Chris Dodd's Goodbye
WASHINGTON -- When Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd finished his farewell address in the Senate Tuesday, visitors witnessed an almost unimaginable sight: Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the dour, un-bro-like Republican leader, walked over to Dodd and gave him a hug.
Okay, not a real hug.
Plenty of air remained between the two of them.
But at a time when the nation's capital seems divided and nasty, when many lament the lack of collegiality and even civility -- and when Republicans and Democrats alike are attacking each other over income taxes, spending and much else -- it was a moment of calm.
Soon enough, McConnell would be back about his business, taking a chainsaw to President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.
But he sat quietly and with respect while Dodd -- snowy-haired and 66, a 30-year veteran of the Senate whose father had served for 12 years before him -- gave a concise defense of a beleaguered institution.
Dodd knows whereof he speaks. He is a scuffed-up survivor whose record is a mix of worthy achievement and glaring blind spots. As a crusader on children's issues, his doggedness eventually led to passage in the Clinton years of the Family and Medical Leave Act -- landmark social legislation now taken for granted as a part of American life.
But more recently, he came to be seen my many as a permissive defender of the financial services and banking industries he was supposed to oversee as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. On his watch, industry excesses grew, until the whole edifice collapsed into the Great Recession of today.
Dodd engineered a sweeping "reform" measure that many regarded as barely worth the label, in good part since it allowed behemoth banks to remain intact.
But he understands the Senate.
Yes, it is an insufferably windy, often intractable place, he said Tuesday. Yes, the time-wasting and bill-clogging powers of the place have long been abused. "I am not blind," he said. "I am not naive."
But rather than blaming the Senate itself, the Connecticut Democrat blamed the "complete dysfunction" of politics on the campaign-money chase, on the "intense partisan polarization" of parties and on a news media that has ceased to carefully cover the place.
More directly, he blamed the senators themselves for failing to understand and respect what was unique about the institution. They needed to remember that the nation's founders had given each senator checkmate power over every other, but that was to challenge them to work with each other as statesmen, not enemies.
"I hear Senate candidates out there saying all the time that they are 'going to Washington to shake things up,'" he said. "Well, they are running for the wrong office." Having worked with literally hundreds of colleagues over the decades, Dodd said that he had never met one talented or persuasive enough to succeed alone.
Dodd, whose orotund delivery was a no-sale when he ran for president in 2008 -- Iowans tended to stare at him in pitiful disbelief -- knows what he's talking about legislatively.
Senators need to build the "social capital" with each other "to make this body function," he said Tuesday. That is the only way, he said, in which the passion of argument -- the essence of who we are as a people -- can be harnessed to real agreements on real problems.
"It requires statesmanship from each of us," he said.
A hale Irishman of the old school, Dodd's major disappointment in the Senate probably was his failure - by one vote - to win the job of leader.
But he was always willing to do a deal.
Now is as good a time as any to explain the one he did for some of us in the media. The man who defeated him for leader, Sen. Tom Daschle, wanted to expand his offices on the third floor of the Capitol.
The plan meant kicking the Periodical Press Gallery out of its long-held and extremely useful space near the Daily Gallery and the Senate floor.
The decision belonged to the Senate Rules Committee, and Sen. Dodd was a power on it. I knew Dodd, and knew I could ask without risk.
"I don't know. How 'bout if I get you your own special seat?" he said with a laugh. "Maybe near the ceiling. You could look down at us from on high, which is what you guys do anyway."
I laughed and said no.
"Let me see what I can do," he said.
The word came a few days later that, while Daschle might get some extra rooms somewhere, one of them would not be ours.
The Periodical Gallery remains. I am sitting in it now, writing this.
So thank you, Senator. The deal is done.
After Dodd was done listening to his colleagues talk about his career, he walked off the floor and met his family. His daughters were practicing their ballet moves with help from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who recounted how she met had met Dodd decades ago in Connecticut and was hired after only a 20-minute discussion. Dodd approached the group, hugged lawmakers from his home state's delegation, kissed his wife and posed for pictures.
"Where are we going now?" he asked.
Turning to the reporters gathered around, he posed another query: "No questions?"