Chris Dodd Fights for His Reputation

Room S-211 is not on the Capitol tour. It is a small, ornate chamber, with the look and feel of the late Grant administration. There are two tables, covered in white cloth, one for Republicans, one for Democrats. The room has been the scene of much Senate history, high and low. It was here that Lyndon Johnson twisted arms for civil rights (the room is named after LBJ) and here that Bobby Baker, the secretary of the Senate majority in the early 1960s, informed President Kennedy that he had received the best oral sex ever from a call girl named Ellen Rometsch (later suspected of spying for East Germany and deported by the Kennedys).

Once, there was a lot of chatter and teasing between the Democratic table and the Republican table, but not so much anymore, says Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. "This is not a fraternity, it's a business," he says, and that's the way it should be—the business of governing. Still, as he sat in S-211 late one afternoon, he said he missed the close relationships, often between members of different parties, that marked the institution he joined 28 years ago, before his hair turned silver, then white. He ticks off old Senate buddies dead or departed, leaving him a senior man—he had his choice of chairmanships and chose, possibly to his regret, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

Dodd is a natural politician. He is charming, smiling, engaged, genuinely empathetic; for years he has been a force in the Senate for human rights and the protection and care of poor mothers and children. But he is in deep political trouble, and he knows it. Told that 54 percent of the voters in his state, in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, did not find him "honest or trustworthy," he visibly winced. In a heavily Democratic state, the poll showed him trailing one possible Republican challenger by 16 points. He conceded that the odds of his reelection next year are "about 50-50." The popular anger against him is so great that it can, he says, be "very hard to walk into a room" of voters. He is the victim of a "perfect storm" of circumstances, "a series of coincidences" that have robbed him of support. Just as the recession was biting his constituents, it was reported that he had received favorable treatment on a mortgage for his home in Connecticut and, his enemies allege, a sweetheart deal on a cottage in Ireland. In the Senate, Dodd tried to play the populist by pushing through a bill to cap executive pay at financial institutions receiving federal bailouts—only to be embarrassed when he was blamed for creating an exception for bonuses awarded by AIG, the troubled insurance giant headquartered in Connecticut. (Dodd's wife, Jackie Clegg, was until 2004 a director of a Bermuda-based affiliate of AIG.)

So far none of the allegations has added up to much. "You can weave anything together," protests Dodd, who insists that he did not financially benefit from the mortgage; that the Irish cottage was, as he puts it, "a plain vanilla deal"; that the bonus exception was carved by the White House, and he only learned that it applied to AIG employees after the fact. A NEWSWEEK investigation into Dodd's Irish cottage reveals, at most, some eyebrow-raising coincidences. But the appearances are unfortunate, and Dodd concedes that he has not done a good job of laying suspicions to rest.

That Dodd should be in trouble for allegedly feathering his own nest is ironic. In a body populated by multimillionaires, Dodd is a relative pauper who has never shown much interest in making money. "[Joe] Biden and I used to have a contest: who's the poorest senator?" Dodd jokes. It is also ironic, if not tragic, because something similar has happened before—to the man Dodd esteems above all others, his own father.

Chris Dodd grew up in a large Irish Catholic family listening to his father's tales of crusading for justice. Thomas Dodd had chased the Dillinger gang as an FBI agent, and prosecuted Nazi war criminals and the Ku Klux Klan as a government lawyer. As a U.S. senator from Connecticut in the 1950s and '60s he was a protégé of LBJ and was seriously considered as his running mate in 1964. But in June 1967, Dodd was censured by his Senate colleagues, in a 92–5 vote, for allegedly diverting more than $100,000 of his campaign funds for personal use. As the votes were cast on the Senate floor, the elder Dodd hissed at his colleagues, "I hope it never happens to you what has happened to me."

Young Chris was in the Peace Corps at the time. But he came back to run his father's campaign as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1970. The senior Dodd was badly beaten. "It killed him," recalls Bill Curry, a longtime Dodd family friend who was at campaign headquarters that night and saw Chris drive his broken father home. "He died less than a year later." Curry and Dodd—onetime drinking buddies, sometime political rivals, now close friends again—often talk about the old days, and Dodd's current political predicament. The father's experience is a big reason why Dodd is running all-out for reelection, says Curry. "It's always hard to walk away from politics, but Chris, of all people, won't walk away under a cloud since so much of his life has been a kind of reclamation project for his father's reputation."

Dodd says his father was "screwed." The facts were never fully proved and remain murky—the elder Dodd apparently used fundraising dinners as a kind of home piggy bank—but Curry offers probably the best explanation of what happened: "He just couldn't make ends meet. Two houses and six kids, and the amount of money was just so small [senators were paid $30,000 in 1966]. There was no rule against it, he had a testimonial and he grabbed a few grand to pay a couple of mortgage payments. It was just somebody trying to keep his head above water. It wasn't somebody out on a yacht or out with a lobbyist or living a life that remotely approached luxury. There was something just so sad about it all."

Dodd says he does not "dwell" on his father's fate. But his father's portrait hangs in his conference room, and he works behind his father's old desk. Asked if it was true that he kept in the drawer a list of all the names of senators who had voted for and against his father, Dodd smiled thinly and replied, "It wasn't a difficult list to remember." When his sister discovered some touching letters between their father and mother in her cellar, written while the senior Dodd was a Nuremberg prosecutor, Dodd had them published as a book, with blurbs from Elie Wiesel and Sen. Ted Kennedy. In 1995, Dodd and his siblings opened the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, devoted to human rights, at the University of Connecticut.

