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Father's Day for the Senate's ‘Legacy Caucus’

It's a Washington group that has never had an official meeting - the "legacy caucus".  Six U.S. senators - three Democrats and three Republicans - each currently occupiing the Senate role once held by his or her father.
Former Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd, shares a Grimm's Fairy Tale with his son, now-Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
Former Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd, shares a Grimm's Fairy Tale with his son, now-Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut.Dodd Family
/ Source: NBC News

It's a Washington group that has never had an official meeting. Evan Bayh's a member, and has jokingly called it the "legacy caucus." Six U.S. senators: Evan Bayh, Chris Dodd, Bob Bennett, Lincoln Chafee, Lisa Murkowski and David Pryor — three Democrats and three Republicans — are linked together by history. Each currently represents the same state his or her father once did in the Senate.

They join a list of 39 other children who followed their fathers into the Senate, according to the Senate Historical Office. 

In individual interviews, these senators reflect on their fathers' Senate careers and the impact on their own political careers, as Father's Day approaches.

Senators Dodd
Thomas Dodd (1959-1971) and his son, Chris Dodd (1981-Present)
Chris Dodd has fond memories of coming to the Capitol for the first time in 1953 for his father, Thomas Dodd's, swearing-in to the U.S. House. A decade later, the younger Dodd came back to work as a Senate page for the summer. To this day he remembers taking orders from senators.  "I still find that when senators will snap their fingers, I twitch," Dodd say.

Dodd has done research on father-son and father-daughter combinations in congressional history, and even toyed with the idea of writing a book. "There's a very healthy suspicion people have about anyone that thinks they have a right to an office because of their last name," he explains. "It's a very delicate relationship. You can eventually earn the respect of a constituency, but at the outset, if people think that you think you have a right to this, they will vote against you so quickly it will make your head sweat."

While Chris Dodd was in the Peace Corps in 1967, his father was censured by the Senate and then, in 1970, lost his bid for re-election. Looking back on the censure almost 40 years later, Chris Dodd says he still views it as a "miscarriage of justice," but has refrained over the years from encouraging senators who wanted to pass a resolution to exonerate him. "I never wanted to go back and reopen all of that," he says. "My own view was that he was a person of strong views, deep convictions, strong values, and I thought that he got a raw deal. But he's not the only person in public life that's happened to."

Comparing himself with his father, Chris Dodd says, "Stylistically, I think, in a sense, my father was maybe less collegial… He was more inclined to not develop relationships with people whom he disagreed with. I have good relationships with people I don't necessarily share substantive views with."

Something his father taught him that still sticks: "Good politics are good manners." Asked what advice he thinks his father would have offered on his decision whether or not to run for president in 2008, Dodd starts laughing and jokes, "I suspect he might want to have me checked out by some psychiatrist." He says the first bit of advice his dad would probably give him is "don't be presumptuous, go out and see how you're received, see how people react to what you have to say." But, Dodd adds, "I'd like to think he'd be supportive of it."

The last photograph of Wallace Bennett, seen here at his 95th birthday with his son Bob - Bennett familyBennett Family

Senators Bennett
Wallace Bennett (1951-1974) and his son, Bob Bennett (1993-Present)
The first time Bob Bennett recalls entering the Senate was also in 1953, when he arrived to work as a summer intern in his father Wallace Bennett's Senate office. He wasn't able to make the trip from Utah for his dad's swearing-in two years before, "Those were before the days of jet airplanes," he explains. He points out that the Senate offices were so small that summer that, as an intern, he was a floater without a desk. Over 50 years later he not only has his own desk, but the same Senate seat his father held.

He proudly shows a photograph of he and "dad" together, and then notes that it is the last photograph taken of his father before he passed away at the age of 95.  Just a year before, Bob Bennett had been elected to the Senate. His father had a fall when he was 92, bruising his brain, leaving him in rough shape, both physically and mentally. On election night 1992, as Bob Bennett was celebrating his victory, he told reporters that his father was not up to making an appearance, when unbeknownst to him, his brother had wheeled his father into the room. As the media approached Wallace Bennett, his son was concerned that he would get confused, until he heard him speak: "Bob and I have made Utah history.  We are the first father and son combination to be elected to the U.S. Senate in this state." The younger Bennett recalls, "The adrenaline got up, he handled himself perfectly, he was completely lucid, and it was a wonderful moment, and so I thought, ‘He does not need a protector.’"

