There are some things we experience in life that we can never prepare for, no matter how hard we try.
Embarking on a life with the person you love is one.
Having, raising and loving a child is another.
And then there's this one.
I have been here 48 years. Perhaps to the dismay of hundreds of presiding officers, I have delivered many floor statements, some more eloquent than others.
But I have never delivered a speech like this. And I so appreciate all of you indulging me.
My friends and colleagues, Marcelle and I have such warm and lasting memories of so many who have served in this chamber, now, and through many years. Including mentors, like Republican Sen. Bob Stafford, who was our state's senior senator when I arrived here. He was the person who looked me in the eye and said to this 34-year-old freshman, “Patrick - you're not my junior senator. From here on, you're my Senate partner.”
In the last 48 years, the Senate has become a family to both Marcelle and me. Here we have found friends - some of our best friends - and relationships that will last a lifetime.
It's also always been the place where I had the privilege of fighting for Vermont - the place where I was born, the place where I met Marcelle, the place where we started our family, and the place to which early in the New Year we will return together to our birthplace.
I have a reverence for this place, too, and for its history, its constitutional role, and its people, that I know we all share. I have had this sense of awe about the Senate from an early age. I used to walk to the Capitol in my time here as a law student at Georgetown, sit in the Gallery, and watch, transfixed, as the Senate debated the most pressing issues of the day. Back then, I could never have imagined that I would one day etch my name into one of these desks, let alone that I'd cast more than 17,000 votes and I'd serve with 400 Senators.
Eight times, the voters of Vermont - my neighbors, my friends, and my family - gave me the great gift of their faith in sending me here to be their voice in the United States Senate.
What propelled me to run was a belief that I understood the needs and values of Vermont and thought it was time for a new generation to address them.
After what many described as an improbable win, in a state that had never elected a Democrat or someone as young as I was, I began my time in the Senate in the aftermath of a Constitutional crisis. We faced a nation broken by the Watergate scandal, the resignation of President Nixon, and an endless war in Vietnam.
And as I leave, the nation is coping with strains and challenges of other kinds, including very real threats to the whole concept of a working democracy, the sanctity of our Constitution, our elections, and the strength of the rule of law.
Another thing that I could never have imagined as that law student in the Gallery was that one day this Chamber itself, and the Capitol, would be stormed by a lawless and violent mob.
* * *
As president pro tem, I have felt that I was entrusted as one of many stewards of the time-honored norms and traditions that were passed on over the years, which help build trust, and which have helped the Senate, when possible, to work through problems to get difficult things done.
And to allow the Senate, at its best, to rise to the occasion and serve as the collective conscience of the nation. I have seen the importance of acts of grace and political self-restraint that help the Senate work.
When I arrived here, bipartisan cooperation was the norm, not the exception. It was ingrained in the fabric of what it meant to be a United States senator.
Make no mistake: The Senate of yesterday was far from perfect. I came here in 1975, when several of you were not old enough to vote. In that body, there were still Senators who had signed the Southern Manifesto and had filibustered landmark civil rights laws. I was sworn in to serve alongside 98 other men - all men, not a single woman, out of 100.
Progress would be a long way away.
But the Senate I entered had one remarkably redeeming quality: The overwhelming majority of senators believed they were here to do a job, not just score political points or reduce debate oratory to bumper sticker slogans.
Issues like budgets and farm bills and transportation bills had nothing to do with whether a senator was a Republican or Democrat. It was all about the nature of our home states. We all understood that to do our jobs the right way, we had to work together.
And we did.
Republican Sen. McConnell and I worked together on the Appropriations Committee, passed our gavel back and forth on the Foreign Operations subcommittee, and worked together passing complex bills.
We worked with a sense of common purpose and respect and incredible productivity.
Of course, that did not mean there weren't times when both sides fought like cats and dogs on the Senate floor and in election campaigns.
But there were unwritten rules that applied - quite different than they are today. Senators didn't engage in scorched-earth politics because they knew they'd return after Election Day.
I'll share something easily forgotten today which I learned on the Agriculture Committee. I once overheard someone say in the cloakroom that they'd been driving “in the middle of nowhere.”
I thought to myself, “Well, if you're from there, you know it's always the middle of somewhere.” It was the first lightning spark of a brainstorm.
For years, I'd been traveling when Senate recesses allowed to try and understand the world a little better, to build some relationships with other leaders from other countries - allies and adversaries alike. And from that very first congressional delegation (CODEL) onward, I'd found that almost without fail, when senators travel together, their partisan differences dull and their shared perspective grows. You see a country and you see each other through the other person's eyes, just as much as you do your own.
