Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Senator From Central Casting: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Thomas Dodd

The Senator from Central Casting
The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Thomas Dodd
By David E. Koskoff
Publisher: New American Political Press
Price: $29.95/hardcover

If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” E. M. Forster

Lacking such scruples, it was the other way around for the close associates of Senator Thomas Dodd, the subject of David Koskoff’s book, appropriately titled, perhaps with a wink in the direction of Mr. Dodd’s son, Chris Dodd, “The Senator from Central Casting: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Thomas J. Dodd.”

There are some important differences between father and son. When Dodd the younger retired from the US Senate, he was almost immediately scooped up by Hollywood as the chief lobbyist for Tinseltown. After Dodd the elder had been censured by the senate for having used public funds for his personal benefit, in addition to having accepted from both the government and private organizations money for the same travel expenses, he withdrew as a candidate at the Democratic nominating convention and ran for re-election as an independent. In a three way race between Mr. Dodd, anti-Vietnam war candidate Joe Duffey and pro-Vietnam War Republican convention nominee Lowell Weicker, the senator’s career came to an abrupt and, as some think, tragic end. Seven months after Mr. Weicker arose from Mr. Dodd’s ashes, the senator was dead of a heart attack at the age of 64.

Mr. Koskoff, the author of three well received books – Joseph Kennedy: A Life and Times, The Mellons: The Chronicle of America’s Richest Family, and The Diamond World – “became engrossed in the relationship among Dodd, Boyd and O’Hare, three extraordinarily bright, complex men whom Shakespeare would have woven into a great tragic play,” after he had read Michael O’Hare’s obituary. The principal plot line of the tragedy also spurred him to write the book: “Dodd became a caricature of “The Senator” with stirring orations, a caricature of the highly important Senator well aware of his own importance, and finally a caricature of a Senator ethically compromised on a dozen fronts. He was the Senator from Central Casting.”

The Senator from Central Casting is a straight narrative that carries Tom Dodd through his various permutations: as a young lawyer, finding a place with his mentor, Homer Cummings, Franklin Roosevelt’s first attorney general, during the golden age of American bank robbery in the mid 1930s; as chief assistant to Justice Robert Jackson during the Nuremberg Trials, a vehicle used by Mr. Dodd to enter first the House of Representatives and later the U.S. Senate; as a fervent anti-communist seeking office in the U.S. Senate; and as a senator whose principal weakness, a chronic inability to manage his own personal finances, led inevitably to his downfall. In Mr. Koskoff’s account, Mr. Dodd is a man of large imagination, not unfriendly to liquor, whose means never really were sufficient to secure the future he imagined for his wife and several children.

Much more than an anti-communist who lived, as the Chinese say, in interesting times, Mr. Dodd was a fervent anti-totalitarian who recognized much earlier than most of his contemporaries the vital connection between the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini on the one hand and the communism of Josef Stalin on the other, best described by Mussolini in his paean to the state: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Mr. Dodd, who kept his distance from state Democratic Party entanglements, though he was able to play the game with the best of them, was not shy of striking attitudes, and his self estimation, never running on low, did not play well with the opposition. Susceptible to flattery, Mr. Dodd was most comfortable among those who aspersed him with compliments; he was combative by nature with others. Interestingly, but perhaps not unexpectedly, son Christopher was in many ways the obverse of his father -- and rather more determined than most to fetch his dad’s reputation from the rubble.

The Conspiracy

Mr. Dodd was brought down by his office staff working hand in glove with two respectable muckrakers: Drew Pearson and Mr. Pearson’s junior partner Jack Anderson, both prominent journalists of the day. Mr. Anderson was proficient at rooting up and exploiting dissatisfactions between politicians and their staff. His technique was described in his New York Times obituary: “He quietly cultivated dissatisfied and idealistic lower level government workers, convincing them that the public’s right to information trumped the bosses’ personal interests. His stock in trade was secret documents he persuaded sources to leak.”

On June 11, 1965, Anderson struck gold.

Initially, Mr. O’Hare, the keeper of accounts in Mr. Dodd’s office, was to purloin relevant documents and turn them over to Mr. Anderson, who then would fashion the data into bullets for his and Mr. Pearson’s column, the “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” But Mr. O’Hare’s morals intruded. At the last minute, Mr. O’Hare begged off, pleading that he thought it wrong to remove data from the office. Into this breach leapt James Boyd, later the author of “Above the Law: The Rise and Fall of Senator Thomas J. Dodd,” and Mrs. Marjorie Carpenter, with whom Mr. Boyd, the father of four children, was having an affair. Of the two lovebirds who later married, Mrs. Carpenter was said to be the more idealistic.

