Chris Dodd's Stirring New Book

10/01/2007 03:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ever since John Kennedy won a Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage, presidential candidates have written books. They range from vacuous policy tomes to memoirs meant to inspire to a book by John Edwards about people's houses. I didn't quite get Edwards' point but his central theme -- there's no place like home -- has proven appeal.

Chris Dodd's Letters from Nuremberg is many things: an insider's view of history's most famous fair trial, a meditation on our recent failures to respect its precedents and a poignant family history. If I called it the best campaign book of the election cycle I'd be damning with faint praise. No need to. It's the best book I've read this year.

The insiders' view of Nuremburg and much of the family history are in the letters of the book's title, written by Dodd's father, the late Thomas Dodd-- at 38, second in command of the Nuremberg prosecution team-- and addressed to Dodd's mother, Grace Murphy Dodd.

The letters are superbly written, remarkable in light of the strained circumstances of their composition. They fascinate because they illuminate at once the inner workings of a great historical event and the inner life of a public man in an age that still has lessons to dispense.

Justice Robert Jackson called the Nuremberg trials "one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason." The defendants were 21 leaders of Hitler's high command, the ones who hadn't already taken their own lives, including such monuments to evil as Hermann Goring, Martin Bormann, Rudolph Hess and Albert Speer.

Dodd had a shrewd eye for their vanities and deceits. He regarded them as perpetrators of history's worst crimes, yet retained a sense of their fallen humanity and accorded them genuine due process, as was then American policy. 12 of the defendants were executed, 3 acquitted, the rest imprisoned. The trial stands today as a monument to the rule of law.

The self-portrait the elder Dodd leaves is of a man besotted with his wife and children, in love with his country and devoted to his Roman Catholic faith. A Yale graduate and son of a Norwich contractor, he's erudite but down to earth, as when lamenting a rupture among the "soreheads" on his staff.

Most of all he's a man in love. He writes Grace almost daily the whole time he's away. His words of love, startling in their depth of feeling, vouch for the truth of everything else he writes and help make these letters what they are: as good a map as you'll ever find of how, within a whole human being, the personal and political are connected.

Chris Dodd provides his own moments of eloquence, and in so doing proves himself an attentive as well as devoted son. Dodd knows how far a fall it is from Nuremburg to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and the consequences for America's security and reputation in the world.

Chris Dodd's campaign, like his book, outshines his competitors in its substance. More than any other candidate, he has taken the lead in Congress on ending the war in Iraq, defending the constitution and combating global warming. His proposals on health care, wage stagnation and the credit crisis are credible and specific.

Dodd's performances of late are crisp, impassioned and on target. He needs to be better at getting his core message into every interview and speech but after Bill Clinton, he's as gifted and natural a politician as I've met and these days he has it all on display.

Still, polls seem frozen. It is now clear how much Barack Obama's candidacy helps Hillary Clinton. He shares her cautious centrism; his inexperience, besides being an issue in voters' minds, impedes his campaign. But the attention he draws keeps candidates with deeper differences and better credentials from getting noticed.

The result: We have more candidates appearing in more debates than ever before and yet we have no debate; not on redefining America's role in the world, not on global warming and certainly not on America's rapid transformation into just another land of haves and have-nots.

The attention to Obama has ebbed slightly, causing Clinton to grow complacent. I don't know when it's safe to start acting like the nominee but it isn't the year before the election. It's the first serious misstep of her campaign and it nudges open a door.

A candidate with a message that measures up to the magnitude of our problems could walk through that door. If Hillary's and Obama's recent performances are a preview of the general election, brace yourself for the Democrats' third straight loss due to excessive caution and Washington style centrism.

Our constitution, prosperity and survival are more threatened today than at any time since World War II. We need bold government action but our leaders won't say it.

In Tom Dodd's day our democracy defeated its enemies, established a broad middle class and sanctified the rule of law. No one has studied more closely than Chris Dodd the kind of leadership it took to make it happen.