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Father and Son, Fallen Senators

The senator

Senator Chris Dodd’s announcement that he would not seek reelection this year stirred up mixed feelings. He has been one of my U.S.  senators for most of my adult life, and I’ve respected most of his stances as well as his political skill. I was out of the state during the last few years, when bad judgment and perhaps the disease fatal to so many incumbents – creeping entitlementosis – derailed his career. By choosing not to run, I think he made the right decision for the Democratic Party, and maybe he can use his last year in Washington to salvage his reputation a bit, instead of fending off constant attacks, as he would have had to do on the campaign trail.

Dodd with LBJ - a happier time in the Senate

Some political pundits say that for many years now, Dodd has also tried to salvage another man’s reputation: his father‘s. Through the years, I knew that Thomas Dodd faced censure in the Senate, though I had never delved into the details. Afterward, in 1970, he lost the support of Democrats in Connecticut and unsuccessfully ran as an independent, losing to Lowell Weicker. (Weicker then made his national reputation during Watergate and showed rare political backbone as governor of Connecticut, calling for an income tax. And as any political junkies reading know, Weicker lost his Senate seat to Jowlin‘ Joe Lieberman.)

Chris Dodd's wee bit o' Eire

Dodd‘s loss may not have impacted his health, but it‘s hard not to think that his death in 1971, of a heart attack at 64, came sooner than it might have if his career had not taken such a turn. No, no passive voice there: if he had not erred, had not flouted ethics and diverted campaign funds to his own use. A man respected for many years of public service made a big mistake, just as his son seemed to do by accepting a sweetheart mortgage and paying less-than-market value for a vacation home in Ireland.

The elder Dodd had stepped into controversy earlier in his career as well. He failed the Connecticut bar exam and friends supposedly had the rules changed so he could still practice law in the state. (Details of this were not revealed, as far as I can tell, until the 1960s, in a column by Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson. Their digging also led to the charges that put Dodd in hot water in the Senate. Dodd later sued the newsmen, who had informants sneak into Dodd’s office to retrieve personal files. Dodd lost his case.) But for the most part, Dodd had served well, earning high marks for his work as assistant prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. If he had not entered politics, Dodd would have sealed a favorable reputation in the history books.

During the mid-1930s, Dodd had been a G-man, once taking part in a trap meant to capture John Dillinger. Starting in 1938, he worked in the U.S. attorney general’s office, prosecuting the KKK on civil-rights charges and overseeing cases involving such crimes as fraud and espionage. But the Nuremberg assignment was the topper. Leading the prosecution was Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson, who had briefly been Dodd’s boss in the Justice Department. He respected Dodd’s work in court and eventually made Dodd his right-hand man on the U.S. legal team.

Dodd was not universally loved, even then. Joseph Persico, in his book Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial, notes how one critic called the prosecutor a “phony grandstander” and another said he was a “glory hound” (charges some of his son’s critics might wield today?). But others, Persico writes, considered Dodd “a formidable prosecutor and a quick study” who could, with the right material, “make it sing” in court.

I came across Dodd’s Nuremberg accomplishments while writing a book on the trial (which, alas, was killed by the publisher before I finished it). Here’s how I described Dodd’s most memorable day in the German court, December 13, 1945:

Presenting the gruesome evidence

Thomas Dodd introduced more shocking evidence from the camps. One commander had killed prisoners who had colorful tattoos on their skin. The skin was then removed and made into lampshades for the commander’s wife. Dodd revealed some of the lampshades to the stunned court. Then he began to describe another object taken from a camp: “…a human head with the skull bone removed, shrunken, stuffed, and preserved.” The Nazis had decapitated the prisoner, Dodd explained, “and fashioned this terrible ornament from his head.” At times, the evidence brought gasps from the people in the courtroom. Other times, they fell silent as Dodd explained more Nazi horrors.

