When Senator Leahy laughed with Raul Castro

Last updated on August 26, 2022

On Tuesday, Leahy, who is retiring this year after representing Vermont in the Senate since 1975, released “The Road Taken,” an engrossing memoir that covers his long career, from his politically fraught vote against the Vietnam War to his account of rallying his fellow senators back into the chamber on Jan. 6 after they fled the mob that stormed the Capitol. In between, you meet dozens of politicians, Supreme Court Justices, presidents, world leaders, musicians, and Hollywood celebrities.

Leahy dishes on the deal Hugo Black told him he cut with Earl Warren, that time he declined a call from Bill Clinton because he was at a Sting concert, that time Dick Cheney told him to go f*** himself, his role as a secret emissary between Raul Castro and the White House, how he enjoyed teasing Barack Obama for his love of the spotlight, and he nerds out on two of his great loves, Batman and the Grateful Dead.

On Monday, we sat down for a couple of hours with the senator in his president pro tempore office — the position makes him third in line of presidential succession — and downloaded the best of his war stories from 48 years in the Senate. This is a must-listen for political junkies and history buffs.

Oh, and Leahy made some news about Joe Biden and 2024 when we asked him whether he wanted Biden, his longtime friend and Senate colleague — they complete each other’s sentences, he joked — to run for reelection.

“That’s going to be his decision,” Leahy told us. “If he does, I’ll support him.” Not the ringing endorsement we might have expected.

On Jan. 6
“[In the secure location with other senators,] somebody pointed out that we could meet in the room we’re in — the Senate could vote to meet anywhere we wanted. … But I stood up, [and] I said, ‘NO.’ I got really angry. I said, ‘I’m the dean of the Senate. I’m the longest-serving member. We can’t meet in private with what’s going on. If it takes till midnight, wait till the Senate chamber is secure and go back in there and let the American people see us, and make everybody stand up and vote and show we’re there.’ And I got really wound up. I got a standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats. They said, ‘You’re right.’ And we went back in there and continued. But [I remember] feeling glass crunching under my feet. … And I thought, ‘What is going on? … Why did the outgoing president urge them to do this?’ It went against everything I’ve ever believed in.”

On couriering messages back and forth between Obama and Raul Castro
“I met with Raul Castro a lot and in fact, brought messages back and forth between Raul Castro and the Obama Administration. … Unsigned, unaddressed, plain letters. But they knew who they were from. … President Obama was up for reelection. I was down there. … Castro said, ‘Can I talk to you privately?’ through a translator. And he said, ‘Is President Obama going to be reelected?’ He had seen some polls that looked iffy. I said … ‘’’ve seen all those polls. … He’s going to be reelected.’ He said, ‘Good. I want him to. … He’s an honest man. I like him and I can work with him.’ Then he kinda looked around, chuckled, and he said, ‘Of course, I’m not going to say that publicly before the election, because that would defeat him.’”

On his unlikely friendship with arch-conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.)
“We talked a lot about photography. We would show each other photographs. I have my photographs around here in this room, and he had great ones in his room. And in 1980, I had the second-closest election in America. And I was speaking at something in Vermont about a week later — somebody [in the audience] obviously disagreed with me, [and] said, ‘Leahy, didn’t the closeness of that election teach you nothing?’ So I figured there’s a lesson in there. So I called the man who had the closest election, and said I’m going to ask him what it is about our philosophy that people didn’t like. I said: ‘Senator Goldwater, what is it?’ … And he loved it.”

On what Jerry Garcia, Leahy’s guest in the Senate dining room one day, after the Grateful Dead guitarist had a strange encounter with Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.)
“I never had an experience like that when I used to drop acid.”