Hartford Courant - Child Of The Senate, Now One Of The Old Guard, U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd Prepares For Departure
Seated before a bank of cameras in the clubby, wood-paneled confines of a Senate hearing room one morning last week, Christopher J. Dodd looked completely at home.
The silver-haired senator was poised to take the gavel for the final time as chairman of the powerful Banking Committee, and he savored the moment.
In his opening remarks, Dodd recalled a conversation he had with the man who preceded him at the helm, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., during a particularly raucous hearing in 2006. The people in the room that day were so inflamed that the police had to be summoned. Sarbanes put his right arm around Dodd and, gesturing toward the chaotic scene, said "just think, in six months, all this is yours."
In truth, Dodd has loved it, and you get the sense he's trying to wring every drop of relevancy from these waning days, before lawmakers adjourn for the year and his three decades in the Senate are over.
Last week was filled with accolades from fellow senators, visits from former staffers and friends, and a series of legacy-burnishing interviews with reporters from Connecticut. It all culminated on Tuesday, when Dodd delivered an emotional speech about the future of the U.S. Senate.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Dodd is 66, hardly old by Senate standards. But following a steep decline in his standing among Connecticut voters -- brought on by a long-shot run for the presidency, an ethics investigation (which ultimately cleared him of any transgression), and the perception that he was an insider who grew too cozy with the financial industry -- he decided it was time to leave the institution he loves.
He insists he has no regrets. "He's not a brooder,'' said his close friend and former aide, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro. "Should he have addressed some issues sooner? Maybe, but he believes you can't go back."
Instead of pondering what might have been, Dodd is focusing on his achievements. The archetypal creature of the Senate, a rosy-cheeked Democrat with a strong handshake, a dry Irish wit and a hearty laugh, leaves a record that his supporters praise, and even some of his adversaries admire.
"Was he a politician? Sure he was,'' said Christopher Healy, chairman of the Republican Party in Connecticut. "But he believed in things." While Healy called some of Dodd's foreign policy positions "disastrous,'' he conceded that Dodd did good work on children's issues. "He's got a legacy.''
Dodd's amiable personality and backslapping style -- "He'll never have to work hard to get a dinner party together,'' observed Healy -- is perfectly suited to the Senate, with its dramas, egos and arcane rules. It's a place that rewards those who master the arts of compromise, consensus and camaraderie, three of Dodd's specialties.
Art Of The Deal
"Dodd was made for the Senate,'' said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. "He's a wonderful conversationalist and a magnetic guy, but the Senate's filled with magnetic guys who don't know how to build relationships. Dodd has a natural ability to build coalitions.''
That ability came into sharp focus in the fall of 2008, when the nation's financial system was on the verge of collapse and key lawmakers were huddled in emergency meetings with senior administration officials.
One member of the group, Sen. Robert Bennett, a conservative Republican from Utah, remembers Dodd telling everyone to essentially check their partisan allegiances at the door as they worked through the details of what would become the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
"That was as good an example as any I've seen of working together and to solve a national problem, and a lot of it was due to Chris and his amiableness and his willingness to include Republicans,'' Bennett said.
The genial dealmaker isn't admired by everyone. Some progressives have long grumbled that Dodd's liberal bona fides were weakened by his willingness to compromise with Republicans, as well as his traditional reliance on campaign contributions from powerful business interests.
"The gridlocked nature of the Senate did not bring out the best in him,'' said Ralph Nader, who has known Dodd for years. "It was more important for him to get along with Republicans than to be a transforming leader.''
Nader, as much of an outsider as Dodd is an insider, conceded that the senator could be a forceful public speaker and strong advocate for the powerless. But, Nader said, several of Dodd's landmark bills, such as the financial regulatory overhaul that passed earlier this year, were considerably weakened by his concessions to Republicans.
"He adjusted to the rules of the Senate and the clubby atmosphere, and he adjusted to the campaign pipeline from Wall Street,'' Nader said. "He never filled his potential for advancing justice for regular people."
Dodd's supporters, of course, see it differently. They say the bonds he's forged with his colleagues are part of the reason why he was able to amass a remarkable record of legislative achievement.
"He understands you need to reach across the aisle to get things done,'' DeLauro said. She compared his relentless drive to pass a bill he believes in to that of a "dog with a bone.''
