Chris Dodd is still struck by the absurdity of the missed opportunity almost six years ago. When I talked to the Democratic presidential hopeful a few days ago, the five-term Connecticut senator was elaborating on his proposals for a new American patriotism through a wide-ranging plan for national service at all levels in the country.
When I asked the former Peace Crops volunteer what happened to the old American patriotism that once stirred him, Dodd talked about the vacuum of leadership and vision found in the current occupant of the White House — and how he dropped the ball after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Dodd, who unveiled his call for national service with a major speech yesterday in Nashua, said that after 9/11, the American people were ready to do most anything to pitch in and face an uncertain world.
"People say the world changed on Sept. 11 but on Sept. 12 America hadn't changed," Dodd told me. What stunned him was how President Bush gave the brush off to a more or less united country.
Bush "said 'go shop,'" Dodd said of Bush's prime post 9/11 response about what Americans could do for the country. To be fair, Bush was calling for Americans to be more or less be as normal as possible. But to Dodd it was a telling moment.
"As long as I live I will never forget it," he told me. Bush could have used the bully pulpit of the presidency to unite the country as President Roosevelt did during World War II. To borrow a line from Vice President Dick Cheney, who avoided service in Vietnam, Bush had "other priorities" that were mostly political and partisan.
'Go shop' was a puzzling political bookend to a more inspiring moment in Dodd's life. As a high school student, he came to Washington, D.C., in January 1961 to watch President John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," said Kennedy in a rhetorical thunderbolt that did strike Dodd and countless others. In comparison, "go shop" was a one-handed clap of absurdity and perhaps as much as anything explains the mess we are in today — and why Chris Dodd is running for president.
"We didn't solve every problem in mankind," said Dodd who served in the Dominican Republic during his Peace Corps stint. "But we made a difference."
He came to fatherhood late in life and has two young daughters, one of whom was born 48 hours after 9/11. His mantra now is in part dedicated to his children.
"I didn't wake up at 10 with a burning ambition to be president," Dodd told me. What matters now, he said, is "what did you and I do?" to make the world a better place.
In person, the white-haired, 63-year-old Dodd is the senator from central casting, no small matter given that five other sitting senators are running for president, which must make for some interesting moments on the Senate floor.
In stump speeches and in the debates, Dodd often sounds like he's speaking for C-Span, which is too bad because he's smart, funny, blunt, comfortable in his own skin, and at ease with the endless glad-handling of campaigning.
Dodd could teach classes on the joys and pitfalls of electioneering with lessons learned in eight straight victories.
"Who the hell are you?" he said with a laugh about what voters are really thinking when they size up a candidate.
While issues are important, Dodd told me, "fundamentally, voters want to know 'are you paying attention to me?'"
This is Dodd's first and perhaps only run for the presidency and he sings the praises of the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire — in part because he knows he can't afford to run a full-out national campaign, especially when confronting the light-consuming constellations of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. While barely registering a pulse in the polls and lagging far behind in fund-raising, Dodd has taken to the airwaves already with smart television advertising. He remains confident that his messages will resonate wider because he senses a shift in the mood of the electorate.
"I think people are listening," Dodd said honestly and humbly about running the primary gauntlet in New Hampshire. "The stakes haven't been higher in our lifetime."
He's tough on Bush but prefers to focus on his own issues such as a climate change/energy plan that is drawing serious attention, his call for national service and rebuilding America's moral authority in the world that has been slashed to shreds by the war in Iraq. He believes that sending more Peace Corps volunteers out into the world is necessary "to say to the world 'this is the essence of who we are.'" He's also concerned that the Iraq war has "gutted the military" and left us "less strong, less safe."
Dodd is a throwback, an old-style Northeast liberal, which makes it easy for the national pundit chorus to ignore him as a loser out of the gate — think Dukakis, Michael and Kerry, John. He's the only presidential candidate I know of who has made habeas corpus a campaign issue, a defining sign of the times given the Bush administration's unilateral instinct to be a law onto itself. But for Dodd taking care of such constitutional basics is a family affair. His father, the late Connecticut Sen. Thomas J. Dodd, was one of the lead prosecutors during the Nuremberg Nazi war crimes tribunals in the 1940s. The country's "moral authority" established at Nuremberg matters to Dodd, which makes the current, self-inflicted status so troubling.
"It's not exclusively about the presidency," Dodd said about the long and tough reclamation project that awaits Bush's successor. Given the comprehensive mess Bush has made, it certainly helps to have a president who knows who the hell he is and where he wants to go.
It also helps to have a sense of perspective and humor.
Dodd says his favorite line of late is one he stole from a voter. "I'm the only presidential candidate who gets calls from diaper services and the AARP."
Political columnist Michael McCord is the opinion page editor of the Herald and Herald Sunday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.