STORRS — President Joe Biden visited Connecticut on Friday to promote the hopes of his young presidency, its commitment to human rights and the legacies of two former senators, Christopher J. Dodd and his late father, Thomas J. Dodd.
With digs at the predecessor he never mentioned by name, Biden spoke with passion about the importance of equity and reasserting America as a leader on a world stage after Donald J. Trump’s credo of “America First.”
“Today, we know that our efforts to defend human rights around the world are stronger, because we recognize our own historic challenges as part of that same fight,” Biden said, adding the best way to lead was by example. “The first 10 minutes I was in office, I ended the Muslim ban.”
Biden’s voice varied from a whisper to a shout, drawing a line from contemporary intolerance and hate crimes to the Nuremberg war trials of 76 years ago, where Thomas Dodd prosecuted Nazis and, more importantly in the view of the president, documented their crimes.
“He made sure no one could deny their own eyes and what they saw,” Biden said, waving his finger. “He preserved the truth, ugly and as traumatic as it was, for all of history, so that the horrors of the Holocaust could never be diminished or denied. And evil that we still have to guard against to this day has to be watched.”
The occasion was the re-dedication of the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center — the 1995 opening of which was attended by President Bill Clinton — as the Dodd Center for Human Rights, an honor to father and son.
The five-hour visit to Connecticut, the first of his presidency outside a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy in May, is a testament to his relationship with Chris Dodd, whose 30 years in office made him the longest-serving senator from the state.
Cumulatively, father and son served 52 years in the U.S. House and Senate.
At a stop in Hartford and then here at the University of Connecticut, the president sounded notes of what is likely to be the Democrats’ pitch for keeping their tenuous control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections.
Connecticut is a solid blue state that does not rank high on the list of mid-term concerns. Biden carried the state with 59% of the vote last year, continuing a Democratic streak begun by Bill Clinton in 1992. Biden campaigned for Lamont in 2018, and Lamont was among Biden’s earliest supporters, writing a check to the campaign on its first day. Biden lavished praise on Lamont.
“Gov. Lamont, you’re one of the finest governors in the country,” Biden said. “I’m not being solicitous. That is a fact.”
The faint hum of distant protesters could be heard as Biden spoke, their words indistinct. On the road from I-84, a sign promised Trump would be back in 2024.
Biden arrived at midday at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks on Air Force One then flew by Marine helicopter to Brainard Airport in Hartford, where the governor, both senators, all five congressional representatives and the mayor greeted him.
Biden spoke at the Capitol Child Development Center in Hartford, defending his attempt to expand the definition of infrastructure spending to social services, including day care. He acknowledged there that his $3 trillion package might not stay intact. Then he flew by helicopter to UConn, landing in a parking lot.
The Dodd Center holds the letters Thomas wrote from Nuremberg to his wife, Grace — a mix of travelogue, homesick love notes, hopes that Chris would remember him, and ultimately sharp observations about the evil, efficiency and ordinariness of the mass murderers who served Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
Dodd quoted a prediction his father made in a letter from Nuremberg: “I never will do anything as worthwhile again.”
The re-dedication was held on a plaza outside the brick semi-circular façade of The Dodd Center. The renaming was approved by trustees in August, and the celebration was delayed after Biden made clear his wishes to attend.
“To me, as a Holocaust survivor, this is a holy place,” said Rabbi Philip Lazowski, giving the invocation.
The heart of the president’s speech was about human rights, including his own reversal of a Trump-era ban on transgender Americans joining the military. But it began and ended with remembrances of Chris Dodd and his family.
Biden and Dodd are contemporaries who arrived in Washington D.C. as young men, a generation promising change in a time of tumult. Both won as 30-year-olds: Biden, now 78, to the Senate in 1972; Dodd, now 77, to the House in 1974, then the Senate in 1980.
Men of status and accomplishment in the Senate, they shared the humiliation of crisscrossing a wintry Iowa as second-tier presidential candidates in 2008, watching a trio with thinner resumes capture the imaginations of voters and donors.
They shared a small plane at times, Dodd traveling with a young aide and Biden with his son, Beau.
“We did so because of our deep friendship for each other. But we were also both broke, I might add,” Dodd said. “Today, in today’s highly polarized political world, such joint ventures, regrettably, would be unlikely.”
Biden offered his own memories of sharing the twin-engine prop plane, laughing and telling stories with Dodd on the way to a debate where they were competitors.
With a broad smile, he glanced at Dodd and noted, “Luckily, Chris, I get to travel in a much nicer plane these days.”
Dodd and Biden could not compete in 2008 with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or even John Edwards, the one-term senator who had been the vice presidential nominee in 2004. The top-tier trio captured 97% of the vote. Dodd exited the race in 6th place. Obama put Biden and Dodd on his list of potential running mates. He chose Biden, and his career diverged from Dodd’s.
Dodd did not seek re-election in 2010, unwilling to risk the mistake made by his father in 1970 — running one time too many.
Weakened by a censure in 1967 over his personal use of campaign funds, Thomas Dodd ran without his party’s nomination, finishing third behind Republican Lowell P. Weicker Jr. and an antiwar Democrat, Joe Duffey. The son was a Peace Corps volunteer during the censure. The father died six months after the election.
Despite the formality of a presidential visit, the Storrs event had the trappings of a class reunion, one with the white-haired Dodd at its center. A thread wove through the congressional delegation and many others in attendance, binding them to Dodd. His former staffers dotted the assemblage, veterans of the Dodd Squad.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who succeeded Dodd in the Senate, recalled the warm note his predecessor left in his desk. Sen. Chris Murphy smiled and shared where he was in 1995, when Bill Clinton dedicated the center in its original iteration: “I was fulfilling my childhood dream. I was interning for Chris Dodd.”
Courtney holds the congressional seat that once belonged to the Dodds. Dodd’s niece, Helena Foulkes, a former senior executive at CVS Health who is running for governor in Rhode Island, introduced DeLauro, who managed Dodd’s first campaign for Senate and served as his chief of staff before running for Congress in 1990.
DeLauro introduced Dodd, hugging him as he took the stage
Hiring DeLauro was one of his best decisions, he said. DeLauro noted that the oldest of Dodd’s two daughters, Grace, was her constituent, a student at Yale.
Dodd mentioned that one of his long-time aides, Edward Mann, had died this week after a long illness. He smiled and recalled hiring Mann out of a Friendly’s. He eventually became the state director for Dodd’s office. Mann’s wake was Friday.
Biden surprised Dodd at a funeral home in Rhode Island when Dodd’s sister Martha died. Biden, then the vice president of the United States, arrived unannounced.
Dodd did not linger after Biden finished his remarks. The president was surrounded by well-wishers, but Dodd glided to an empty sidewalk, hurrying to a car with one companion.
Eddie Mann’s wake was at 5 p.m., and Chris Dodd was going to be there.