By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 7, 2010; A02
Sen. Christopher Dodd's retirement announcement on Wednesday had that rarest of traits in modern politics: a note of honesty.
"There's nothing more pathetic, in my view, than a politician who announces they're only leaving public life to spend more time with their family," the Democrat said as he stood outside his Connecticut house.
His 4-year-old daughter, in her mother's arms, reached out to touch his shoulder during the brief speech, and his 8-year-old daughter stood on his other side as he admitted that "these young ladies are not the reason for my decision."
Everybody knew the real reason: The old bull had turned bearish on his own prospects for reelection. And Dodd, to his credit, did not pretend otherwise. He allowed that he was "in the toughest political shape of my career," sailing in "stormy political waters," and "very aware of my present political standing."
There were other reasons, too: his sister's death, his prostate cancer, the loss of his longtime friend and drinking buddy Ted Kennedy. But, while saying that it would be "absurd" to make confident predictions about this year's election, he didn't try to challenge the view that his prospects for winning a sixth term hovered between dismal and hopeless.
"These challenges have given me pause to take stock and to ask questions that too few of us in elected public life ever do: Why am I running?" the powerful banking committee chairman said. Asking that question gave Dodd the epiphany he announced on the day of the Christian Epiphany: "This is my moment to step aside."
This was a classy departure for a man who has had his share of embarrassments in recent years. There was the sweetheart mortgage from Countrywide Financial that made him look too cozy with the financial interests he was supposed to police. There was the ill-fated 2008 presidential bid, in which he moved his family to Iowa, only to score less than 1 percent, a distant sixth place, in the Iowa caucuses. This baggage left the Democrats believing they had better chances for victory in Connecticut with a national unknown, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. How unknown? As CNN reported on Blumenthal's interest in the seat Wednesday morning, the network ran footage of Sidney Blumenthal, a Washington writer and former adviser to Bill Clinton.
Churlish and angry farewells have been a staple of American politics for half a century, dating to 1962's "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore" and reaching new heights last year with then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich reading Kipling at a news conference and vowing: "I will fight, I will fight, I will fight."
Just a day before Dodd's announcement, his longtime Senate colleague Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) showed less admirable form in his own retirement announcement. He sent a memo to staff members, then issued a written statement asserting that "if I had decided to run for another term in the Senate I would be re-elected."
Earlier, Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) made clear that he was so eager to get out of the Senate that he quit before finishing his term, saying that "it's time that I return to Florida and my family."
But Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) set the standard for gracelessness in the current cycle. "Over the past year, some of the leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate have done everything in their power to dry up my fund-raising," he wrote in his retirement statement.
Dodd, by contrast, assembled the media outside his home, where Christmas wreaths and red ribbons hung from the doors and an American flag waved.
He allowed himself just a moment to celebrate his legislative accomplishments of the past year. "I've managed four major pieces of legislation through the United States Congress, served as chair and acting chair of two major Senate committees, placing me at the center of the two most important issues of our time: health care and reform of financial services," he said.
That was honest. So was his decision not to leave with the usual plea for less partisanship in the Senate. "I believe in bipartisan solutions, but I also believe you can only achieve those results with vibrant, robust and civil partisan debate," he said.
Dodd didn't ignore his rowdy earlier days, mentioning the "actions" that "caused some of you to question" their confidence in him. Now 65, and finally married with kids, he spoke with some humility and some perspective. "None of us is irreplaceable, none of us are indispensable, and those who think otherwise are dangerous," he said.
It has often been said that Dodd's career in politics was a way to redeem his senator father, who was censured over financial shenanigans four decades ago and left office in disgrace. Whatever one thinks of his record, the son on Wednesday recorded one achievement that eluded the father: a departure with dignity.