University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

A Life of Leahy

Philip Baruth's book, Senator Leahy, a life in scenes


A Life of Leahy

ENGLISH | Writing commentaries for Vermont Public Radio, Philip Baruth lived by three words posted above his desk: “Don’t be boring.” The mantra has served the professor of English well through those commentaries and a diverse writing career that includes fiction, literary criticism, and now, with the publication of Senator Leahy: A Life in Scenes, political biography. 

Baruth, who combines his work on the UVM faculty with service as a three-term Vermont state senator, found the creative spark to tackle the biography of Vermont’s senior senator while watching the second film in The Dark Knight Trilogy. Oddly enough, Leahy, a Batman fanatic, makes a cameo appearance in the movie. 

Curious about Leahy’s personal story, Baruth searched for a biography and came up empty-handed. “I thought certainly someone had written one because he’s been such a target for the right and an icon for the left, but there was nothing out there, so I started right then doodling around with the idea,” Baruth says.

That doodling soon turned into six years of extensive interviews and research that informed this spring’s publication of the Leahy book with University Press of New England. Baruth links Leahy’s long, successful legislative career to the cultivation of a “top cop” image as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, echoed by his fictional role as the tough-talking “distinguished gentleman” in The Dark Knight Trilogy

Baruth explores Leahy’s “Norman Rockwell Vermont childhood,” growing up across from the Vermont Statehouse in his parent’s home that doubled as a printing business. It charts his quick rise, state’s attorney for Chittenden County at the age of twenty-six, and upset victory to earn election to the U.S. Senate in 1974. 

The author also delves into trying times in Leahy’s career, such as the Iran-Contra affair that contributed to Leahy’s resignation as vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; and a Leahy-sponsored bill known as PIPA designed to crack down on the online piracy of intellectual property. 

“I would say that those are two moments in Leahy’s life where he ran afoul of the media that he so flawlessly handled over his career,” says Baruth. “Iran Contra was the moment where he stepped in it as badly as one might. Samuel Johnson’s biographer Boswell said that you have to include the warts as well as everything else in order to create a classic and enduring portrait, so that’s what I tried to do. No one wants to read hagiography.”

Baruth’s story of Leahy’s life is also a window on contemporary American history. A two-year span from 2001 to 2003 shows the senator and his colleagues in Washington grappling with tumultuous times: Sen. Jim Jeffords' switch of political parties, which elevated Leahy to Chair of Judiciary; the 9-11 attacks; the writing of the Patriot Act; anthrax attacks on Leahy and other members of Congress; and the Senate changing hands yet again.  

“I wanted people to take away the sheer enormity of what Leahy has been through and how he’s handled it with such dignity and capability,” says Baruth. “If you can overcome as much as he has and still come out swinging and legislating and protecting your constituents back home as well as the rest of the country, that’s pretty amazing.”  

Next story in The Green.

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