A New Era in the Senate: Pat Leahy Is Sworn In as President Pro-Tempore

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With the passing of World War II veteran Daniel Inouye, the new senior senator is a Deadhead and occasional Batman bit-part actor.

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Yuri Gripas/Reuters

This morning, Vice President Biden swore Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont in as the president pro-tempore of the Senate. That job goes to the longest-serving senator of the majority party, and it makes Leahy third in line for the presidency, after the vice president and speaker of the House. Senator Daniel Inouye's death Monday night at 88 vacated the post.

Leahy is no young man -- he is 72 years old, after all. That makes him only the 18th oldest senator in years, but he joined the body in 1975. Republicans Richard Lugar (who leaves the Senate at the end of this term) and Orrin Hatch joined two years later. But Leahy's ascendance signals a generational change in the Senate. Inouye, whose exploits I extolled yesterday, was a World War II hero and Medal of Honor recipient who lost an arm in Italy. Leahy was barely 18 months old when the war began. With Inouye's death and the retirement of Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii at the end of the year, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey will be the only World War II veteran remaining in the Senate. The incoming Congress will have the lowest number of veterans overall since that war.

72 might not seem young, but Inouye was 16 years older. How big is that generation gap? Well, keep in mind that Leahy is the kind of guy who makes cameos in blockbuster films. He appeared in 1997's Batman and Robin, 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, and 2008's The Dark Knight, shown here:

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Leahy is also famously a fan of the Grateful Dead (as is Majority Leader Harry Reid). Here, from the Congressional Record, is an excerpt of then-Senator Tom Daschle's speech marking Leahy's 10,000 Senate vote in 1999:

Besides his 10,000 rollcall votes, there is at least one other accomplishment for which Senator LEAHY will go down in the history books. We all know PATRICK LEAHY is one of the world's biggest "Dead Heads.'' He is one of the biggest fans of the legendary band, the Grateful Dead. Several years ago, he invited Jerry Garcia and several other members of the band to have lunch in the Senate dining room. People were already doing double and triple takes--and then Senator THURMOND walked in.

Ever the bridge builder, Senator LEAHY rushed over to Senator THURMOND and said, "Please join us. There is someone I want you to meet.''

If Patrick LEAHY can help bridge that divide between Jerry Garcia and STROM THURMOND, there is hope for all of us. There is no telling what else he can do in the Senate in the remaining time that he will be here. I hope it is for years and years and thousands of votes to come.

Truly we are witnessing a changing of the guard when the presidency pro-tem of the Senate shifts from a World War II veteran to a Deadhead.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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