A son’s career erases shadow
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
WASHINGTON — Retiring Sen. Chris Dodd says it would be a shame if the most people remember from his time in Washington is that he restored the family name after his father’s censure by the Senate.
“You don’t spend 40 years of your life to exonerate something that I never felt needed exoneration,” the Connecticut Democrat said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Retirement has elicited reflection from Dodd, 66, whose crowded resume includes the recent Wall Street and health care overhauls. His rise to become one of Washington’s most prominent and powerful players during a 36-year congressional career has helped erase the grim shadow cast by his father, who suffered a humiliating and very public fall from grace in an ethics scandal for using campaign money to pay personal bills.
It’s not something the usually chatty Dodd likes talking about.
Thomas J. Dodd was censured by his Senate colleagues after nine days of debate in 1967. The vote was 92-5. It was a shattering blow for a man whose distinguished public career included prosecuting Ku Klux Klan members, chasing Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger and serving as a lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II.
Dodd said he’s never dwelled on his father’s downfall or made vindicating his father’s censure a focus of his political career. Still, friends and supporters over the years have seen a redemptive quality to the success Dodd enjoyed in the same job that left his father a broken man.
“He was a guy who did a lot,” Dodd said. “And I know the lead paragraph of his obit was about a censure. That’s the way life goes.”
Thomas J. Dodd’s actions didn’t violate any specific law or Senate rule then in force, but the elder Dodd’s conduct was found to be “contrary to accepted morals ... and tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute.”
The censure was based on evidence the elder Dodd took $116,083 from testimonial dinners for his personal use. He argued that the funds were not intended for his campaign, but were personal gifts that he should have been allowed to use any way he wanted.
The younger Dodd, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic during the censure, years ago branded the Senate’s action as “cruel” and “one of the great travesties.”
After Democratic Party leaders spurned him, Dodd’s father ran for a third term as an independent in 1970 with Chris Dodd as campaign manager. He lost to Republican Lowell Weicker and died six months later from a heart attack.
Three years after his father’s death, Dodd plunged into politics and won a House seat.
“As I said the first time I ran for public office, ‘I love my father. I am my father’s son. I am not my father.”’ Dodd said. “I bet I said that a thousand times in 1974.”
Dodd knew there would always be some voters who would hold his father’s censure against him.
“A lot of people thought I couldn’t win office because of it,” he said.
Six years later, he was elected to the Senate. Dodd hung a huge oil portrait of his father in his office and worked at his father’s old Senate desk.
With his breezy style and zest for politicking, Dodd was soon a rising star on Latin American and children’s issues. He went on to become head of the Democratic National Committee and Connecticut’s longest serving senator.
More recently he’s been a leader in some of Capitol Hill’s biggest battles, including a sweeping package of Wall Street regulations and the landmark health care overhaul.
During the 1980s then-Sens. Russell Long, DLa., and Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, offered to introduce Senate resolutions to exonerate his father, Dodd recalled.
But Dodd rejected the offers, he said, because to his mind, his father had done nothing wrong.
Over the years, though, Dodd has taken other steps to burnish his father’s reputation.
During his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid, Dodd published a book, “Letters from Nuremberg,” a compilation of letters his father wrote home to his wife from the Nazi war criminal trials.
Dodd announced in January that he would not seek a sixth term. His political stock slipped in recent years with a controversy involving mortgages he received under a VIP program, charges that he was too cozy with Wall Street interests and his failed presidential campaign, which did not play well in his home state.
After his final Senate floor speech a few days ago, Dodd basked in hugs, some tears and warm praise from fellow Democrats as well as his GOP foes. It was a rare emotional outpouring for members of the bitterly divided Senate.
Asked if he was thinking of his father during the speech, Dodd paused for a moment.
“Most children, in any calling in life, always ask themselves, ‘I wonder what my parents would think,”’ said Dodd, smiling broadly.