Grandstanding, or an effective prosecutor doing his best to viscerally convey the horrors of the Holocaust? I go with the latter, realizing that grandstanding is not necessarily a bad thing during a trial. And Persico presents a Dodd who voluntarily passed up the chance to question one of the most famous Nazi defendants, Albert Speer. Dodd granted Speer’s request to give Jackson the honor. Dodd had “no ego stake in the assignment,” Persico writes. Others at the court thought Speer wanted the higher-ranking Jackson to cross-examine him because of Dodd’s reputation as a “tough, skilled, dangerous prosecutor.”

Dodd had another strong day in court in April 1946, as he cross- examined Dr. Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi Party’s chief theorist on the superiority of the Aryan race and inferiority of the Jews. During the war he served as head of the Reich’s occupied eastern territories. Rosenberg, the New York Times reported, tried to portray himself as a “kindly benefactor” who called for good treatment of the Jews and Slavs under his control. Rosenberg said, “Where an excess took place – and some terrible excesses took place – I did my utmost to prevent it or alleviate it.” Dodd, the paper said, “destroyed” Rosenberg’s self-serving self portrait “and forced the German to admit responsibility for the Nazi regime in the plundered and devastated lands of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.”

For his work in Nuremberg, Dodd received several honors, including the Medal of Freedom. He entered politics in 1952, winning a seat in Congress. For the next four years, he was the only Democrat from Connecticut in the House, showing how much the political pendulum has swung in the state since then; today, all five representatives are Democrats, though I don’t think anyone will be surprised if that changes come November.

The loving father with his son

In 1956 Dodd ran for the Senate and lost to the Republican incumbent, Prescott Bush (that last name might ring a bell. And isn‘t it amazing that over the last sixty years, the small state of Connecticut has turned out so many senators who made a lasting impact on national politics – for good or ill…). Dodd lost that race, but finally won a Senate seat in 1958. He gained a reputation as a staunch anti-Communist, influenced by what he saw of Soviet tactics and attitudes during the Nuremberg trial. According to a 1966 Times report, Dodd also alienated his fellow senators, sometimes ignoring the institution‘s traditions and generally stepping on toes. The article appeared as a Senate committee was already investigating Dodd’s alleged improprieties, which soon drew national attention.

Dodd’s reputation probably did not help him the next year, when the censure vote came up. 92 out of out 97 senators voted for censure. The Senate heard that Dodd used some of his campaign fund to make home improvements (shades of Alaska’s Ted Stevens and Connecticut governor John Rowland, both brought down, in part, for a similar offense) and pay taxes. Dodd was just the seventh senator to be censured, a punishment that does not take away any senatorial prerogatives, just a person’s good name. Dodd maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal and said on the Senate floor, “I believe now, I shall continue to believe, that history will justify my conduct and my character.”

Yes, history –  or the people who write it and read it – do judge after the fact. I’m not sure if the good of Dodd’s career outweighs the bad. Thankfully, my verdict really doesn’t matter. I do believe, like others, that Chris Dodd hoped to vindicate his father. That was part of the reason why he published letters his father sent  home during the Nuremberg trial, trying to remind Americans of the elder Dodd’s important service. (The book was also timed to give Dodd some positive public press as he began his quixotic run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, as well as launch an attack on some Bush-era policies.) But even that opened a can of worms, as some people thought comments Thomas Dodd made in his letters about “too many Jews” at Nuremberg hinted at anti-Semitism. Chris Dodd rejected that notion, which is why he published the potentially incendiary words. (See more on this here.)

Removing the tarnish from his father’s reputation surely motivated Senator Chris Dodd to take the lead in establishing a research center at the University of Connecticut named for the elder senator. The Thomas J. Dodd Research Center houses a human-rights institute, a center for Judaic studies, and various special collections – including Dodd’s papers. And winning a Senate seat was also part of the redemption for the father by the son. Chris Dodd once told his brother, “Every time I walk on the Senate floor, I feel that he’s vindicated.”

That vindication will end in January 2011. Chris Dodd will have to find other ways to honor his father. And perhaps he will find some way to restore his own reputation, so history will justify his conduct and character, highlight the good he achieved in public office, rather than illuminate the missteps and perhaps arrogance that ended his tenure.

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