Heard on the Hill

From Ford to Trump, Patrick Leahy Has Seen It All at the State of the Union

Vermont Democrat thinks Obama and Reagan gave best speeches; doesn’t have high hopes for Trump

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., greets President Barack Obama after his 2013 State of the Union address. (Charles Dharapak, Pool via AP file photo)

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy has sat through a lot of State of the Unions.

The Vermont Democrat has seen seven presidents deliver the speech — and Tuesday will make it eight.

Presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan gave his favorite ones so far, he said, since “they tended to bring people in” with their oratory.

As for President Donald Trump? Leahy doesn’t have high hopes, judging by his inaugural address.

Watch: A Die-Hard Senate Tradition: Pen and Paper to Record Votes

“It was all about himself, bragging. Sort of, ‘You Americans should be so happy to have me,’” he said. “I’ve never had an inauguration speech when I heard so many negative comments from people I represent.”

He added, “After the racist-inspired shootings in Virginia, the terrible drug epidemic … people die every single day. There are things that can tear us apart as a country. The president, I would hope, will not brag about himself, but talk about how we’re all in this together.”

While Leahy, 77, has missed a couple of State of the Unions for personal reasons, he was also absent in 2014, when he retreated to a secure location as a designated survivor for the evening.

UNITED STATES - January 25, 2011 : Patrick Leahy, D-VT., (center) his wife Marcelle and Pat Roberts, R-KS., walk through Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol on their way to the House Chamber to hear President Barack Obama deliver his first State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress on January 25, 2011. (Photo By Douglas Graham / CQ/Roll Call)
Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., center; his wife, Marcelle; and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., walk through Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol on their way to the House Chamber to hear President Barack Obama deliver his first State of the Union address. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“The difference between watching it there and not being on the floor was I could loosen my tie and put my feet up,” he joked.

The hiatus gave him time to reflect. “When you get there … all the security around, it kind of hits you,” Leahy said. “I did some soul-searching.”

If he ever had to be a designated survivor again, he would ask that Marcelle, his wife of 56 years, be in the secure location with him.

“There’s nothing in this career that we haven’t done together,” Leahy said.

The senator is an avid photographer, and he often pulls out his camera at important events.

At Reagan’s second inauguration, which was moved inside because of the weather, 6-foot-3 Leahy stood on his tiptoes to get a photo.

“He gets a blow-up and presents it to me,” Leahy said. “He writes on a pad, ‘Can’t believe my favorite picture was taken by a Democrat. Thanks, Ron.’”

Leahy has snapped pictures of each State of the Union since Gerald Ford.

Even so, some of his best memories are ones he didn’t capture on film:

Union27/012902 -- President George W. Bush greets Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., before the State of the Union address.
President George W. Bush greets Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., before the State of the Union address in 2002. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Gerald Ford: “I was pretty excited as a 34-year-old senator to be at President Ford’s, looking around like, ‘Hmm, this is a little bit different than being the prosecuting attorney back in Vermont.’”

Jimmy Carter: “Driving out to [George Washington] Parkway … I kept seeing all these, looked like huge, huge mounds of snow on the parkway. I realized there’d been a terrific traffic jam; cars ran out of gas and they just left them there. It reminded us that they handled snow in this area differently. Never have a car without a full tank of gas.”

Ronald Reagan: “We found that the script of his speech was given to some of the key Republicans [beforehand].”

“[Reagan was supposed to say in his speech], ‘We have to get our budget under control’ and then add to it a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. The standing ovation was supposed to come for the constitutional amendment ... [but] he goes, ‘We have to get the budget under control,’ and they all immediately stood up and started cheering.”

“[The Republican who told Leahy about the script] goes, ‘Wait a minute, we’re supposed to wait until the punch line.’”

George W. Bush: “I remember George W. Bush, who spoke about bringing the country together. Here’s a man who knew that he lost the popular vote but ended up with the Electoral College vote. He had lost that and he spoke in a very inclusive way of bringing Republicans and Democrats together.”

“It reflected what a president should do.”

Barack Obama: “Having spent nearly a decade of going back and forth to Cuba and trying to work on normalization — the number of times I’d visited Alan Gross in prison … and I’d gone down to Cuba to pick him up from prison in the president’s plane — I have to admit [when Obama pointed him out in the gallery at the State of the Union], the emotions of all that came together. I was just there a month earlier, Dec. 17, when I’d taken the president’s plane and Jeff Flake and Chris Van Hollen, we picked him up. I’ll admit, there were tears coming down my face.”

“There were tears of joy, and I wasn’t embarrassed by that at all. And it was a wonderful speech.”

Watch: What You Won’t See On Camera at the State of the Union

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.