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Dodd’s other campaign: fixing dad’s reputation

Senator Christopher Dodd’s 2008 campaign is the most public chapter in his quest for his father’s redemption.
/ Source: The New York Times

On June 23, 1967, Senator Thomas J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, was censured by the United States Senate for diverting $116,000 in campaign funds for his personal use. The vote was 92 to 5.

“I think a grave mistake has been made, and I am the one who must bear the scar of that mistake for the rest of my life,” Thomas Dodd told a hushed chamber. His voice broke, and he was led off the floor in tears. Four years later, he died a broken man.

Christopher Dodd, the fifth of Thomas Dodd’s six children, was a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in a rural village in the Dominican Republic at the time of the censure. He first learned of the news two days after the vote, when he read about it in Spanish in a local newspaper. He was devastated, but there was no one to talk to, and although he was aware of the scandal in letters from home, he knew few details.

“I suppose they were trying to insulate me,” Mr. Dodd said.

Forty years later, Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, is running for president. His campaign is about ending the Iraq war, restoring rights to detainees and promising financial security to the nation’s retirees. But on a deeper level, his campaign is the most public chapter in his career-long quest for his father’s redemption.

If there should be any doubt, take a look at the book that Mr. Dodd has presented as his campaign biography: A collection of long-buried letters that the 38-year-old Thomas Dodd wrote to his wife, Grace, who was back in Connecticut when he was a lead prosecutor in 1945 and 1946 at the Nuremberg trials. “Letters from Nuremberg, My Father’s Narrative of a Quest for Justice,” written with Lary Bloom, portrays Thomas Dodd as a hero at the great trial of the 20th century who imparted the lessons he had learned in civil liberties to his son.

“It was the most profound experience of his life,” Mr. Dodd said in a recent interview in his sparse campaign headquarters in downtown Washington. “That experience dominated his agenda, what he considered important and where he wanted to spend his time.”

Mr. Dodd, 63, insisted that the book was not meant as a vindication, but as a reminder about the commitment to due process at the admired Nuremberg trials when civil liberties are under assault at Guantánamo — a formulation that earns him big applause on the campaign trail. But friends say that Mr. Dodd has been personally overwhelmed by what he learned of his father through the letters and by his passion to redefine his legacy.

“Barely a day has gone by that he hasn’t shown me something more — that his father wrote every day, that he wrote in the evenings, that he wrote so much about the children,” said Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Mr. Dodd’s closest friend in the Senate, who voted to censure Thomas Dodd. “They’ve been inspiring for him.”

Mr. Dodd, who first read the letters in 1990 after his sister discovered them in her basement, said he was startled by their intimacy. Every night, Thomas Dodd wrote of his longing for his wife, home with a houseful of children, including the infant Christopher. “I feel like writing another 10 pages — but what can I say except that I love you and miss you and just live for the day when I have you in my arms,” Thomas Dodd wrote to his wife on Oct. 9, 1945, in a typical passage.

“I don’t recall my father, in my presence, being as affectionate about my mother,” said Mr. Dodd, who had a very public bachelorhood after his first marriage ended (dates with Bianca Jagger and Carrie Fisher) before settling down in 1999 with a wife, Jackie Marie Clegg, a former top official of the Export-Import Bank, and now two young children. “Whether that was a style, or a generation, or it was an ethnicity, being Irish Catholics, I don’t know,” he said.

Beyond the Dodd family, historians say the letters are important because of Thomas Dodd’s descriptions of his interrogations and cross-examination of some of the 22 Nazis charged with the worst crimes in history. Hermann Göring was a “captured lion” on the stand, but Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, was “nervous, despondent, shaken” during his interrogation. The letters also recount the precariousness of the alliance among the Americans, British, French and Russians who formed the prosecution at the trial.

“They’re pulling it off in real time; they don’t know how it’s going to work,” said John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John’s University who is writing a biography of Robert H. Jackson, the Supreme Court justice whom President Harry S. Truman assigned as the lead prosecutor at Nuremberg. Mr. Jackson, rusty as a trial lawyer, comes under criticism at times from Thomas Dodd, whose skills in the courtroom earned a promotion in Nuremberg to be Mr. Jackson’s No. 2.

About Mr. Jackson’s cross-examination of Albert Speer, Thomas Dodd wrote to his wife on June 22, 1946, “Well, he made a mess of it.”

Thomas Dodd was sent to Nuremberg as a promising prosecutor who had tried civil rights cases in the South for the Justice Department, and his work there in Germany made his political career. After the verdict (12 defendants were sentenced to be hanged, 3 were acquitted and the rest served jail terms), he returned home to a career in the House and then the Senate, where he was known as a fervent anti-Communist whose sharp tongue sometimes antagonized his colleagues.

After his censure, his party refused to nominate him for re-election, so he ran as an independent in 1970 — Christopher Dodd was his campaign manager. But he lost to the Republican, Lowell P. Weicker, and died of a heart attack the next May.

Christopher Dodd had just called him to tell him that he had made the Law Review at the University of Louisville. “Having not always lived up to his standards of excellence, I was finally giving him some good news,” Mr. Dodd said. “So he was rather excited, and he was bellowing around the house for my mother to get on the phone. And he couldn’t find her, so he said call back at some point. He died that night or the next morning.”

Three years later, in 1974, Mr. Dodd successfully ran for an open seat in the Second Congressional District, in eastern Connecticut. He said at the time that he had been “sort of sucked in” to the race by his father’s supporters, and he found that the Dodd name, on balance, was helpful. Although some people told him that his father’s actions ensured he would never win their vote, many others said they thought Thomas Dodd had been too harshly treated, particularly in light of the Watergate scandal at the time.

Mr. Dodd, who is far more liberal and gregarious than his father, was elected in 1980 to the Senate, where he emerged as a rising star and a leader on Latin America. He used his father’s old Senate desk and hung a large oil painting of him in his office.

Thomas Dodd Jr., Christopher Dodd’s older brother, said of his brother last week, “He said to me once, ‘Every time I walk on the Senate floor, I feel that he’s vindicated.’ ”

Thomas Dodd Jr., noting his brother’s decision to run and his current standing behind the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates, also said, “I don’t know what the thinking is on this thing, but he sure is enjoying it.”

One reason is obviously the chance it gives the candidate to spread the good word on Senator Thomas J. Dodd. “Hardly a day goes by,” Christopher Dodd said, “when someone doesn’t come up and talk about a relationship they had with my father.”