Patrick Leahy, the longest-serving member in the United States Senate, is arguably the coolest character in the chamber. That’s no small feat. Yet Leahy will finish his eighth and final term after next year’s election as the Senate’s preeminent fan of the Grateful Dead, a comic-book consultant, and a minor star of five Batman films.
Usually when a senator ends their tenure, political longevity and legislative accomplishments distinguish them. And when Leahy announced Monday that he would not seek a ninth term, those characteristics of his career as one of the most progressive members of the Senate were well noted.
Born before the United States entered World War II, the Vermont Democrat made history when he was elected to the US Senate in 1974. For the first time since the US Constitution was amended to make way for the election of senators, the voters of Vermont chose a Democrat to represent them in the chamber: Leahy, the 34-year-old state’s attorney for Chittenden County.
At the time, Leahy was the youngest senator ever elected from Vermont. He took office as one of the two youngest Democrats in the chamber. The other was Delaware Senator Joe Biden. Now, Biden is the 78-year-old president of the United States, and Leahy is the 81-year-old president pro tempore of the Senate, making him the third person in the current line of succession to the presidency.
Like Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate before becoming President Barack Obama’s vice president, Leahy has chaired major committees—the Appropriations Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and Agriculture—and accomplished big things. As Judiciary Committee chair, Leahy steered the nominations of Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to confirmation, along with those of several generations of liberal jurists; and as a ranking member on that committee, he played a pivotal role in blocking the nominations of right-wing judicial activists such as Robert Bork. He opposed the war in Iraq (in 1991 and again in 2002) and led fights to ban the export of land mines and dial down nuclear threats. He championed civil liberties and freedom of the press, even when it meant standing up to Democratic presidents. And he championed the establishment of national standards for foods labeled “organic”—writing the Organic Foods Production Act into the 1990 Farm Bill.
Leahy was widely considered to be a good bet to win reelection, and his seat will likely remain in Democratic hands. Vermont Governor Phil Scott, one of the few genuinely moderate Republicans left in high office, would be a viable GOP contender. But Scott’s office told CNN Monday that “he has been clear that he is not running for the U.S. Senate next year. That has not changed.”
For progressives, the hope is that the Democrat who replaces the retiring senator will not just maintain Leahy’s voting record on issues such as labor rights (97 percent lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO), environmental protection and climate justice (League of Conservation Voters lifetime rating: 94 percent), and reproductive rights (NARAL Pro-Choice America current rating: 100 percent) but will also adopt the more aggressively activist approach of the state’s junior senator, Bernie Sanders.
The two Vermonters have been genial colleagues. Indeed, Leahy backed Sanders for president in 2020—despite the fact that, in the 1974 election that first sent Leahy to the Senate, Sanders finished in third place as the candidate of the independent, left-wing Liberty Union Party.
Leahy and Sanders were relatively young men when they ran against each other almost five decades ago. Now, they are both senior senators. Sanders is a hero to a new generation of young activists, who formed the base for his groundbreaking 2016 and 2020 presidential bids as a democratic socialist. He is a political and a cultural icon, who is stopped on the street by teenagers who want to take selfies.
But Leahy had some cultural cred of his own. After all, he’s the guy who once took a call from the president of the United States (Bill Clinton) while on stage with the Grateful Dead.
“Would I call myself a Deadhead? With pride,” wrote Leahy several years ago, in a Life magazine special issue on the iconic West Coast band.
That wasn’t an attempt by an aging politician to make a connection with the generations of music fans that embraced the band that rock critic (and Patti Smith band guitarist) Lenny Kaye wrote produced “music [that] touches on ground that most other groups don’t even know exists.”
Leahy knew that ground. He wrote about it in nuanced ways, describing the “different layers” of favorite songs, especially “Black Muddy River,” that he listened to in his Senate office while working alone late at night. And he knew the band. Indeed, in the mid-1990s he hosted the Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and Mickey Hart at a luncheon in the Senate Dining Room. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond wandered by and said to Garcia: “I’m the oldest member of the United States Senate, you hear me, boy?” Garcia said after meeting Thurmond, “You know, I never had an experience anywhere like that, even when I used to drop acid.”
Leahy is not only a Deadhead. He is an accomplished photographer whose pictures are cherished by fellow members. And he is something of a movie star.
Leahy made repeated cameo appearances in Batman films, beginning with 1995’s Batman Forever. He also contributed an introduction to a 1996 DC Comics book dealing with land mines, as well as a foreword to the lavish 2019 anthology, Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman (Deluxe Edition), He even found a moral grounding in the Batman story.
“The Batman prevailed through superior intellect and detective skills, through the freedoms afforded by great wealth and through sheer will,” Leahy wrote, using the original reference to the character. “Not superpowers, but skill, science and rationality.”
Leahy earned accolades and acting credits for his appearances. He even got a shout-out from Ben Affleck, who played Batman in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film where the Vermonter portrayed a US senator. Appearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Diplomacy and National Security to encourage US diplomatic and financial support for efforts to address conflicts in Africa—an issue in which Leahy had long taken an interest—Affleck said, “To Senator Leahy, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my co-star in Batman. The role is marginally smaller than mine, but I understand you’re quite good.”
That wasn’t the only time Leahy found an intersection between his cultural and political interests. In 1996, the senator worked with DC Comics to develop Batman: Death of Innocents: The Horror of Landmines, a graphic novel that highlighted the threat posed by land mines. As the Senate’s most ardent advocate for international efforts to ban the production, export, and use of antipersonnel land mines, Leahy recalled, he placed that comic book “on the desk of every U.S. Senator in the U.S. Senate.”