The January 6th Committee hearings continue to dominate news out of Washington, with new revelations this week concerning Rudy Giuliani’s pressuring of Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers to switch the state’s electoral votes to former President Trump. On this week’s encore episode of Now & Then, “Investigating Democracy,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the transformative potential of congressional commissions and queries into misconduct, from Preston Brooks’ 1856 caning of Charles Sumner to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Another impactful set of hearings concerned self-dealing by Connecticut Senator Thomas J. Dodd, which triggered a reckoning that forever changed the culture of accountability in Congress:
Thomas J. Dodd had a legendary early legal career. Born to Irish immigrants in Connecticut, he went from Yale Law School to the FBI in 1932. After a whirlwind year chasing bank robber John Dillinger as a Special Agent, Dodd pivoted to prosecutorial work in the Justice Department. During World War II, he brought down a German spy ring tied to Fritz Kuhn, whose pro-Nazi German American Bund had hosted a shocking rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939.
Dodd made his national name, however, when he served as Executive Trial Counsel, the number two position after Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson, at the 1946 Nuremberg Trials.
Dodd’s transition to electoral politics was a bit bumpier. He served two House terms beginning in 1952 before running for Senate in 1956. He lost to Prescott Bush, President George H.W. Bush’s father. After his defeat, he lobbied for Guatemalan military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas, an early indication of his fierce anti-Communism and his willingness to enter into international financial arrangements.
Dodd made it to the Senate in 1958. Over the next half-decade, he carved out an ideologically-complex niche. He was to the Left on guns, welfare, and civil rights. He was decidedly to the Right on Communist “subversion,” the prohibition of recreational drugs, and American military might. In 1965, he even tried to arrest Martin Luther King, Jr. under the Logan Act in response to King’s public statements against the Vietnam War.
Dodd’s wide-ranging political positions meant he had a large coalition. During the 1964 election season, Goldwater-Dodd clubs even popped up in the Northeast. As a result, President Johnson supposedly seriously considered naming Dodd as his running mate.
Just as Dodd’s political star was at its highest, however, his own employees revolted. In the midst of the 1964 campaign, James Boyd, Dodd’s administrative assistant, and Marjorie Carter, Dodd’s secretary, discovered campaign finance irregularities in the Senator’s files and began to rethink Dodd’s relationships with several important political allies.
During the first few years of the 1960s, Dodd had raised almost $500,000 in campaign fundraiser contributions, mostly through tax-free gifts given at “Dodd Day” testimonial dinners, including one October 1963 event attended by then-Vice President Johnson.
Dodd had used much of the money not to secure his political future, but for personal debts and expenditures, including cash for a hefty mortgage on his 140-acre estate in North Stonington, Connecticut, for liquor in his Senate office, for transportation to West Virginia race tracks during family trips, for paying a ghostwriter for one of Dodd’s anti-Communist books, and even for airfare for Dodd’s dog to travel from Connecticut to Washington D.C.
“We found that we were taking in nearly twice as much as we were reporting and spending about half,” Boyd later told Newsweek. While Dodd had been ambiguous as to whether the dinner donations were personal gifts or campaign contributions, most donors–particularly given the presence of Democratic Party leaders at virtually all of the dinners–believed them to be tied in with official campaign fundraising.
Entwined with the questionable use of funds were a bevy of trips on behalf of donors that brought up potential conflicts of interest. Many of Boyd and Carter’s original revelations concerned Julius Klein, a Chicago-based public relations maven and international political dealmaker.
Klein was a Jewish refugee from Odessa who had worked as a reporter in the 1920s and had served with distinction in the Pacific during World War II. After the War, Klein had lobbied West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to pay 30 million marks to families of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Klein went on to represent German interests in the United States, including helping to negotiate a lucrative contract with Mercedes-Benz.
Klein was often referred to as “General Klein” due to his status as a retired Brigadier General with the Illinois National Guard.
In May 1963, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took testimony from Klein over the extent of his relationship with West Germany–and about whether he might have been overstepping his bounds as a registered Foreign Agent into the territory of directly manipulating lawmakers in Washington. Klein admitted that it was a “very ticklish problem to know where to draw the line.” The Germans were queasy with Klein’s candor and he was at risk of losing his German contracts.
In the aftermath of the Klein dust-up, Dodd traveled to West Germany–at least partially at Klein’s urging–and defended Klein in a conversation with Adenauer, who by then was no longer Chancellor. Dodd publicly stated that the trip’s purpose was to learn about Soviet extrajudicial killings from defector and KGB Agent Bohdan Stashynsky, who in 1959 had murdered right-wing Ukrainian Nationalist Stepan Bandera with a cyanide gun. The timing of the trip, in the midst of a crucial Democratic defense against a filibuster by Southern senators of the 1964 Civil Right Act, also raised his aides’ eyebrows.
Beyond the trip, the aides alleged Dodd had also stayed in Klein’s suite at the Essex House Hotel in Manhattan up to fifty times without charge.
In May 1965, Dodd dismissed Boyd and Carpenter, ostensibly for disparaging comments they had made to other staffers about their discoveries. Reports eventually surfaced that Dodd had let Boyd and Carpenter go at least in part due to a clandestine and extramarital romantic relationship they were conducting.
Released from their Dodd bonds, the disenchanted staffers acted on the Klein relationship and “Dodd Day” fundraising. They teamed up with two other anguished aides still on the Senator’s staff and stole 4,000 documents from their boss’s files. Shortly thereafter, they began sharing the papers with political columnists Jack Anderson and Drew Pearson.