Much before Watergate, Mrs. Carpenter and Mr. Boyd, “who engineered and orchestrated the downfall of Thomas J. Dodd,” both of whom had been fired by Mr. Dodd, broke into their former workplace late at night and, over several nights, stole off with “some 7,000 pages of documents,” column fodder for Mr. Pearson and Mr. Anderson. “The odds on them completing their trespass without detection would seem to have been slim,” Mr. Koskoff writes, “but they never aroused suspicion. The account of their covert operation in Above the Law is as captivating as a thriller by Eric Ambler or Fredrick Forsyte.”

Mr. O’Hare, at first hanging back, later joined the conspiracy, his weakening “ties of loyalty” having been snapped by the firing of his girlfriend, Terry Golden. Mr. Dodd, who appears to have grown impatient with the raging hormones of his staff in the age of Woodstock, fired Ms. Golden because he perceived that Mr. O’Hare’s girl friend was too close to Mrs. Carpenter and Mr. Boyd.

It was a fire too many:

“The weekend following the dismissal of Terry Golden, O’Hare the bookkeeper snuck the full set of the Senator’s financial records for the preceding fire years out of the office. There were checkbook records, campaign finance returns, income tax filings – the works. According to Drew Pearson, there were tears in O’Hare’s eyes as he proceeded. He told Pearson: ‘I’ve been protecting this information with my life. Now I’m giving it for publication for the world to read’”

The “works” Mr. O’Hare delivered to Mr. Pearson and Mr. Anderson was the stuff of which Senate censures – and possibly prosecutions for tax fraud – are made.

The Aftermath

Every tip of the iceberg is attached to a broad bottom, treacherously expanding below the waters surface and out of sight. Mr. Koskoff, a lawyer himself, has a lawyer’s eye for the telling detail.

An incident that occurred at the time of President John Kennedy’s assassination, described in some detail in The Case Against Congress, a book written by Mr. Pearson and Mr. Anderson, is essential, Mr. Koskoff writes, “to understanding the downfall of Thomas J. Dodd, because it had a tremendous effect upon his most important aides and was important in turning them against him.”

When Mr. Kennedy was assassinated, Dodd was “having lunch at Franks, a downtown restaurant frequented by the political crowd, with Bill Curry, a local political powerhouse, who was also probably Dodd’s closest Connecticut crony other than Sullivan.” Ed Sullivan, “a former beer-truck driver with a graduate degree in street smarts,” Mr. Koskof writes, was Mr. Dodd’s opportunity spotter, “the only person Dodd ever trusted with the full picture of his financial operations.”

In his cups at the time, Mr. Dodd commandeered a plane from United Aircraft Corporation and met his staff at the airport in Washington, where he was told that Florida Senator George Smathers had just arrived wearing a black armband.

“Smathers,” Mr. Dodd said, “was a friend of the old administration. I am a friend of the new [Johnson] administration.” Watching at his Georgetown residence on television the tributes being paid to Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Dodd offered his assessment of the Kennedy administration: “I’ll say of John Kennedy what I said of Pope John the day he died. It will take us fifty years to undo the damage he did to us in three years.”

Comments such as these were to Mr. Dodd’s staff so many trip wires that undermined affections. “Alcohol abuse,” Mr. Koskof writes, “must be at least part of the explanation for the stark and tragic contrast between the respected, highly competent and disciplined prosecutor, who had directed the most important trial in the history of the world, and the tragic figure considered in the rest of this book.”

Mr. Koskoff’s lawyerly account of Mr. Dodd’s censure in the Senate is well told. Charged with two counts – obtaining and using public campaign and testimonial funds for his personal benefit; and accepting reimbursements for travel expenses from both the senate and private organizations – Mr. Dodd was censured by a 92 to 5 tally on the lesser count of using public funds for his private purposes. He was exonerated on the more troublesome count of double billing by a vote of 51 to 45. In 1969, the Nixon Justice Department announced there would be no tax prosecution.

Mr. Dodd’s resurrection began soon after the senator’s death in 1971, culminating in an archival mausoleum, the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. The archival material at UConn, Mr. Koskoff notes “has been sanitized by removal of those materials obviously related to Dodd’s downfall.” George Washington University, however, has 13 boxes that includes the several thousand sheets taken by Boyd and his associates that has been “expurgated from the official Dodd archive at UConn.”

A freedom of Information official at the FBI has told Koskoff that his longstanding FOI request for its files on Mr. Dodd, still awaiting processing, is likely to be finalized “in a year or two.” The Ethics Committee files on Mr. Dodd will be open to the public in 2017, and Mr. Koskoff has generously offered to share with UConn the FBI’s carton of documents when they materialize.

The Senator from Central Casting will be available in bookstores after May 1

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