Dodd's First Race Was Call to Service, Legacy A life in politics was the last thing Christopher Dodd wanted when he graduated from law school in the early '70s. But a Peace Corps stint, and the legacy of his father, a senator, prompted him to pursue what became a three-decade career in Congress.
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Dodd's First Race Was Call to Service, Legacy

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Dodd's First Race Was Call to Service, Legacy

Dodd's First Race Was Call to Service, Legacy

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Next we'll meet one of the presidential candidates who's still struggling to break through. Christopher Dodd is not as well known as he might like. That is not true in the United States Senate, where he is a leading Democratic voice. It's also not true in his home state of Connecticut. Its past senators include Dodd's father.

This morning the younger Senator Dodd is the subject of our series on the presidential candidates' first campaigns. In Dodd's case, it was a run for Congress.

NPR's David Welna reports that he came to that campaign reluctantly.

DAVID WELNA: When Christopher Dodd got out of law school 35 years ago, he made a point of joining a Connecticut law firm that was not known as a springboard for aspiring politicians.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Presidential Candidate; Democrat, Connecticut): They didn't want people running for public office in the law firm, and I was looking for some insulation. I think I was sort of fearful that others might urge me to do it, and I wanted to have some protection against doing it. And...

WELNA: But why?

Sen. DODD: Well, because I didn't think, you know, at age 29, that I was necessarily ready for it. And I didn't want to be pushed into something or pulled into something without making the decision myself.

Mr. BUCK WILSON (Lawyer): That's true. At the beginning, he was not interested in getting involved in politics.

WELNA: That's Buck Wilson, who practiced law with Dodd at that same firm.

But then in 1974 the 2nd District's Republican incumbent announced he'd be running for governor. That's when Wilson says Dodd finally yielded to his political calling.

Mr. WILSON: He certainly had a deep-seated interest in politics. And when he saw that seat was opening, friends of his, including myself, encouraged him to run for it.

WELNA: Dodd says a big influence in his decision to run was the two years he spent in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Sen. DODD: The Peace Corps experience taught me a lot of things, changed my life completely, totally and fundamentally. And I came back from that experience determined that one way or another I wanted to be involved in the public life of my country.

WELNA: But clearly, another huge influence was Dodd's famous father.

One day in 1967, a newspaper arrived in the Dominican mountains where Dodd was doing his Peace Corps stint.

Sen. DODD: There was a picture of my mother and father on the front page of the paper two days after the fact.

WELNA: The fact was that Senator Thomas Dodd had been censured by almost the entire Senate for making personal use of more than a hundred thousand dollars in campaign funds. The scandal that had Thomas Dodd losing his bid for another Senate term three years later. In six months the former senator would be dead of a heart attack. Shortly before, Dodd recalls a reporter asking to his father if he knew how his public life would end, would he do it again?

Sen. DODD: He said I'd do it again in a minute. Doctors can have only so many patients, lawyers only so many clients. But a well-intended person in public life can make - can change the life of millions. And I'd do it again in a minute. And I thought, well, that's pretty good. If you could say that after what you've been through, that's as pretty good - that's as strong an endorsement of what a public life can mean.

WELNA: It was not clear, though, whether Dodd's famous family name would be more liability than asset.

Howard Reiter is political science chairman at the University of Connecticut. He started teaching there the same year Dodd launched his first campaign.

Dr. HOWARD REITER (University of Connecticut): Well, at the time there was a joke going around in the district that half the district said he's just like his father and that's great; and the other half said he's nothing like his old man, and that's great.

WELNA: But Frank Foley, who was Dodd's finance chairman and who now sits on Connecticut's Superior Court, says Dodd could hardly ignore his father's downfall.

Honorable FRANCIS FOLEY (Connecticut Superior Court): It certainly was a factor. I mean, he recognized that he had to be holier than Caesar's wife in terms of his fundraising and his approach to politics.

WELNA: The toughest challenge, Foley says, was the fundraising.

Hon. FOLEY: An uphill struggle. I remember we had a campaign fundraiser for him in Norwichtown, which was familiar territory to his father, and we had about 12 people attend at $10 a head. Now, that's the way it was when we started. A hundred and twenty dollars didn't get you very far.

WELNA: Dodd himself recalls sitting with Foley in a dining booth at a Howard Johnson's, despairing over the campaign going broke. Next thing he knew, a local pharmacist in the next booth turned around with a piece of paper in his hand.

Sen. DODD: He said, here's a check for a thousand dollars. That'll keep you in the race. Go ahead. And that did keep us in the race. But for Micky Mastopiatro(ph) sitting in the next booth at Howard Johnson's along Route 95, I might have ended my political career 33 years ago. So we kept going, and we were able ultimately to raise the money. And it was a very difficult thing to do - to raise a hundred thousand dollars in those days.

WELNA: But as the University of Connecticut's Reiter points out, it was also the year President Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal.

Dr. REITER: And 1974 was a very good year for Democrats, both because of Watergate and because of a lot of economic concerns. And the Republican incumbent was running for governor, so it was an open seat, and so the conditions were very auspicious for Dodd.

WELNA: It did not hurt either that Dodd no longer supported an unpopular Vietnam War.

Sen. DODD: I mean, I as a kid in college, my father had a huge influence. My father was one of those people who was an advocate and supported the Vietnam War. And I was actually involved in efforts to support the troops in college, in 1965, '64, '65. And the Peace Corps really changed that view entirely for me.

WELNA: Dodd had even considered going to Vietnam himself. He shared those thoughts with Don Perkins, a former college roommate who had gone and who would later be killed there.

Sen. DODD: And Don wrote me a letter and said don't get anywhere near this place. This is a hellhole. It's a huge mistake. And it had a lot to do and influenced, in our communications with each other, about why this war was such a mistake.

WELNA: In that 1974 campaign, Dodd beat two Democratic primary challengers and then trounced the GOP candidate for the open Republican-held seat by 20 percentage points.

His friend Buck Wilson, who ended up as his campaign treasurer, says Dodd has a rare charisma that's best appreciated close up.

Mr. WILSON: The way he was effective in eastern Connecticut was basically people to people, town to town. And of course, on a national campaign you can't do that. But I think that the more people that meet him, the more they will get to like him.

WELNA: For his part, Dodd learned lessons from that first campaign that he says he still draws on as a presidential contender.

Sen. DODD: My slogan in 1974 was Chris Dodd listens. Now, I had that slogan for two reasons. One, I thought it's not a bad idea to listen. And at 29, I didn't have a hell of a lot to say either, so I thought listening was not a bad way to run a campaign.

WELNA: At 63, the war Dodd now strongly opposes is in Iraq. People are still talking about his father, but this time, as the hero of a new book Dodd's compiled of his father's letters to his mother when he was prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials.

And his fundraising's certainly more high-powered. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Dodd's accepted millions of dollars from banking, securities and insurance interests.

Still, he remains an underdog in the presidential pack. It doesn't seem to faze him.

Sen. DODD: I'm not going to do this twice. I know who I am, I know what I care about, I know what I believe in, and I'm enjoying the process. And I think I'm going to win.

WELNA: If he doesn't, this could be Dodd's last campaign - he won't be seeking a sixth term in the Senate.

David Welna, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can read about the first campaigns of other presidential candidates at

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