I last saw Sen. Chris Dodd a couple of weeks ago outside of St. Joseph’s church where we had both just attended Mass. I first met him in 1974 at the kitchen table in my home in Connecticut. He had come there en route to a campaign event in our little town which had a church hall large enough for such a gathering. A lot has changed in between those two meetings. I will leave it to others to assess Dodd’s career but I would like to focus only on the way politics itself has changed.
Back then, Dodd’s campaign manager was Stanley Israelite. Stanley knew everyone and everyone knew Stanley. He made introductions. He called ahead to make sure things were ready. He did not micromanage: In the days when blackberries were still something you picked wild in the meadow and before the advent of emails and cell phones, micromanagement was an impossibility. A politician and his campaign needed to rely on groups like my mother’s group, the Democratic town committee, to put on a good event. I do not recall there being any television ads in that first congressional campaign or any polling. There was Stanley and the future congressman – one of them, or one of their aunts or uncles, was bound to know you or someone you knew. I know there were problems with this type of politics – there really were smoke-filled rooms! But, there was something organic, something pre-modern, something human about those old campaigns.
In 2004, I was working on a campaign in Connecticut and Dodd was running for re-election. Stanley Israelite had an office in Norwich but he was not running the campaign. That was now in the hands of professionals. The contemporary campaign is run by consultants who do ads or direct mail or polling. Some of them are very smart but they have created a campaign culture that emasculates a candidate: The candidate’s job is to be a spokesperson for issues and a fundraiser. The professionals decide everything else and they do not necessarily know anyone in the state or district where they are working. They are hired hands, committed first to their own flourishing. They know the polling data, but they don’t know people.
An example may make my point. I was working for a candidate who had a photographic memory and a real command of issues. We were looking forward to debating our opponent because of these strengths. Someone from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee came up to Connecticut to make sure that we were doing "debate prep" correctly. Of course, my candidate had been preparing for the debate all his life, but this campaign professional wanted us to do "role playing." I have always resisted role-playing. I have always thought that real human events require that we not cast them as things to be played with and that a candidate should not assume "a role" but be his or herself. We nodded to the campaign consultant sent from Washington and as soon as we were alone, I turned to my candidate and said, "I have always thought that role playing was inhumane." He burst out laughing. Oh, and we won the debate.
We saw some of the difference the two styles of doing politics produce at Sen. Edward Kennedy’s wake last summer. His good friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch spoke movingly about both the Senator and about his career. Hatch, of course, is as conservative as Kennedy was liberal but that fact did not keep them from becoming friends. Dodd was of that generation that remembered the time when politics was not all manufactured, when candidates were not emasculated, when friendship co-existed with political and intellectual rivalry. I fear those days are gone.
Something fine and bracing has gone out of our political life when candidates are turned into commodities, and when politics is seen as a skill-set rather than a connection of human beings with dense, overlapping affiliations and friendships. I do not see how we can ever get that something back. No candidates, of either party, have been able to resist the onslaught of the professionalization of political campaigns. I know some people are celebrating Dodd’s departure from the Senate today and others are mourning it. I am mostly mourning the loss of the Stanley Israelites of the world, of Sen. Hatch’s Utah equivalent of Stanley Israelite too for the ghastly modern campaign is a truly bipartisan phenomenon. I am mourning the departure of the humane version of politics that was still possible when Chris Dodd came to sit at my kitchen table in Connecticut in 1974.