But Dick Lugar (R-Indiana) and I came up with a new idea: a CODEL at home, to help Senators understand that rural states, whether north, south, east or west, had a lot in common; to make it clear that everywhere was somewhere and nowhere was just a place on the map that you hadn't experienced - yet.
We explored those states together. We all got to know each other - and we all became invested in each other's success, legislative and personal.
I fear those days are gone - but, I hope, just temporarily. Because if we don't start working together more, if we don't know and respect each other, the world's greatest deliberative body will sink slowly into irrelevance - and, heaven forbid, become our own version of the House of Lords.
* * *
I am especially proud of the work I've been able to do for Vermont, and for Americans across the nation. Among them are the Organic Standards and Labeling Act, which has made possible what is now a nearly $60 billion industry. Also, the world's first ban on the export of antipersonnel landmines.
Decades of work to protect our beloved Lake Champlain. Supporting our farmers and forging new markets. Revitalizing historic town centers across our state. Greatly expanding the Green Mountain National Forest by more than 140,000 acres, protecting one of Vermont's greatest treasures.
Securing resources to rebuild after disasters from the devastation of Tropical Storm Irene to the ravager of the Covid pandemic.
The Leahy War Victims Fund, helping innocent victims of war across the globe. The Innocence Protection Act and the Kirk Bloodsworth program to facilitate use of DNA evidence to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. The human rights protections of the Leahy Law. Legislation to strengthen and extend the Violence Against Women Act and the Voting Rights Act. A longtime effort to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. And a landmark program to remediate toxic sites in Vietnam left over from the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, and to care for those who were exposed.
Making our copyright laws more effective. Protecting Americans' privacy from government overreach. Strengthening the Freedom of Information Act several times and, in several ways, to advance the public's right to know what their government is doing. And the most significant reforms of our trademark laws in more than 50 years. These are just some of the many achievements over the years.
I have often been asked for the formula that I have used to get laws like these across the finish line. As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, it was easy: Consider the needs of all states in alphabetical order - starting with the letter “V.”
But seriously - it is by Democrats and Republicans working together.
* * *
It feels like yesterday that I walked into my first meeting with the person who would become my first majority jeader - “Iron Mike” Mansfield. The majority leader put a fundamental question to every new senator to answer for themselves: “Why do you want to be here? For the title? Or to make a difference to make lives better?”
And though he was a soft-spoken man who listened more than he spoke and rarely gave speeches on the Senate floor, Leader Mansfield dispensed one piece of advice that made as enduring an impression.
“Senators should always keep their word,” he said.
It struck me that across all those weighty debates, navigating the complicated and contradictory politics of a Senate and a caucus that included everything from social conservatives and segregationists to civil rights icons and prairie populists, Mansfield succeeded because he understood the currency of the institution was actually trust, not ideology.
“Senators should always keep their word.”
It was a simple formula, but it worked.
If you knew what commitments colleagues had made to each other, you could count the votes. If you could count the votes, you could set the agenda. If you could set the agenda, you could set the schedule. If you could set the schedule, you could pass legislation and still send the senators home to be present in their states when it counted.
And if 100 senators were invested in keeping their word to one another - then together we could keep our word to the institution and to the Constitution.
* * *
I will leave here with the satisfaction of knowing that I answered Leader Mansfield's question the best way I could, in keeping with my conscience, and that I did what I could to make a difference.
And I will leave here knowing above all, that right or wrong, difficult or easy, I always kept my word - to Vermont, and to each of you.
I want to thank my current staff, and my staff throughout the years, who have steadfastly stood by me and our shared goals to deliver for Vermonters, for Vermont, and for our country.
And I want to thank my family. Our children, their spouses, and our grandchildren. My parents, who were here with me to start this journey in my first Senate election, and who I know watch over the entire Leahy family today, as do Marcelle's. What a gift to have had a mother and father who passed down to their children and grandchildren not privilege but a powerful example.
And, of course, Marcelle. I was 19 and she was 17 when we met. I took one look at her, and I knew who I wanted to go on every journey together. Sixty-three years later, we are still on that journey, and she is still my closest friend, my partner, and my anchor.
I am uniquely blessed to have served with fellow Vermonters who share my deep love of and commitment to Vermont: Sen. Bob Stafford, Sen. Jim Jeffords, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Peter Smith and - of course - Rep. and now Sen.-elect Peter Welch. I could not be more gratified that he will be carrying on after me.
