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Thomas Dodd was a former FBI agent and a lawyer who prosecuted Nazis at Nuremberg and went on to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.
But in 1967, Dodd was censured by the Senate for diverting for personal use funds raised at political testimonial dinners. Four years later, he was dead, having been rejected by both his party and the voters.
His son, Chris Dodd, who also served in the House and the Senate, has undertaken a lifelong quest to restore his father’s honor. That effort will receive a high-profile boost today, when President Joe Biden comes to Storrs for the dedication of the Dodd Center for Human Rights at the University of Connecticut.
“He’s been gone 52 years,’' Chris Dodd said of his father. “To remember him at all, you’d have to be a fairly senior person.”
In the early 1990s, the younger Dodd came across a trove of letters his father wrote from Nuremburg. In the correspondence with his wife, Grace Dodd, Thomas Dodd expressed three hopes: that someday the world would recognize how important the trial was, that he would never do any thing as important and “that my children will be proud of what I did and will cite the law and the precedent we set here,’' Chris Dodd recalled.
In addition to burnishing his father’s reputation, today’s ceremony also represents a chance for the younger Dodd to reclaim his own legacy.
Chris Dodd represented Connecticut in the Senate from 1981 to 2011, making him the longest serving senator in the state’s history. He was a liberal lion who forged friendships with Republican colleagues and became a respected expert in foreign policy. He helped shepherd through landmark legislation, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Dodd-Frank consumer protection and financial oversight act and the bill establishing Obamacare.
But Chris Dodd’s career ended in abruptly when he announced he would not seek reelection in 2010. The decision came after a series of political miscalculations — moving his family to Iowa during his long-shot presidential run — and controversies involving a real estate deal in Ireland and a VIP mortgage.
“Chris Dodd and his father, they have a legacy which is a mixture of great success and disappointment, just like any other politician,’' said Chris Healy, the former chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party.
Healy was a relentless critic of Chris Dodd when he served in the Senate, but has nothing but warm words for him and his father now.
“Chris Dodd believed in what he did,” Healy said, “which is a rarity in politics nowadays, when everything is so transactional.”
Healy called Tom Dodd “a great senator.” The elder Dodd, he added, “was actually what we would call a conservative Democrat and he supported the Vietnam War when it wasn’t popular, but he stuck to his guns.”
Today’s visit by Biden, a longtime friend of Chris Dodd’s, brings new attention to one of the state’s most prominent political families.
“The Dodds have an iconic role in Connecticut,’' said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from New Haven whose friendship with Chris Dodd goes back more than 40 years.
Rep. John Larson compared the Dodd legacy in Connecticut to Kennedy dynasty. “Nobody had the gift like John Kennedy,’' Larson said, “but Chris comes awful darn close.”
Thomas and Chris Dodd are “very much a part of our history in Connecticut,’' said former congresswoman Barbara Kennelly, who is the daughter of Hartford Democratic boss John Bailey and has known Chris Dodd and his family for decades. “The senior Sen. Dodd had a marvelous reputation until he had some difficulty. Sometimes life doesn’t work out like you want it to.”
The monument to the Dodd family at UConn will focus on human rights. Prior to the name change, the center had been known as the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center since its opening in 1995.
The initial dedication exactly 26 years ago today also brought a president to Storrs: Bill Clinton opened his speech by saying he wanted to pay “public tribute to the Dodd family, their devotion to each other and their devotion to freedom and liberty and democracy. It has deeply moved all of us and we thank you for [your] example.”
The ceremony focused on Thomas Dodd’s commitment to human rights as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials and later, as an advocate for civil rights and an outspoken critic of the totalitarian leaders who ruled in Europe behind the Iron Curtain. He was also an early proponent of gun control.
Few in the crowd spoke of Dodd’s 1967 censure for misuse of campaign funds or the loss of his Senate seat in 1970, just six months before his death.
In a 1989 interview, Chris Dodd said he thought his father was treated unjustly and hurt irreparably by the censure. “It was very painful to say the least,’’ he said. “He lost his next election and died six months later. It was a hell of a blow.”
Thomas Dodd was censured for improperly but not illegally using $116,083 in campaign funds to pay personal expenses. According to transcripts, Dodd said he was deeply in debt because the state Democratic Party did not provide adequate financial support for his campaigns.
It was one of the first political ethics scandals of the modern era, pre-dating Watergate by five years, said Logan M. Dancey, a professor of government at Wesleyan University.
“Looking at the Thomas Dodd scandal, we get a sense as to how much the congressional ethics landscape has changed over the last several decades, from a much more lax system to one where there’s many more rules and regulations in place that govern members of Congress’ behavior,’' Dancey said. “With those rules and regulations, there are more opportunities for scandals to be uncovered.”
Thomas Dodd’s transgressions look less consequential now than they did at the time, Healy said. “Considering what now goes for errors in judgment, what he did wouldn’t even get him a parking ticket today,’' Healy said.
While Thomas Dodd’s scandal has been largely lost to history, Chris Dodd’s missteps remain fresh, said Ben Proto, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party. Dodd’s decision to move to Iowa—he even enrolled his two daughters in school there—during his ill-fated presidential run played a big role in his political undoing, Proto said.
“People didn’t forget that,’’ Proto said. “That was the beginning of the end for Chris Dodd in Connecticut.’'
Proto said he understands Dodd’s drive to preserve his father’s legacy. “As a son, you always want to protect your dad,’' he said.
That’s been part of Dodd’s mission since he arrived in Washington four years after his father’s death. In the Senate, he sat behind his father’s desk and kept his father’s barrel- back, wood-and-leather chair in his office.
The late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, who served in the Senate with both Dodds, said restoring Thomas Dodd’s honor was a driving force of his son’s political career.
“Sometimes,” Inouye told the Courant in 1995, “I think almost everything Chris Dodd does down here is meant to vindicate his father.”