Bennett thinks the greatest advice he got from his father was in reference to education. He was expected to join the family business, his father told him to take business courses but "major in whatever you want, because the reason I'm sending you to college is to learn how to think." And when he asked his father about running for the Senate in 1991, Wallace sat him down and interviewed him, giving him a "fairly direct and exhaustive examination" and eventually offered his blessing.

Both Bob and Wallace were businessmen before entering politics, but Bob Bennett explains, "I was more interested in politics as a young man than dad was," noting he was in Young Republicans, served as his father's chief of staff, and served in the Nixon Administration. But Bob points out that the major difference between the two senators is that his father served in the minority for all but a couple of his 24 years, while he has had the good fortune to serve in the majority for most of his time, including chairmanships.

As for differences on policy, Bob points to one vote: "Looking back on it, my father voted against the Kennedy tax cuts, because he was worried about the impact on the deficit, and I voted for every tax cut that's come along because I think it's helpful to the stimulation of the economy."

The thing Bob finds most satisfying about his father's Senate career is a comment a friend of his heard from a Democratic senator who served with Wallace on the Finance Committee. "I don't know what we'll do without him on the committee, because he was the only senator that understood everything we were doing," the member explained. 

Bob and his wife have six adult children and, when asked if he thinks any of them might try to follow their grandfather and father's path and run for the Senate, he says, "I wouldn't be surprised.  But at the moment, with 19 grandchildren, they're busy."

Senators Bayh
Birch Bayh (1963-1981) and his son, Evan Bayh (1999-Present)
Senator Evan Bayh's office turned down repeated requests for an interview, but he wrote the 2003 book "From Father to Son: A Private Life in the Public Eye," which provides some interesting insights into his relationship with his dad.

Bayh was in the second grade when his father was elected to the Senate. In his book, Bayh writes how traumatic it was for him to leave his school and friends when the family moved to Washington. He recalls a small dinner party at the White House that his parents brought him to, which ended with him watching television in the Lincoln Bedroom. But he notes that such events did not overly impress him at the time, as he was more concerned with school and baseball. That changed the summer he graduated high school, when he volunteered for his father's 1974 re-election campaign. In all, he worked on three of his father's campaigns; something he says brought them closer together. "To say that I idolized him would not be much of an overstatement," Bayh writes.

His father lost in 1980 to Dan Quayle.  Evan Bayh was elected governor of Indiana, and then in 1998, won back his father's seat in the Senate.

Birch Bayh made two stabs at the Democratic nomination for president in the 1970s. He suspended his first effort after his wife underwent surgery for breast cancer in October 1971 and dropped his second attempt in March 1976.

Evan Bayh took a semester off of college to volunteer for the 1976 race. "That campaign was a transforming experience. I spoke on his behalf in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts," he recalls in his book. Thirty years later, as he reportedly tests the waters for his own possible presidential run, Bayh is making appearances in those same states. Within the past month he has traveled to both Iowa and New Hampshire.

As for the difference in their politics, Bayh acknowledges in his book, "My father is remembered as a Great Society liberal, whereas I'm seen as more moderate, even conservative in some areas." But he attributes part of that political difference to changing times.

In his book, he writes about the day his twin sons were born - Election Day 1995. Even after Bayh received the phone call from his pregnant wife that the doctor was ready to induce labor, he writes he "couldn't help stopping along the way to vote. I guess it's just in my blood."

As governor, and now as senator, Bayh has promoted fatherhood initiatives and writes that one of his greatest passions is "battling our country's epidemic of fatherlessness."

John Chafee and his son Lincoln with former President George H. W. Bush. - Chafee familyChafee Family

Senators Chafee
(Republicans - Rhode Island)
John Chafee (1976-1999) and his son, Lincoln Chafee (1999-Present)
John Chafee was enough of a Civil War buff to spend his honeymoon with his wife touring battlefields and to eventually name one of his sons after President Abraham Lincoln. Forty-six years later, that same son would return to the Capitol, for only the second time in his life, to take the oath of office - replacing his father who had died suddenly. Lincoln Chafee had begun his campaign to seek his father's seat in March 1999, soon after his father announced his retirement. "We talked about it. He was discouraging at first, saying it's a tough life for someone with a young family," Lincoln recalls. But, in the end, his father recognized that his open seat represented a rare opportunity for a Rhode Island Republican and concluded that his son was making the right decision. Lincoln was appointed to the seat in 1999 and was elected to it a year later.

