weekend waiting for a call from Pres. Barack Obama.
Do I suffer from delusions of grandeur? No, not really. My assignment for the May issue of Vermont Business Magazine was to write a long profile of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) Why Leahy? Because in terms of seniority, he's now the fourth-ranking member of the Senate. On March 10, he cast his 13,000th vote and the Senate stopped working to celebrate.
"There have been 1,900 people in the Senate and only eight have cast 13,000 votes," Leahy told me. "And I'm one of them. I was touched by the fact that the Senate came to halt and I got praise from both sides of the aisle."
During our interview, I found the senator to be charming, low-keyed, bright, emotional and the possessor of wry and entertaining sense of humor. Since I think of U.S. senators as helmet-haired egos on legs, this was a pleasant surprise.
I usually write profiles of men and women who have been successful in Vermont business and finance. My reporting consists of getting quotes about them from their friends, the presidents of their banks, their accountants and, occasionally, the governor.
This time, however, my editor thought we could pull in comment from D.C., starting with the president and working our way down the line to Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Arlen Spector and Orrin Hatch.
I wasn't sure that VBM had the juice to get return phone calls like that. My Rolodex wasn't that good. As one friend said, why not call the pope and the Dalai Lama?
What the hell, I thought, but as I dialed the White House, my hand was shaking. I explained my mission and was put through to the press office. They told to make a request by e-mail. So I did.
And then I sat and waited. All weekend. Every time the phone rang, I jumped, thinking it was going to be Obama. After all, Leahy was an early Obama adaptor and stumped for him around the country. And his wife, Marcelle, was Michelle Obama's "big sister" when the Obamas first came to the Senate. So I figured I had a chance. Would it hurt Obama to give up five minutes to speak to Leahy's constituents?
And if he called, could I handle it? Or would I stammer and cough and babble? Leahy had told me that the White House has a certain magic. "Everybody comes storming up to the White House saying, 'I'm going to give him a piece of my mind,'" Leahy said. "And then the president says, 'How're you doing? How's that son of yours?' and it's, 'Oh fine, fine Mr. President.' I don't care who the president is, that's what happens."
While I was waiting, I put in some other requests for comment. The governor. Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Just for the hell of it, I spent an hour on Google searching for an e-mail address for Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams, who is from Vermont. (Leahy has a gold star waiting for him in heaven for his work helping land mine victims). Leahy's office started making calls for the story, too.
Al Gore was the first to send his regrets. "It's very difficult to decline invitations such as yours, but it's an unfortunate inevitability of the growing influence of the climate crisis message and the demand on Mr. Gore's time," wrote someone on his staff. "We do apologize."
Then the White House turned me down. Given that they were dealing with pirates, the economy, an Easter Egg Roll, a trip to Mexico and a new dog that weekend, I understood.
Bernie Sanders called. It was great to hear his big, booming, Brooklyn-inflected voice. He said Leahy has brought into the state "hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe $30 million or $40 million a year - and after a while, you're talking real money."
And then the other senators started rolling in. Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire on a Friday night! Conservative Republican Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Liberal Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. All charming men. All with wonderful things to say about Leahy.
Just as my head was reeling from all this power, up popped Williams from somewhere in the world where she was probably doing something important to save humanity. "Leahy essentially single-handed got through the Senate the first legislation in the world to stop the export of land mines - this was in August of 1992," she wrote. "The fact that the 'sole remaining superpower' would voluntarily stop exporting what was then considered a legal weapon was honestly transformative in the thinking of countries and militaries around the world."
So I ended up with four U.S. senators, one Nobel Peace Prize winner, eight Congressional staffers, one federal judge, one president pro tem of the Vermont Senate, no governor and a partridge in a pear tree.
Vermont sometimes takes Leahy for granted. After all, he's been our senator for 35 years. But here's what John Podesta, who started out in Leahy's office and went on to run Clinton's White House and Obama's transition team, told me: "I've worked for some great guys, and I think Patrick stands up well in a class that includes Bill Clinton and Barack Obama."
Joyce Marcel is a journalist who lives in southern Vermont. She can be reahed at firstname.lastname@example.org.