You're going to like and respect the new fellow senator, I promise. Our collective efforts are why, in so many ways, Vermont continues to set an example for the rest of the nation to follow.
* * *
Marcelle and I will leave with the same conviction that brought us to Washington in the first place - that the brighter horizons of tomorrow hold the hope of the future.
I leave still carrying that same sense of reverence about this place that I felt as a law student. I have had, and still have, so many pinch-me moments. One of the last ones will be etching my name inside my desk.
I will forever carry with me the enduring bond with my fellow Vermonters, whose commonsense and goodness are what I have tried to match as their representative.
“What a place this is.” I wrote those words in the margin of my legal pad as I rode back to our house late one evening after a full Senate session last year when we worked out Covid relief for people who were hurting.
What a place this is, still.
Oh, what this 82-year-old president pro tempore of the United States Senate would love to say to the 33-year-old version of myself nervously walking for the first time onto the Senate floor.
“Don't lose that sense of awe, kidl” I'd say. “Hold onto it. Treasure it. Don't even for a minute forget what a privilege and a responsibility it is to serve here.”
I never have forgotten.
Sometimes when I drive past the Jefferson Memorial and I look at Jefferson in his marble rotunda, I'm reminded of the tension that was and is America: imperfect people struggling to make reality out of ideals that they fail themselves to meet but who always - always - keep on trying.
I think of my father, the self-taught historian. He loved to share with me the twists and turns of times gone by, not to lift up heroes as idols or point out their feet of clay, but to find meaning and purpose in the journey.
Only first-generation immigrants like my mother, whose parents had left homes where such journeys of change and redemption were not possible, could have such a gleeful appreciation for the fact that America wasn't a place but an idea - an idea of unmatched possibilities, ever in search of its own perfection, for new and next generations to write.
I have so loved the privilege of being even a small part of this story - America's story.
* * *
And I have loved the privilege of working with giants and heroes here.
I think of John Glenn and the Senate he represented. I wonder what he would think of how we carried the baton he passed to the next generation. But then my mind flashes back to John's internment at Arlington National Cemetery. In the chapel, the Marine bugler played “Taps,” paused, and then, completing a request John himself had made but long kept as a surprise, burst into Reveille.
That was John Glenn: There would be a time to mourn and remember what was lost, but there would always be another mission - another call to serve - another day.
And that's how it has to be. For all of us.
* * *
Yes, the Senate is broken in too many places. No, our institutions are not what Mike Mansfield and Hugh Scott and Gerry Ford and Hubert Humphrey and Ted Kennedy and John Stennis and Barry Goldwater knew them to be.
Some of that change is good, a lot of it is tragic, and all of it simply is what it is: You can point fingers, or you can point the way forward to something better.
That's America, again, isn't it?
I don't leave here today with a requiem for the Senate. I leave here with a recipe for its renewal. Not taps, but reveille. Always reaching, always repairing, never retreating, never retiring from the journey.
America doesn't stop. The Senate just keeps turning. And - if we're lucky - all of us get a chance to help tilt the trajectory toward progress.
It doesn't have to be that hard - just remember what Leader Mansfield said.
Keep your word.
* * *
Thirty years ago, I visited a refugee camp. I brought my camera, as I do everywhere, so that I could show people back in Washington the human toll of an issue.
Always on visits like this, I'd ask if it was OK to take someone's picture; to be a displaced person is to have endured enough without having someone invade your privacy.
On this trip, a man encouraged me to take his picture. I looked at his worn and weary face through the range finder. We sat and talked afterward, and he said simply: “Don't forget people like me.” The black-and-white photo has hung above my desk for 30 years since; every day I come to work, he's looking at me, saying “you don't know my name, you don't speak my language, there's nothing I can do to help you - but what are you doing for people like me?
* * *
Conscience - that's what people are hungry for governments to stand for again.
Now, I'm taking my “conscience photo” home with me, but I know that man's eyes will keep watching all of us, and all of you.
What a journey. What an abiding hope that someday after I've gone, the Senate in both parties will come back together to be the conscience of the Nation.
Together, you can build a Senate defined not by soundbites but one strengthened when women and men with a sense of history insist that our republic move forward.
For the sake of all those children and their children, and all children and all Americans, it not only can be done, it has to be done.
Representing Vermonters has been the greatest honor. I am humbled, and always will be, by their support, and I am confident in what the future holds.
But that will be up to all of you.