In the political surprise of the summer, Chris Dodd—cleared in the Countrywide scandal and fresh from cancer surgery—is on the verge of saving his career. An exclusive interview with Lloyd Grove.
Ailing Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, who underwent successful prostate surgery Tuesday at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, appears to be on the mend politically as well. In what might be the political surprise of the summer, Dodd is on the verge of saving his career.
“I think so—we’re getting them back,” the 65-year-old Dodd told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview the night before he went under the knife, when asked if he feels like he’s making headway with voters still angry about his various missteps of the past 18 months. “It was getting back even before last Friday. I got a sense that the hemorrhaging had stopped.”
Chris Dodd said he that even before he was cleared in the Countrywide imbroglio, he was mounting a political comeback. “I got a sense that the hemorrhaging had stopped.”
On Friday, the Senate Ethics Committee cleared Dodd of wrongdoing in the Countrywide Financial imbroglio with a wrist-slap, saying he should have been more careful about appearances once he realized he was getting VIP treatment for a couple of 2003 personal mortgages as a "friend of Angelo" Mozilo, Countrywide’s beleaguered CEO. “We got some good news on Friday, so we got a monkey off our back.”
Political scientist Douglas Schwartz, director of the respected Quinnipiac Poll at the Connecticut-based university, says Dodd has indeed been making progress. “He’s bottomed out and coming back up,” says Schwartz, whose most recent poll on July 23—two weeks before the favorable ethics committee ruling—shows Dodd still suffering from an upside-down job approval rating (42 percent positive and 52 percent negative), but significantly better off than he was in April (33/58) and May (38/53). “He’s got two in a row [showing improvement] under his belt,” Schwartz says. “He’s inching his way back up. He’s certainly got a shot.”
The five-term Democrat—a once-beloved figure in the Nutmeg State, accustomed to being reelected by wide margins with token opposition—has been singled out as a prime target by the national GOP. He’s one of the only pieces of low-hanging fruit for a desperate party hungry for victories next year after two disastrous election cycles, and taking down the powerful chairman of the Senate Banking Committee would be cause for celebration.
Dodd is trailing his likely Republican opponent, former congressman Rob Simmons, by nine points in the latest Quinnipiac Poll. It’s to Dodd’s advantage that Simmons—who narrowly lost his House seat in the 2006 Democratic tsunami—must first emerge from a hard-fought Republican primary race against two, and possibly three, well-financed opponents. University of Connecticut political-science professor Howard Reiter is sanguine about the senator’s chances, given his reputation as a skilled and aggressive campaigner who has, Reiter says, “a great personality.”
“If I had to put money on it, I would guess that Dodd would win,” Reiter says, cautioning that he’d bet “not a lot of money.”
HBO President Richard Plepler, a longtime friend and supporter, predicted Dodd will win back Connecticut's hearts and minds. "The quality of the person ultimately will win the day," Plepler told me, "and as people in the state spend more time with him during the coming year, they will return to the feelings that brought him five terms in the U.S. Senate and realize that he's a unique and essential voice in the political sphere and one they don't want to lose serving on their behalf."
In fact, before this latest round of good news, Dodd has had a terrible year on both the political and personal fronts. A series of damaging scandals, many of them traceable to his prominence in the financial-services industry as chairman of tthe banking committee, was capped by last year’s brain-cancer diagnosis of his best friend, Ted Kennedy, his own prostate-cancer diagnosis in June, and most searing of all, his sister Martha’s death of lung cancer last month.
In the meantime, Dodd has been taking body blows in his home-state press for, among other surprising lapses, his initially inept stonewalling of the Countrywide flap; his much-revisited role in obtaining a 2001 presidential pardon for a felonious Bear Stearns exec whose business partner had bought a beachfront cottage in Ireland with Dodd and later sold back his share for (Dodd's detractors allege) an under-market price; and last year’s quixotic presidential campaign for which he moved his family to Iowa. More recently, after Dodd first seemed to deny, then admitted, his role in revising federal bailout legislation to protect the notorious AIG bonuses—an episode which sparked near-homicidal populist rage—the New Haven Register editorialized that the distinguished senior senator was “a lying weasel.”
In the last week, however, the media zeitgeist has shifted. Dodd has raised his standing among the political press. He has also gotten a few helpful television bookings—especially from MSNBC’s Ed Show hosted by staunch liberal Ed Schultz—for his indefatigable pursuit of a health-care overhaul (as the stand-in for his absent friend Kennedy) and legislation to stop credit-card company gouging, among other issues. It’s probably not a bad thing that Dodd will be resting quietly at home, recuperating from surgery, for the next few weeks, while his colleagues are taking abuse from enraged citizens at town-hall meetings—although Dodd insisted, “I hope in a couple of weeks to do a town-hall meeting.”
“There’s still a lot of work to do. I don’t want to exaggerate,” Dodd told me. “Things are beginning to turn, but we have to work hard over the next few months to rebuild our confidence. Friday helps me tremendously to put to rest that issue. And now we have to work to rebuild across the state and win an election in November of 2010.”
It's going to be the nastiest race of his long career—and perhaps the most watched of 2010—even though Dodd, a fun-loving guy with a self-deprecating sense of humor, is personally well-liked across the aisle (and married to a former Republican banking committee staffer, Jackie Clegg, with whom he has two young children). The National Republican Senatorial Committee—which issued a tepid reaction to Friday’s ethics committee verdict: “One issue down, but many more still unanswered"—doesn’t want to appear to be piling on.
At least not yet.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.