April 29th, 2009


by Philip Baruth

It sounded unassuming enough: an email from Leahy’s office, wondering if I’d like to come and cover a press conference on something called the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act. The point is to hire additional FBI agents and prosecutors to pursue mortgage fraud and other white-collar crime. And after a great deal of GOP bluster, Leahy passed the bill this noon with a fairly comfortable margin: 92 to 4. So this would be a victory lap. Perfect.

And as with the credit card folks, my feelings toward bankers these days are not warm. So I headed over to the press conference at noon with an appetite for banker, only to get stopped at the Senate Appointments Desk (had appointment, did not have credentials).

Which was fine. A Leahy staffer swung by the desk and sprung me, and took me to a small but opulent little wooden elevator. When the doors closed, he lowered his voice.

“Specter is switching parties,” he said.

I was stunned. Even though the blogosphere had been populated with fairly convincing rumors over the last few weeks, Specter always struck me as the sort to tough it out with the GOP.

“When did you get that news?” I asked.

The staffer checked his Blackberry. “Seven minutes ago,” he said. Which is to say that the news was only breaking, at this moment, in the rest of the Senate and the Capitol beyond.

But reporters had the word by the time we hit the Senate Radio and Television Gallery. Believe that: the room wasn’t full, but it was pulsing, like somebody’d suddenly closed an electric circuit. Leahy’s press conference was on the agenda, but nobody was kidding anybody: Specter was Topic A.

And B.

Still, Leahy and his colleagues Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Edward “Ted” Kaufman (D-Del) did their level best to sell the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act. Leahy is at his best in this sort of prosecutorial setting. He managed to get off one of his simplest, strongest, best lines ever, speaking of those perpetrating mortgage and other sorts of high-buck fraud: “I want them to go to jail. I want them to sit in a little tiny cell for years and years and years and think of the lives they’ve ruined.”

But finally there was no denying the physics of the room, and when the Q/A began, the first question came from NBC, and it was all Specter all the time from that point forward.

Because Leahy and Specter have been so close over the years, the media seemed to sense that the Senator from Vermont had insight. And they wanted it.

And Leahy didn’t flinch.

He took the question head on, and let the GOP have it where it hurts: right in the old Jeffords. “I got the impression,” Leahy said, very much more in sorrow than in anger, “that [Specter] went through much the same that Jim Jeffords did from Vermont, and feeling that the Republican Party, a great party in this country, had left him, not the other way around.”

And when the press pressed him on whether he’d known in advance about the Specter switch, Leahy pointed out that in cases like these, the press is usually the last to know.

Which led to my own shining moment in the national spotlight. With great fanfare, I present an excerpt from the official transcript, entirely unedited:

LEAHY: “But we knew [about the Jeffords switch] in Vermont. We knew it long — apparently long before anybody down here. It was well talked about. I see Bill Baroonth (ph) here from Vermont. He knows everybody was talking about it before it happened. And it wasn’t a case — I mean, the Jeffords, the whole family, a long line of distinguished members of the Republican Party, but it was too much and he left.”

That’s right, baby: Bill Baroonth was in the house. How proud, how justifiably proud, my mother, Mrs. Baroonth, will be tonight.

The media wanted more, but Leahy’s people are tuned like a Swiss watch, and they had him out of there and over to the Capitol steps for a photo op before anyone could bat an eye. It was kids from Essex, and from some little hamlet in Virginia, and it made you remember what all this political sturm and drang was really about.

It gave you, cheesy as it may sound, Hope. Especially if you took the time to read the fine print on the t-shirts.

Back at Welch’s office, later in the day, they broke out the samples of Cabot Cheddar, and we talked over his afternoon trip to the White House. Obama had hosted the Progressive Caucus, for a free-wheeling discussion of health care and the Supplemental covering Iraq and Afghanistan.

Running on no sleep, my mouth full of sharp warm cheddar cheese, I couldn’t help but wonder: How in God’s name do they keep going at this pace every single day? Because everybody in the room was still kicking around the finer points of Single Payer versus Public Plan, and loving it.

Especially Welch. He offered me another piece of cheese and then ripped into another himself, and I mean with real gusto, like a man who finds himself precisely, to the half inch, where he ought to be.

[Many, many thanks to the Welch and Leahy folk who hosted me over the last two days. Much appreciated.]