The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sen. Patrick Leahy was in 5 Batman movies. Now he’s written the foreword for the superhero’s 80th anniversary.

From the new book "Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman." (DC 2019)

As truly colorful characters go, few people have had as long a narrative arc with Batman as another near-octogenarian American with a crime-fighting past: Sen. Patrick J. Leahy.

The prosecutor turned senior lawmaker was born just one year after the Caped Crusader, in 1940, and by age 4 was checking out books at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library near his Montpelier, Vt., home. By third grade, he says, he had read all of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, yet it was the prose and pictures of Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger that especially captivated him.

The boy Patrick couldn’t have guessed, however, that more than six decades later, he would be featured on the big screen opposite one of Batman’s greatest foes.

Leahy was invited to relive his lifelong appreciation of the Caped Crusader by DC Comics, which is celebrating Batman’s milestone birthday this year with the hardcover collection “Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman (Deluxe Edition),” published Tuesday. The beautiful 418-page book includes stories from a who’s-who of writers and artists, including Jerry Robinson and Sheldon Moldoff, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, Paul Levitz and Brad Meltzer, Jim Lee and Scott Snyder, Neal Adams and Neil Gaiman.

So when DC asked the Vermont Democrat to pen the book’s foreword, Leahy tells The Washington Post, “I couldn’t resist the opportunity.”

Leahy’s “kindred bond” with Batman may have begun with the 10-cent comic books of his youth, but it continued through the ’80s Dark Knight comics by a former fellow Montpelier resident — the legendary Frank Miller — that helped inspire filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, which included cameos by Leahy himself.

Of his involvement in six Batman screen projects, including five films spanning 1995’s “Batman Forever” to 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (as “Senator Purrington”), Leahy especially relishes getting to appear opposite Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker, in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”

In that Nolan sequel, an agitated Joker glares at the party guest portrayed by Leahy and says, “You remind me of my father,” before putting a knife to the guest’s neck and growling, “I hated my father.”

In that moment, “I was scared,” Leahy recounts of Ledger’s convincing menace. “It wasn’t acting.”

(Leahy, who gets a line in that film — “We’re not intimated by thugs!” — broke into Hollywood with an assist from his actor son Mark, who racked up a handful of screen credits in the ‘90s.)

The Joker, because of his psychological complexity, remains Leahy’s favorite villain from Gotham’s gallery of rogues. “In some ways, he was a mirror image — a bad mirror — of Batman,” the senator says.

Growing up, Leahy says, all his friends were Superman fans — yet for him, DC’s “world’s greatest detective” always had a special appeal because of his vulnerability: “Here’s a guy who had to outthink people. He couldn’t just see through walls or jump over a building.”

That sense of human frailty became personal in 1996, when Leahy wrote the introduction to DC’s “Batman: Death of Innocents: The Horror of Landmines,” a humanitarian comic book designed to raise awareness about the peril of postwar explosives. The graphic novel was distributed and donated overseas.

"I also had put a copy on every senator’s desk on the day the Senate voted on my legislation to ban U.S. exports of anti-personnel landmines,” Leahy writes in his new foreword. “It passed unanimously.”

Leahy says Batman has remained central to pop culture because of his adaptability to various eras. “He has ranged between avenging angel and vigilante,” the politician says, “but he is [always] trying to do the right thing.”

The senator says, too, that Congress and the White House could learn a central tenet from the Batman books.

“Doing the right thing is more for others than yourself,” Leahy says, noting that Bruce Wayne could have just stayed a rich playboy and forgotten about fighting crime. “You have a comfortable life in [Washington] — what are you doing for others?”

As pop culture celebrates the Caped Crusader’s anniversary — including next month’s limited theatrical rerelease of Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy — Leahy considers the hero’s perennial resonance.

“Happy birthday, Batman,” he writes. “We still need you.”