A life in politics was the last thing Christopher Dodd wanted when he graduated from law school in the early 1970s. But a Peace Corps stint, and the legacy of his father, a senator, prompted him to pursue what became a lifelong career in Congress.
Dodd has represented Connecticut in Congress for more than three decades, first as a congressman and then as a senator. Yet in his current bid for the White House, the senator has struggled to stand out in a race dominated by better-known candidates.
That was not a problem, though, when Dodd first ran for Congress in 1974, the son of a senator whose career had ended in scandal.
A Family Legacy
In 1967, Thomas Dodd was censured by almost the entire Senate for making personal use of more than $100,000 in campaign funds. The scandal overshadowed Thomas Dodd's re-election bid three years later, and he lost his seat. Six months after that, Dodd died of a heart attack.
At first, Christopher Dodd had no intention of following his father into public office. When he graduated from law school 35 years ago, he made a point of joining a Connecticut law firm that discouraged its associates from running for public office. Why? "Because I didn't think, you know, at age 29, that I was necessarily ready for it," and he didn't want to be pushed into running, Dodd says.
Dodd's attitude changed in 1974, when the Republican incumbent in Connecticut's 2nd District announced he would be running for governor. Buck Wilson, who practiced law with Dodd at that same firm, says that's when Dodd finally yielded to a political calling he had long heard.
"He certainly had a deep-seated interest in politics," Wilson says. "And when he saw that seat was opening, friends of his, including myself, encouraged him to run for it."
Dodd says one major influence on his decision to run was the two years he had spent in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer, which he calls a life-changing experience.
"I came back from that experience determined that, one way or another, I wanted to be involved in the public life of my country," Dodd says.
But clearly, another huge influence was Dodd's famous father. Shortly before Thomas Dodd's death, a reporter had asked him whether, knowing that his public life would end in disgrace, he would still run for office again. Christopher Dodd recalls his father's answer:
"He said, 'I'd do it again in a minute. Doctors can have only so many patients, lawyers only so many clients. But a well-intended person in public life can ... change the lives of millions. And I'd do it again in a minute.' And I thought, well, that's pretty good. If you could say that after what you've been through, that's as strong as an endorsement of what a public life can mean."
It was not clear, though, whether Dodd's famous family name would be more liability than asset in his run for a House seat.
Howard Reiter, chairman of the political science department at the University of Connecticut, started teaching at the university the same year Dodd launched his first campaign. He recalls a joke about Dodd that circulated in the district at the time: "Half the district said he's just like his father and that's great, and the other half said he's nothing like his old man, and that's great."
Frank Foley, who was Dodd's finance chairman and who now sits on Connecticut's Superior Court, says his father's downfall influenced how Dodd managed his own campaign.
"He recognized that he had to be holier than Caesar's wife in terms of his fundraising, and his approach to politics," Foley says.
The toughest challenge, Foley says, was the fundraising: "I remember we had a campaign fundraiser for him in Norwich town, which was familiar territory to his father, and we had about 12 people attend at $10 a head. Now, that's the way it was when we started; $120 didn't get you very far."
Dodd himself recalls sitting with Foley in a dining booth at a Howard Johnson's, despairing over the campaign going broke. Next thing Dodd knew, a local pharmacist in the adjacent booth turned around and handed him a check for $1,000, saying, "That'll keep you in the race."
If it weren't for that serendipitous contribution, "I might have ended my political career 33 years ago," Dodd says. As it was, the check kept his campaign afloat long enough to raise real money.
Aided by the Zeitgeist
But, as the University of Connecticut's Reiter points out, Dodd's campaign also benefited from the anti-Republican mood of the time. That year, President Richard Nixon had resigned over the Watergate scandal.
"1974 was a very good year for Democrats, both because of Watergate and because of a lot of economic concerns," Reiter says. "And the Republican incumbent was running for governor, so it was an open seat, and so conditions were very auspicious for Dodd."
It also didn't hurt that Dodd no longer supported an unpopular Vietnam War. Dodd's father had been a supporter of the Vietnam War, and as a college student, Dodd had been involved in efforts to support the troops. "The Peace Corps really changed that view entirely for me," Dodd says.
Dodd says he had even considered going to Vietnam himself. He shared those thoughts with Don Perkins, a former college roommate who had gone.
"Don wrote me a letter and said, 'Don't get anywhere near this place. This is a hellhole, it's a huge mistake,'" Dodd recalls. Perkins was later killed in Vietnam.
A Door-to-Door Charm Offensive
In that 1974 campaign, Dodd beat two Democratic primary challengers and then trounced the GOP candidate for the open, Republican-held seat by 20 percentage points. His friend Buck Wilson, who ended up as his campaign treasurer, says Dodd has a rare charisma that's best appreciated close up.
"The way he was effective in eastern Connecticut was basically going people to people, town to town," Wilson says. "And of course, on a national campaign, you can't do that. But I think the more people that meet him, the more they will get to like him."
For his part, Dodd learned lessons in that first campaign that he says he still draws on as a presidential contender.
"My slogan in 1974 was 'Chris Dodd listens,'" Dodd says. "Now, I had that slogan for two reasons: One, I thought it's not a bad idea to listen. And at 29, I didn't have a hell of a lot to say, either, so I thought listening was not a bad way to run a campaign."
At 63, Dodd is once again strongly opposed to a war – this time, the U.S. involvement in Iraq. And people are still talking about his father — this time, as the hero of a new book Dodd has compiled of letters that Thomas Dodd sent to his wife while serving as a prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials.
And nowadays, Dodd's fundraising is certainly more high-powered. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Dodd has accepted millions of dollars from banking, securities and insurance interests.
Still, Dodd remains an underdog in the presidential pack. It doesn't seem to faze him.
"I'm not going to do this twice," Dodd says. "I know who I am, I know what I care about, I know what I believe in, and I'm enjoying the process. And I think I'm going to win."
If he doesn't, this could be Dodd's last campaign — he won't be seeking a sixth term in the Senate.