As a child, Lincoln would go to some of his father's campaign events - only "the fun ones", he says - and even picked up a few of his father's lines along the way. When a voter came up to John Chafee and informed him he was supporting his opponent, John shook his hand and said, "Well, I guess it's not going to be unanimous." Lincoln smiles when noting, "I use it now. I use his line."

Lincoln's first solo political appearance was as a surrogate for his father's successful 1976 Senate campaign. He was sent to a sixth grade class that had invited his father to speak, and remembers, "I could not stop my knees from shaking." He waited a decade before entering politics himself (after working as a blacksmith) in what he refers to as an "obscure election" for delegate to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention and realized he loved and enjoyed it. He went on to serve on the Warwick City Council and then as mayor of Warwick before seeking his father's seat.

While in the Senate, Lincoln has voted with Democrats on issues including opposition to the war in Iraq and tax cuts, but he challenges the idea that he is more liberal than his father: "The times have changed so much,” he says, “His Republican Party, that he came in, with was so different than the Republican Party now."

As for differences between them, he notes a difference in style, in that his father was "more a player", due to his seniority.

In looking back on his father's legacy, he points to his work on health care, leading up to the national debate early in President Bill Clinton's presidency, and that "foreseeing an important issue early paid off" for him. But Lincoln says he's most proud of the "tenacity" his father demonstrated in dealing with two political losses in races for governor and Senate, each time keeping a "steady course" and keeping his head high.

As for advice he received from his dad, one thing, he says, stands out. "I can hear it and picture it as clear as day,” he says, “He was addressing some students, and he said to them, 'If you're interested in a career in politics, first make sure you have another way of making a living, so that you can make good decisions, and know that if there's a political liability to the position you're taking, you could always go on to a career in something that you're good at.’”

Senators Murkowski
(Republicans - Alaska)
Frank Murkowski (1981-2002) and his daughter Lisa Murkowski (2002-Present)
Lisa Murkowski remembers clearly the first time she came to Washington. It was as a high school intern in Alaska Senator Ted Stevens' office, in the summer of 1975. "One of the highlights of my internship was riding in the same elevator as Senator (Ted) Kennedy, and it was just a huge deal to be in such close proximity to another senator," she says. But the Republican lawmaker quickly follows that memory with a laugh, noting, "Now I don't have those same feelings riding the elevator with Ted Kennedy."

The dinner table in the Murkowski household was a forum for discussion and debate on different issues ranging from business questions to politics, and she was taught, by her father, at an early age that "no matter how old you were, you had an opinion that mattered, and you were encouraged to voice your opinion." She notes that her family still has great political debates when they're out at duck camp, sitting by the fire at night.

Lisa remembers her father's advice to "Be a leader, not a sheep," which instilled in her an expectation to be her own person. After working years as an attorney, she successfully ran for state representative in 1998, and served until 2002, when Frank appointed her to the remainder of his Senate term just a couple weeks after he was sworn in as governor. Her father's appointment stirred calls of "nepotism," and she says now that she "might have underestimated the strength of objection" by some. But she discussed the controversy early on, after taking office and throughout her campaign in 2004, and was elected. To date, she's the only daughter of a U.S. senator to follow her father into the Senate.

In that election she and her father did not make many public appearances together, and while she says "there was not a concerted strategy to keep him out of the picture" she acknowledges that "it was important for people to assess me, to figure out who Lisa Murkowski was" and she made an effort to make her campaign "very independent."

As for differences between herself and her father, she says, "I have a very different style than my father… My mother is a very gracious woman, and a very tolerant woman. And my father is a much more abrupt, direct individual. And I like to think that I have been able to meld something from each of them. I'm not afraid to express my opinions, but I don't do it in a confrontational manner." She says that while Frank Murkowski can come off as grumpy and tough, "he's probably one of the kindest and most gentle people" she knows. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-CT, once told her how he enjoyed traveling with her father, and on one occasion remembers him helping pick out tablecloths for his wife Hadassah. One of her fondest memories is of her father bringing her down to the water and turning over a rock and showing her all the amazing life underneath.  She says, "he is still turning over rocks" for her.