Dodd said that's how he was able to shepherd through his signature legislation, the Family and Medical Leave Act, 20 years ago.
"To me, the essence of this place is the personal relationships,'' Dodd said in an interview in his office last Tuesday, a few hours before he delivered his farewell speech. "When that gets stripped out of the place, it gets very difficult to function. Trust and the unanimous consent environment depend on people knowing each other and relying [on each other's] word.''
He brings up a colleague who was seeking support for some bill or another. The unnamed senator's aide told him he would have to pitch his proposal to the other 99 members of the chamber, one by one. "I don't know anybody," the senator responded.
Dodd shakes his head. "When I did family and medical leave, I literally went ... office to office with charts and everything else,'' he recalled. "You need to do that.''
Dodd's education in the ways of the Senate began early. At age 14, he watched from the gallery as his father, Thomas Dodd, was sworn in. The senior Dodd was a conservative Democrat and a fierce anti-communist. In 1967 he was censured by the Senate for misappropriating campaign funds and did not win re-election. He died in 1971.
In the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, four floors below the spacious suite of offices occupied by the current Sen. Dodd, is the Senate library. And in the library is a slim volume of bound tributes to Thomas Dodd, offered by his colleagues and other dignitaries shortly after his death.
"Senator Dodd not only looked every inch a Senator, he exerted every effort to perform the duties of a Senator on behalf of his constituents and our Nation,'' wrote Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii whose long tenure began in 1960 and continues to this day.
The younger Dodd served as a page one summer when his father was a senator and Lyndon Johnson was president. While members debated important civil rights legislation, often running late into the night, it was Dodd's job to serve them water.
In those days, Southern senators brought their own water and "God forbid if you brought North Carolina water to a West Virginia senator,'' Dodd recalled. "They knew the difference.''
Eighteen years later, when Dodd was sworn in as a senator, many of the men who had sent him to fetch their water were still serving in the chamber.
In his father's day, there was a greater collegiality among senators, Dodd said. "Many a night, some colleague of my father's would stop by the house on the way home and have a drink with my parents,'' he said. Their wives played bridge and took Spanish lessons together; their children went to school together.
Edmund Muskie of Maine would routinely travel north by train with the senior Dodd. Muskie would spend Friday nights at the Dodd home in West Hartford before continuing on to Maine the following morning.
"Those relationships may sound trite and naive and quaint, but it was in moments like that that people discovered that, despite whatever differences there were, there were common interests in something,'' Dodd said. "It was what Teddy Kennedy would do. ... He'd have dinners and he'd sit around that table and ask everybody what they were interested in ... and he'd find some way to work with someone.''
The Old Ways
Dodd's speech on Tuesday was, in many ways, a lamentation for the old Senate. He pines for a time before the rise of a round-the-clock news cycle that feeds on partisan sniping, before the cost of running for office got so out of hand that some senators elected last month have already scheduled fundraisers to help retire their campaign debt or begin filling their coffers for the 2016 cycle.
A student of the institution, Dodd stood at his desk on the floor of the Senate -- the same desk used by his father during his 12 years in the chamber -- and spoke of the important role the Senate plays in American democracy. He urged a respect for its idiosyncrasies and made a plea for congeniality. It was a passionate speech, drawing praise from no less a partisan opponent than Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Dodd, who came within an eyelash of a leadership position within the Democratic caucus himself, is one of the last of the Old Guard, a group that includes political figures as diverse as Ted Kennedy and Oren Hatch.
Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, wondered whether the working relationships forged by Dodd, Kennedy and Hatch could exist today. "The partisan polarization has made this a very different place,'' he said. "A great many people will appreciate Dodd when he's gone, when they see the vacuum that's left."
Dodd holds out hope. "I don't know of a single colleague that I have served with in 30 years that I couldn't work with,'' he said, sitting in his office, with its oil paintings and magnificent fireplace.
"No, that does not mean I wanted to have lunch with them, or spend the weekend with them, or go to dinner with them. I didn't get elected to a social club. I got elected to produce results for my state and the country, so I made it my business to have a good relationship with everyone.''
He paused. "If you're not prepared to do that, it's going to be lonely.''