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Retiring Sen. Leahy reflects on ‘fragile’ democracy as he reads Washington’s farewell

Senate’s longest-serving member draws new lessons from 1796-era words

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.,  leaves the Senate floor after delivering George Washington’s farewell address on Monday.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., leaves the Senate floor after delivering George Washington’s farewell address on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After winning his first election in 1974, newly sworn-in Sen. Patrick J. Leahy was told he’d be reading George Washington’s Farewell Address on the Senate floor — back then it typically went to the most junior member of the chamber, Leahy said. But he was sidelined because of an illness and couldn’t deliver it. 

The Vermont Democrat was asked once again to give the speech this year, nearly a half-century later, and all he could think was how the responsibility has evolved. Instead of the new guy, he’s now the Senate dean and president pro tempore, with a sense of history and experience that a 34-year-old Leahy couldn’t have imagined.  

“It would have been exciting when I was first there, but it’s meaningful now,” he said Friday. “And of the two, I’ll take meaningful.”

Facing the reality that his own time in office is waning — he retires at the end of the current Congress — Leahy repeated the words penned by Washington, who said goodbye to a life of public service in 1796. 

For most of his Senate tenure, if Leahy didn’t catch the annual tradition on the floor, he went back and reviewed the address on his own. It’s an important reminder of what government’s role should be, he said. America fought a war to rid itself of an imperial ruler. Washington could have clung to power, but he stepped aside to give others a chance, and people holding public office should never forget that. 

“Washington knew he was setting precedent,” Leahy said. 

Washington’s goodbye to the nation was written a few weeks before electors cast ballots in the third presidential election. The campaign was a hostile one in the fledgling nation, which held its first truly contested race. The outgoing president urged Americans to put aside political factions to achieve common national interests, calling on leaders to respect the separation of powers and avoid debt during times of peace and prosperity. 

Washington also warned that forces of geographical sectionalism and foreign interference in domestic affairs could destabilize the republic. 

Those themes are once again front and center as Congress navigates deep divisions as war is fought in Europe, people are still dying from a deadly virus and last year’s mob attack on the Capitol continues to leave a large wake. 

Looking back at his career, Leahy said the giants of the Senate from the ’70s and ’80s had “a sense of history” despite different philosophies. 

“I remember Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative, and Hubert Humphrey, Mr. Liberal, sitting there and just having serious and very, very friendly talks,” he said.

Though they were from opposite ends of the political spectrum, they listened to each other’s viewpoints, which is not always a given today, Leahy said.

“Democracy is a lot more fragile than we assume,” he said. “Those who are public servants can show some self-restraint — that’s the virtue that makes our system work.”

Writing in the book 

After reading the speech, each senator is given the chance to write in a leather-bound book maintained by the secretary of the Senate. Early entries were mostly dated signatures of the orator and instructions explaining the practice, according to Senate records.

In more recent years, the writings have become more personal and sometimes verbose.

On Friday, Leahy said he had been going over in his head a dozen different things to say and hadn’t settled on one yet, but “it will probably be along the lines of ‘remember, Washington put the country ahead of himself.’” 

He completed the speech in about 48 minutes. Florida’s Paula Hawkins was the fastest in 1985 at 39 minutes, while West Virginia’s Jennings Randolph 68-minute reading in 1962 took the longest, according to Senate records.

Last year, retiring Sen. Rob Portman said he had planned remarks ahead of time but opted to write something different when pen hit paper. He jotted down his thoughts on the optimism in Washington’s words, and hope that America’s founding on the bedrock of documents like the Constitution would endure for many generations.

“What I wrote about was … you know, hope and strength, thanks to founders like him,” the Ohio Republican said last year.

While some members have delivered the address in the year in which they retired, including in the past two years, having a retiring member deliver it is not part of the tradition, according to the Senate Historical Office.

Washington never publicly delivered the address himself. The letter was first published on Sept. 19, 1796, in the Philadelphia American Daily Advertiser before it was shared widely in papers across the U.S. But the reading of the address is one of the Senate’s more enduring traditions. 

The first reading was held on Feb. 22, 1862, as a way to buoy morale in some of the grimmest moments during the Civil War. The request was first made by a group of Philadelphia citizens who petitioned lawmakers to commemorate the 130th anniversary of Washington’s birth with a reading at a joint meeting of Congress. 

The reading became a tradition several years later. The Senate started its readings in 1888, and the House soon followed suit. While the House ended the annual practice decades ago, it has continued in the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” 

Leahy is the 129th senator to read the speech, though it has been read 130 times. Virginia Republican John Warner read it twice, in 1979 and 1989.

The Senate could end its standing order through unanimous consent or by changing the Senate rules, but Leahy said he hopes it doesn’t change. Traditions like reading Washington’s speech keep lawmakers grounded, he said.

“Of course we evolve with the time, but don’t forget the past — don’t forget history,” he said. “Don’t forget the parts of history that give us our principles.”

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