by Tom McKone
MONTPELIER — The U.S. Capitol Police arrived about 45 minutes in advance. It was Monday, Dec. 29. Carol, a circulation staff member, came around the corner and leaned into my office: “Tom, the security people are here.” I went out and met two friendly, athletic men who were waiting for me. A few minutes later I was talking with one of them about his library back home in Virginia, but they weren’t in the Kellogg-Hubbard Library to look at books. For one thing, they were the first people I had seen in the library wearing microphones and police radios with earbuds. Plus, they had that clean-cut, well-dressed, “presidential police” look we have seen in the news and movies. They exuded professionalism. As we toured the building and I answered their questions, one of them appeared to be putting my answers in his phone. The stairs? The elevator? Other exits? If he needs to make a phone call, can he use your office? Sure, I said, hoping he would get an urgent call from the White House and need to go into my office to take it. What a story that would be.
It was Sen. Patrick Leahy’s last week as Senate President Pro Tem, the third person in line for the presidency; the U.S. Capitol Police escort that had been part of his life for two years would soon end.
A Montpelier native and a longtime friend of his beloved childhood library, the senator was coming by for a visit and to see Calais resident Craig Line’s photography exhibit. Craig has been friends the senator for decades, and they share a love of photography — Craig as a professional, and the senator as a serious amateur. The next day the senator was going to Brattleboro for a reception at his own photo exhibit. Craig had invited Leahy to see his exhibit, and the Senator had been promising to visit the library, so it was arranged.
When Leahy arrived, we became a more substantial group: his wife, his sister, his son-in-law, two grandchildren, an aide from his Montpelier office, Craig and his daughter — and more D.C. police. As we walked through the building, Leahy made a point of greeting library employees, and several people who were using the library came up to thank him for his work. By coincidence, one frequent patron who had strongly criticized Leahy in some newspaper editorials was here. The two had a brief, civil, politically charged conversation, calling each other Mr. Leahy and Mr. ___. I only heard part of the conversation, but it ended on a good note.
Once we reached Craig’s photos, the conversation turned to photography. A professional photographer for decades, Craig has photos from around the world. The senator is similarly well traveled. He told about a particular Tibetan photo he keeps on the wall opposite his desk and that Bono really liked. Yes, Bono, the U2 lead singer and globe-trotting activist for human rights. The photo is of a man and child in Lhasa, and the man is secretively showing the senator a picture of the Dalai Lama—an act of support for which the man would have been arrested, if he were discovered. Admiring the courage of the man, Senator Leahy refers to the print as his “conscience photo.” One time when Bono was in the office, the Senator took the photo down and gave it to him, later printing and framing a new one for himself. When the Dalai Lama was in the Senator’s office, he liked the photo, as well.
Admiring one of Craig’s photos from Peru, Leahy commented that he had never been there. “You’ve been to Cuba, though,” I said. He beamed, and he and his wife then told several stories related to his recent secret-until-it-was-over trip to Cuba to exchange imprisoned American Alan Gross for three Cuban prisoners held by the United States. “The President called me and told me he wanted me to go,” he said. He and his wife had some notice; however, his security detail had two hours’ notice, and his staff didn’t learn about it until he was coming back into U.S. air space on the return trip. In response to someone’s question, Mrs. Leahy said that she hadn’t been invited to go. “Yes, but the president of Cuba said his wife wants you to go down there to go scuba diving,” the Senator said. He talked about other secret trips and meetings over the past two years, some of which took place in Canada.
Walking through the children’s library, Leahy recounted stories of how he used to visit the library after school as a child and how it helped him to become an avid reader.
He enjoyed showing his grandchildren the plaque we have in the children’s library recognizing “Senator Patrick Leahy, Our Super Hero,” for “not being intimidated by thugs” and supporting the KHL through the royalties he donates from the parts he has had in Batman and Dark Knight movies. Turning to me, he said, “Let’s hope they don’t cut one scene from the next Batman movie. It will be very good for the library if they don’t.” That’s one reason we have a lot of Batman fans around here.
More than an hour later, Senator and Mrs. Leahy headed towards the front door. Their grandchildren, who had spent some time reading books in the children’s library, were over at Bear Pond Books buying some books to take home to Virginia. Their father and the Leahy’s son-in-law — a White House photographer — had gone over with them. After Bear Pond, it would be lunch at Coffee Corner. Coffee Corner doesn’t usually take reservations, but the security crew had had no problem getting them to hold the large front window table for the Senator and his party. Of course, he could have gotten the table even without the U.S. Capitol Police asking for him.
One of the last things Senator and Mrs. Leahy did before leaving the library was to sign the petition to have library funding on the Town Meeting Warning in their hometown, Middlesex. I wish I could have been there when the next Middlesex resident who signed the petition at the adult circulation desk and saw the two previous names: Patrick Leahy, Marcelle Leahy. It is an honor to be in such distinguished company, even when it is just on paper.
Note: Tom McKone is the director of the Kellogg Hubbard Library