There is something painfully worthy about Sen. Chris Dodd, who currently finds himself at the center of a firestorm that could consume his career like the scandal that consumed his father’s.
As the presidential contest approached in late 2007, the Connecticut Democrat spent what little cash he had on a TV commercial staged in an old-fashioned barber shop. The barbers were chatting about why Dodd had white hair. Was it his service in the Peace Corps, his peace efforts in Central America and Northern Ireland, or even his work on the Family and Medical Leave Act?
Golly gosh. It might have been all three. “If he got nominated, we’d have a Democrat who could win,” said one barber. “Plus, I figure he’d make the best president of them all.”
Dodd sees his father, delivering justice to Nazi war criminals, as an inspiration. According to his older brother, Dodd even felt that his time in the Senate was some form of vindication for his father.
Those were the good ol’ days when expensive haircuts were the biggest threat to a Democratic senator. This week, Dodd was in a bigger mess. He became the first senior Democrat to point fingers at the Obama administration with two apparently contradictory interviews on CNN. The dispute centered on who was to blame for language in the sprawling stimulus legislation that protects existing bonuses. Dodd initially said he had no idea who had changed the language; the next day, he admitted that he had changed the law, but only under pressure from Obama officials.
Such tough spots may be all too familiar to Dodd himself. Four decades ago, his father Thomas Dodd—who was also the Democratic senator for Connecticut—was censured for diverting campaign cash to his personal use. He delivered a tear-filled apology on the Senate floor, lost the support of his party and ran—Joe Lieberman-style—as an independent. He lost his seat in 1970 and died the following year.
Dodd’s father still looms large in his son’s life: The senator wrote a biography of him in time for his own presidential campaign, recounting his father’s career as a lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. Dodd sees his father, delivering justice to Nazi war criminals, as an inspiration. According to his older brother, Dodd even felt that his time in the Senate was some form of vindication for his father.
Meanwhile, Dodd’s painful explanations prompted a mix of frustration and chuckles at the White House.
On one hand, Obama’s aides dislike the finger-pointing. Some administration officials explain that Dodd’s initial attempt to limit executive pay was far too broad, and would have punished banks big and small, including community banks—who all could have sued the federal government for far more than the sum of their pay packages.
On the other hand, they see a senator who was trying too hard to demonstrate his tough-guy credentials. Dodd wanted to crack down on the big Wall Street bucks, but ended up weakening his own efforts—and getting blamed for the weakening. He looks like the mirror image of those Republicans now bemoaning AIG bonuses, who earlier defended executive pay in the name of liberty and the free market.
Inside the West Wing there is more than a little concern for Dodd’s political plight. A recent Quinnipiac poll places him in a tie with Rob Simmons, a former Republican congressman, who beats the senator handily among independents. Dodd is in the impossible position of trying to appeal to voters in the southern part of the state who worked for the banks, and those in the north who hate those same banks.
And he remains is an easy target for Republicans, especially at Fox News, which persists in wrongly suggesting that the senator wrote a pro-AIG provision into the stimulus bill. Then again, Dodd did not help his own image by taking two sweetheart mortgages from Countrywide in 2003—deals he said he would renegotiate last year.
Now he needs his own vindication against political enemies who suggest he sits in the pocket of financial rogues like AIG and Countrywide. That will require a sharper edge than his convoluted interviews on cable TV. Otherwise, this generation’s Sen. Dodd will be getting far more than a haircut in next year’s elections.
Richard Wolffe is an award-winning journalist and political analyst for MSNBC television. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine, traveling with the candidate and his inner circle from his announcement through election day, 21 months later. He is now writing a book about the Obama campaign, entitled Renegade: The Making of a President , to be published by Crown in June 2009. Before Newsweek, he was a senior journalist at the Financial Times.