Child Of The Senate, Now One Of The Old Guard, U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd Prepares For Departure

Senator Chris Dodd in his Washington D.C. office in January 1982. (TONY BACEWICZ)

Seated before a bank of cameras in the clubby, wood-paneled confines of a Senate hearing room one morning last week, Christopher J. Dodd looked completely at home.

The silver-haired senator was poised to take the gavel for the final time as chairman of the powerful Banking Committee, and he savored the moment.

In his opening remarks, Dodd recalled a conversation he had with the man who preceded him at the helm, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., during a particularly raucous hearing in 2006. The people in the room that day were so inflamed that the police had to be summoned. Sarbanes put his right arm around Dodd and, gesturing toward the chaotic scene, said "just think, in six months, all this is yours."

In truth, Dodd has loved it, and you get the sense he's trying to wring every drop of relevancy from these waning days, before lawmakers adjourn for the year and his three decades in the Senate are over.

Last week was filled with accolades from fellow senators, visits from former staffers and friends, and a series of legacy-burnishing interviews with reporters from Connecticut. It all culminated on Tuesday, when Dodd delivered an emotional speech about the future of the U.S. Senate.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Dodd is 66, hardly old by Senate standards. But following a steep decline in his standing among Connecticut voters — brought on by a long-shot run for the presidency, an ethics investigation (which ultimately cleared him of any transgression), and the perception that he was an insider who grew too cozy with the financial industry — he decided it was time to leave the institution he loves.

He insists he has no regrets. "He's not a brooder,'' said his close friend and former aide, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro. "Should he have addressed some issues sooner? Maybe, but he believes you can't go back."

Instead of pondering what might have been, Dodd is focusing on his achievements. The archetypal creature of the Senate, a rosy-cheeked Democrat with a strong handshake, a dry Irish wit and a hearty laugh, leaves a record that his supporters praise, and even some of his adversaries admire.

"Was he a politician? Sure he was,'' said Christopher Healy, chairman of the Republican Party in Connecticut. "But he believed in things." While Healy called some of Dodd's foreign policy positions "disastrous,'' he conceded that Dodd did good work on children's issues. "He's got a legacy.''

Dodd's amiable personality and backslapping style — "He'll never have to work hard to get a dinner party together,'' observed Healy — is perfectly suited to the Senate, with its dramas, egos and arcane rules. It's a place that rewards those who master the arts of compromise, consensus and camaraderie, three of Dodd's specialties.

Art Of The Deal

"Dodd was made for the Senate,'' said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. "He's a wonderful conversationalist and a magnetic guy, but the Senate's filled with magnetic guys who don't know how to build relationships. Dodd has a natural ability to build coalitions.''

That ability came into sharp focus in the fall of 2008, when the nation's financial system was on the verge of collapse and key lawmakers were huddled in emergency meetings with senior administration officials.

One member of the group, Sen. Robert Bennett, a conservative Republican from Utah, remembers Dodd telling everyone to essentially check their partisan allegiances at the door as they worked through the details of what would become the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

"That was as good an example as any I've seen of working together and to … solve a national problem, and a lot of it was due to Chris and his amiableness and his willingness to include Republicans,'' Bennett said.

The genial dealmaker isn't admired by everyone. Some progressives have long grumbled that Dodd's liberal bona fides were weakened by his willingness to compromise with Republicans, as well as his traditional reliance on campaign contributions from powerful business interests.

"The gridlocked nature of the Senate did not bring out the best in him,'' said Ralph Nader, who has known Dodd for years. "It was more important for him to get along with Republicans than to be a transforming leader.''

Nader, as much of an outsider as Dodd is an insider, conceded that the senator could be a forceful public speaker and strong advocate for the powerless. But, Nader said, several of Dodd's landmark bills, such as the financial regulatory overhaul that passed earlier this year, were considerably weakened by his concessions to Republicans.

"He adjusted to the rules of the Senate and the clubby atmosphere, and he adjusted to the campaign pipeline from Wall Street,'' Nader said. "He never filled his potential for advancing justice for regular people."