Frank Murkowski announced last month that he would run for re-election as governor and later that afternoon she explained she would be "supportive" of him. While she typically stays out of Republican primaries, she says it was obvious "where my allegiances lie." When the fact that President Ronald Reagan did not publicly endorse his daughter, Maureen's, Senate run in 1982 was mentioned, Lisa responded, "My father did that to me," explaining that, in her campaign for state representative, she had a primary battle so she didn't even ask her father for his endorsement and they later had a conversation in which he told her it was a "good thing" she hadn't asked because he stayed out of primaries.

As for the political ambitions of her two teenage boys: "They have absolutely, positively made it clear that they have no interest in joining the Senate, because the hours are crazy and you know you can't control your schedule.  They see how it affects the home life in terms of scheduling." But, she notes, they wouldn't mind being governor because they can live in Alaska and the governor (currently their grandfather) has a really nice house.

Asked if she and her father have any Father's Day traditions, she says they don't, but they did have a Mother's Day tradition growing up - because of the season, after church each Mother's Day, they would haul manure for hours upon hours.

Senators Pryor
(Democrats - Arkansas)
David Pryor (1979-1997) and his son Mark Pryor (2003-Present)
"The three Pryor boys, we kind of grew up on the road in Arkansas, highways and bi-ways - going to fish fries, barbeques and political rallies," recalls Mark Pryor. His father, David, after serving in the House and as governor of Arkansas, won a Senate race in 1978. When the family returned to Washington, Mark attended Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda and started his own political career by getting elected student body president. But he pointed out that he never felt any pressure to follow in his father's footsteps: "That's the thing; my dad never really encouraged any of us to pursue politics. I think it is because he understood how hard it could be."

Like his father, after earning undergrad and law degrees from the University of Arkansas, he served in the Arkansas statehouse. He went on to be elected Arkansas attorney general, and then, in 2002, defeated Sen. Tim Hutchinson - the only incumbent Republican senator to lose that year.

Interestingly enough, he discussed how he had never set out to be in politics, saying, "I never really planned on doing this, you know, so it's kind of a surprise to me that I'm here." In the campaign Mark used his father's same campaign logo, and even ran a commercial promising to keep the same "Arkansas Comes First" plaque that his father had on his desk, should he make it to the Senate.  That's where it sits today.

Once elected, he found that his father's popularity continued to be an advantage for him. He explains his father's legacy, saying, "One thing that I figured out very, very early here, is that everybody loves David Pryor.  They all loved working with him.  They all remember him very fondly." And that, he says, includes not only senators, but staffers and the parking garage attendants.

He points out that the affection for his father isn't partisan: "All the Republicans that served with him, tell me how much they enjoyed knowing him, and ask why doesn't he come back." When asked if he had discussed the common bond he shares with colleagues who are also the children of former senators, he laughs, saying, "You mean the 'legacy caucus' as Evan Bayh calls it?” and then noting he hasn't had much occasion to do that.

Mark Pryor is most proud of the work his father did for seniors, including nursing home reform and prescription drug coverage. As for himself, he notes, "I was very insistent that I did not want to be on the Judiciary Committee, because I know the big ideological fights they have on Judiciary, especially on judicial nominations, so I just wanted to stay clear of that and focus on other things less controversial and more productive.  And, lo and behold, probably what I'm best known for is helping put together the 'Gang of 14'."

David was a strong supporter of his fellow Arkansan, Bill Clinton, and campaigned hard for him during the 1992 presidential race. When asked if he would support a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign in 2008, Mark Pryor responds, "I haven't decided, I have to look at the candidates," pointing out that about a dozen of his colleagues might run. 

As for the lessons he has learned from his father, "He's given me a lot of advice over the years, but probably his greatest advice to me has really not been in words but his example" of how he "loves public service, and sees politics as a service."

Chris Donovan, is an associate producer/senior researcher for NBC News, based in Washington, DC