Anderson and Pearson sat on the leaks for almost a year, but in late January 1966 began publishing the contents in their syndicated “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column.
On February 18th, 1966, with the impact of Pearson and Anderson’s revelations mushrooming, Dodd asked for a full investigation into his past questionable dealings. Responsibility fell to the brand-new Senate Select Committee on Standards and Conduct–dubbed the “Senate Ethics Committee.” The Committee had emerged from similar financial impropriety scandals involving President Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff Sherman Adams and Senate Secretary to the Majority Leader Bobby Baker, both of whom resigned their positions after ad hoc Senate investigations.
The new Committee, chaired by Mississippi Dixiecrat John Stennis, scheduled hearings on the Klein issue for June and July 1966.
In the lead-up to the hearings, United Press International photographed a somber Klein at his Manhattan apartment, standing in front of a wall of photos showing him hobnobbing with former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, General Douglas MacArthur, and two-time Democratic Party standard bearer Adlai Stevenson. Klein, clearly, had a whole bunch of friends in high places.
On July 19th, 1966, Klein appeared before the Ethics Committee. He calmly disputed the allegations: he said he had had put no pressure on Dodd to smooth things over with the West Germans, that many Senators had used his Essex House suite, and that an alleged Persian Rug that he had sent Dodd was actually a $2 gag miniature, which Dodd’s wife Grace presented to the Committee.
During the hearings, Dodd intensified his defensive press campaign. On August 22nd, he appeared on conservative commentator William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. Although a conservative, Buckley was largely sympathetic to Dodd’s plight, repeatedly highlighting how other Senators had slept in Klein’s Essex House room and how both New York Senator Jacob Javits and Minnesota Senator (and by this time Vice President) Hubert Humphrey had written letters on Klein’s behalf to German politicians after the contentious 1963 hearing.
The issue largely receded to the background for the rest of 1966. In March 1967, however, the Ethics Committee held a second round of hearings, this time focused on the “Dodd Dinner” proceeds. Dodd mounted another vigorous defense, calling famed handwriting expert Charles A. Appel to attest that many of the checks using his fundraising dollars were actually signed in his name by his aides. Appel came armed with massive blowups of the checks.
After the second round of hearings, Dodd began more fiercely attacking Pearson and Anderson. In a speech broadcast on Connecticut television on May 14th, 1967, Dodd argued that the columnists’ crusade was a response to his strident anti-Communism: “A question at issue is whether Pearson and Anderson are to be given a hunting license to knock off all those in Congress who advocate a hard line of resistance to communist aggression and who oppose all tendencies to appeasement.”
On June 14th, 1967, the full Senate convened for a nine-day final judgment on Dodd’s actions. Louisiana Senator Russell Long–the flamboyant son of the even-more-flamboyant Louisiana Senator Huey Long–opted to serve as Dodd’s unofficial defense attorney during the Senate “trial.”
Long’s passionate defense of his colleague and friend amounted to unintentional sabotage. During a wide-ranging, six-hour oration on June 16th, Long called Anderson “the serpent in the poisonous tree,” while offering only vaguely related stories about his own family’s political persecution. The initial audience of 80 Senators was down to 13 by the end of Long’s speech.
Long was not alone in his dramatics. Dodd embraced biblical histrionics in his own four-hour defense: “I am telling the truth as though I had to face my Maker in a minute. I am telling you the truth and I am concealing nothing. May the vengeance of God strike me if I am doing otherwise!”
He also offered an almost Shakespearean ultimatum to his fellow Senators: “How many times do you want to hang me? Be done with it! Do away with me! In the twilight of my life! And that will be the end of me!”
On June 23rd, 1967, the Senate voted 92-5 to censure Dodd for “conduct which is contrary to accepted morals, derogates from the public trust expected of a Senator, and tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute.” Notably, the censure covered only the campaign contributions. The Klein issue, despite being more central to the publicity of the scandal, ultimately fell by the wayside. Dodd became the first senator to be censured for personal financial misconduct, and the first overall since Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954.
Dodd served out his term, losing re-election to Lowell Weicker in 1970 in what was largely viewed as a referendum on the censure vote. During his final debate with Weicker in October 1970, Dodd continued to rail against what he saw as senatorial overreach, calling the censure a “grave injustice” and arguing that his family was “taken by our heels, turned upside down, and shaken.” Dodd died less than a year later. And despite the toll on his family life, Dodd’s son Chris was elected to the House in 1974 and to the Senate in 1980, where he served for the next three decades.
Shortly after Dodd’s death, the events of Watergate brought Senate investigations to a new level of national repute. But Dodd’s dramatic censure–and its role in bringing the Senate Ethics Committee to maturity–signaled a new chapter in the ability of American lawmakers to pursue accountability for their own, and an important step on the road to the ongoing attempts to seek justice for January 6th.
For more on Dodd, read David E. Koskoff’s 2011 The Senator from Central Casting: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Thomas J. Dodd. And for a look at the Dodd whistleblowers, read James Boyd’s 1968 somewhat similarly-titled account of the scandal, Above the Law: The Rise and Fall of Senator Thomas J. Dodd.
And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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Catch up on some recent Time Machine’s deep dives into history:
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- ‘Sort of Like Witches in the Old Days’: Political Correctness and President George H.W. Bush’s 1991 University of Michigan Commencement
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