After 30 years, Dodd delivers his final message

WASHINGTON–In an emotional farewell speech to the Senate Tuesday, Chris Dodd made a passionate plea for restoring political civility and preserving the chamber’s traditions, as he also sought to put the finishing touches on his own career as Connecticut’s longest-serving senator.

Dodd opened his final “valedictory” remarks by evoking the image of himself as a 14-year-old boy, sitting in the Senate gallery as his father, Thomas J. Dodd, was sworn in 1959.

More than five decades later, Dodd said the institution in which both he and his father served is at risk–a victim of the 24/7 news cycle, a political climate that favors conflict over compromise, and the endless need for politicians to raise campaign cash.

“Intense partisan polarization has raised the stakes in every debate and on every vote, making it difficult to lose with grace and nearly impossible to compromise without cost,” Dodd said. “Our political system at the federal level is completely dysfunctional.”

Even as he spoke, the divisions were on display. Only four Republicans were in the chamber listening to Dodd’s remarks, along with more than 35 Democrats. After Dodd finished, only one of his GOP colleagues, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, rose to offer reflections on the end of Dodd’s 36-year political career.

“We bid adieu to the senior senator from Connecticut and hope that our paths will cross again,” McConnell said, as his eyes welled and he ceded the floor to a half-dozen other Democrats who recalled Dodd’s good humor, political charm, and partisan passion.

“When he takes something on, he does not quit,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent and a longstanding friend of Dodd’s.

Lieberman recalled Dodd’s persistence in pushing the Family and Medical Leave Act, which survived two presidential vetoes before finally being signed into law in 1993. “That’s a lifetime achievement and it’s only one of many,” Lieberman said.

Dodd’s official goodbye, fitting for a man who reveres political tradition and loves the limelight, started promptly at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, with the Senate’s opening prayer, delivered by Father Gregoire Fluet, the pastor from Dodd’s home parish in Moodus.

“He’s not only a priest, he’s a great friend,” Dodd said from the Senate floor when Fluet had finished. “He baptized my two daughters, was a witness at my marriage.”

Thirty-five minutes earlier, Dodd’s staff had alerted reporters to Fluet’s imminent remarks and Dodd’s anticipated words of thanks. It was hardly their first salvo in choreographing the day’s events.

Dodd’s top communications aide, Bryan DeAngelis, has been courting Connecticut reporters for months, inviting them down to the nation’s capital for Dodd’s final Senate speech. More than a half-dozen obliged, with journalists from two Connecticut TV stations, as well as the Hartford Courant, the New Haven Register, The Day of New London and other outlets making the trip.

Dodd spent much of his morning in back-to-back media interviews, reflecting on his legislative achievements, his political missteps, and the next chapter of his life. By the end of the day, he’d ploughed through seven such 20-minute segments.

When he stepped onto the Senate floor at 4 o’clock on Tuesday, Dodd used his own parting remarks to deliver what he considers an urgent message to his current colleagues and incoming successors: protect the institution of the Senate, cherish its arcane rules and its slow, cranky pace.

Dodd said the framers sought to create a bicameral legislature, with a very deliberate Senate, so that “no matter which way the political winds blew, or how hard the gusts, there would be a place for every voice to be heard.

“In a nation founded in revolution against tyrannical rule, which sought to crush dissent, there should be one institution that would always provide a space where dissent was valued and respected,” Dodd boomed from his desk in the well the chamber.

His message seemed to resonate with many, coming at a time of deep partisan warfare and complaints that the Senate is broken. Despite that backdrop, Dodd said lawmakers needed to resist the temptation to make the Senate work faster or to limit the powers of the minority party, which can easily gum up the Senate’s gears for days at a time.

“Our Founders were concerned not only with what we legislated, but, just as importantly, with how we legislated,” he said. “Our political debate should always reflect that in our beliefs and in our aspirations, we are many.”

He called on his fellow Democrats to preserve the minority Republicans’ right to filibuster, and he urged the GOP to curb their “abuse” of that tool.

“These rules are merely requiring from us the kind of leadership our constituents need, that history calls on us to provide,” he said.

“My moment is now at an end,” Dodd concluded, wishing his colleagues good luck before yielding the floor.

At the back of the chamber, Connecticut’s five-member House delegation watched and listened, with Dodd’s first chief of staff, now Rep. Rosa DeLauro, crying as she soaked up the spectacle and the substance.

Dodd’s successor, Sen.-elect Richard Blumenthal, took in the pomp and ceremony from the public gallery above. Nearby, Dodd’s wife Jackie Clegg Dodd, sat with their two young daughters.

The only time Dodd’s voice cracked was when he mentioned his family, although his composure evaporated and tears appeared after he finished speaking. The sounds of back-slapping were audible from the press gallery as Democrats circled around Dodd to give him a farewell hug.

“Now go back to work,” Dodd cracked.

Indeed, even as he reveled in the moment, Dodd’s “final” speech won’t end up being his last words on the Senate floor. He scheduled his farewell speech for today thinking the lame-duck session would be over, or nearly so.

Instead, it could drag on for another couple of weeks. And in an interview earlier in the day, Dodd seemed more animated in talking about the rest of the lame-duck session than he did about packing up his office and moving on.

He said he’s still got hearings to chair, legislation to introduce, and policy talks to deliver.

“The contract runs until January,” he said. “I’m going to be on the job doing the work until the last minute of the last day. No stepping away, no folding your tent. Not for me.”

Dodd dismissed as “silly” a report earlier this week that he might in line for a job as the movie industry’s top lobbyist in Washington. He said he wanted to step away and catch his breath before he started anything new.

“I don’t want to say no to anything or yes to anything,” he said. “All I really know is coming up in the weeks, after this, I’m going to take some time before I really decide anything.”