Dodd's father, like the son, could "talk a dog off a meat wagon," says Curry. But the elder Dodd was a known alcoholic and a bit of crank. "The father today would be considered stiff," says Sen. Daniel Inouye, one of those five votes against censure in 1967. The younger Dodd, say both Curry and Inouye, has been much better about forming loyal relationships. "My father was less inclined to suffer fools. He was less patient," says Dodd. "I can have a good relationship with political enemies." Dodd is proud to be ranked "third most bipartisan" in a poll of 99 senators conducted this spring by The Hill newspaper. (He was also proud to be ranked third least bipartisan by the same poll; the Senate works in mysterious ways.) He says he "learned a lot" from studying Ted Kennedy, who is among the most effective senators at working both sides of the aisle.

In their younger days, during the 1980s, Kennedy and Dodd went off on boozy toots together, and their antics sometimes made it into the papers. Like Kennedy, Dodd settled down and got remarried in the 1990s. On a trip to Ireland with Clegg, his then girlfriend, Dodd spotted a romantic cottage on a hill overlooking a bay. In 1994 he bought a one-third share in the $160,000 cottage (he put $12,000 down). The other two thirds was purchased by William (Bucky) Kessinger, a real-estate broker and old fraternity brother of another Dodd friend named Edward Downe.

This tangle of friendships has raised suspicions. Dodd and Downe were running buddies from Dodd's bar-hopping days—and onetime co-owners of an apartment in Washington's pricey Kalorama district. In 1992, Downe was convicted of insider trading, and Dodd later attended his sentencing hearing. In 2001, Dodd persuaded President Clinton to grant a full pardon to Downe. Though Dodd says he was one of numerous political figures to lobby Clinton on Downe's behalf, Downe told NEWSWEEK, "I asked Chris if he would shepherd it through."

Critics suspect that Downe had earned the favor by getting his friend Kessinger to buy the Irish cottage with Dodd. Interviewed by NEWSWEEK, Downe says he was consulted by Kessinger about going in on the cottage, but he denies any impropriety. "I said to Bucky, 'You always wanted to go to Ireland, here's your chance'," recalls Downe. In July 2002, Dodd bought out Kessinger's share of the cottage for $207,000. Dodd's Irish appraiser, Matt O'Sullivan, says the cottage is today worth about €470,000 ($658,000). Dodd says he intends to amend his Senate financial-disclosure documents to show the current value of the cottage.

Dodd tells NEWSWEEK that he has had no financial relationship with Downe since he bought out his friend's share of the Kalorama apartment in 1990, and that he did absolutely nothing wrong when it came to buying the cottage. Speaking privately with his friend Curry, however, he showed some regret about appearances. According to Curry, Dodd talked about his role in winning a pardon for Downe and then asked, "Did I make a mistake?" Dodd proceeded to answer his own question: "Yeah." But he blamed his softhearted sense of loyalty. For most politicians, "the guy could have been godfather to all of their children and the moment [his arrest] happened they wouldn't have taken his call," Dodd told Curry. "He's my friend. He needed me."

Dodd is known for personal loyalty—especially when a friend is sick or down. He has sat for hours by the beds of friends dying of cancer, and he regularly called former Connecticut governor John Rowland when he was in prison for corruption. Dodd can probably empathize. The Irish cottage has been just one of several small nicks to Dodd's reputation over the past year—nothing nearly as serious as Rowland's problems, but enough to cost votes. "It's the wounding of a thousand cuts," says political consultant Bob Shrum.

One further cut came as the Senate began bailing out financial institutions last year. It was revealed then that Dodd had received a home mortgage from the banking giant Countrywide under something called the "Friends of Angelo" program. The unusual name was a reference to Angelo Mozilo, then CEO of Countrywide. Though Dodd probably did not save much money on the transaction—and says he's not a friend of Mozilo—local Connecticut papers began raising questions about a "sweetheart" deal.

Now Dodd is wondering where his friends are for him. There has been a notable lack of outpouring of support among his Senate colleagues. At the request of Dodd's office, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts called NEWSWEEK to say, "He's a very funny, terrific and engaging guy." But, when asked, Kerry said he does not socialize with Dodd. What about the mortgage from Countrywide? "I haven't followed the details of that," said Kerry.

A friend who did not wish to be identified discussing personal details recounted a difficult comeuppance for Dodd. Not long ago, says the source, Dodd's former chief of staff, now Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, told Dodd, "You know how you have this feeling that if something goes really wrong there's gonna be this reservoir there, there's gonna be this reservoir I can draw on of good will from people?" Dodd replied, "Yeah." DeLauro responded, "Well, there's no goddam reservoir." At first, say Dodd's friends, he withdrew and sulked a little. "I can't believe this is happening," he despaired to one friend, who did not wish to be identified discussing a private conversation.

Dodd now realizes that he badly miscalculated by running for president in 2008. He moved his family to Iowa for eight weeks in order to be close to his young children while he campaigned. The presidential run was a hopeless long shot, and voters began asking what he was doing running around Iowa while Connecticut's economy was melting down. The campaign fundraising—Dodd will need to amass tens of millions of dollars to fund his Senate reelection—"never ends," he says, wearily. And he balked, for a time, at doing the necessary penance. ("It's sort of like, 'Why do I have to go kiss the ass of this Democratic chairman in this tiny town?' " says a confidant.) But lately Dodd's been back in Connecticut running hard and his polls are improving. In Washington, he has earned some positive headlines by pushing a bill through the Senate to reform the credit-card business.

Still, Dodd has been forced to ask himself whether he really wants to endure a campaign that will surely turn mean. According to a friend who refused to be identified discussing personal matters, there has been "a move by some friends to sit down and say, 'Don't run, make some money, enjoy your kids, don't put yourself through this'." Dodd acknowledges that he has heard the advice of friends, but says he has rejected it. "This is what I do," he says. He might have added, "Better than my father."