Missed Saigon

Did Richard Blumenthal deliberately lie about his war record?

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal

Never say Richard Blumenthal didn’t fight for his life. He’s just doing it in Connecticut instead of Vietnam.

In a hastily convened press conference Tuesday in Hartford, Blumenthal rebutted charges in a front-page New York Times article that he lied about his war record. “On a few occasions, I have misspoken about my service, and for that I take full responsibility,” he said, flanked on both sides by Marines Corps veterans who injected periodic Oorahsand Semper Fi’s. “But I will not allow anyone to take a few misplaced words and impugn my record of service to our country.”

With that, Blumenthal settled at least one question: He doesn’t appear to be backing down in the Connecticut Senate race. Democrats, including the man he is trying to replace, Sen. Chris Dodd, spoke out in support of Blumenthal. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee seems poised to fight on. And the revelation that at least one of the quotes was fed to the Times by Blumenthal’s opponent, former WWF executive Linda McMahon, allows Blumenthal’s supporters to dismiss the accusations as political hay. (Blumenthal himself declined to address that subject at the presser.)

But other questions remain. Lying about your war record might be the most politically damaging revelation in America short of the infamous “dead girl or live boy” scandal. (A cheating scandal, on the other hand, is now practically a qualifier.) So Blumenthal has to be careful in his efforts to explain this one away.

It helps that the evidence isn’t exactly conclusive. It turns on the intent of individual words. The Times found one instance of Blumenthal saying he served “in Vietnam.” But he also said explicitly in a recent debate that “I did not serve in Vietnam.” In another quote, he seemed to include himself among veterans who came back from Vietnam: “When we returned, we saw nothing like this. Let us do better by this generation of men and women.” But at a 2008 ceremony for veterans, he said, accurately: “I served during the Vietnam era. I remember the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse.”

Blumenthal may not have deliberately made false statements. But the main charge in the Times story—that “he does not volunteer that his service never took him overseas”—is a sin of omission, not commission. Between 1965 and 1970, Blumenthal received at least five deferments and then served six years in the Marine Corps Reserve.

At today’s press conference, Blumenthal continued to play word games. He said he “misspoke” when he used the word “in” instead of “during” Vietnam. When a reporter asked him what he meant by “misspoke,” Blumenthal’s response sounded as if it had been vetted by a team of lawyers, PR reps, crisis communications experts, and lawyers again for good measure: “I was unaware of those misplaced words when they were spoken.” Responsibility must be taken, just not in the active voice.

Blumenthal’s lying, misspeaking—whatever you want to call it—says as much about the world politicians inhabit as it does about Blumenthal’s motivations. Fudging isn’t just common—it’s necessary. Does Barack Obama really “loveArlen Specter, as he said in a recent political ad? Does John McCain really believe he never considered himself a “maverick”? Does Harry Reid really think “we are going to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” as he told a crowd in Las Vegas in April? Probably not. But that’s how you make friends and influence people. Spend enough time in the gray zone, and what seems like a black-and-white lie to most people seems normal to you.

Then there’s the sheer volume of words politicians utter. Blumenthal noted at the press conference that he talks about his military service all the time. But he misspoke once, and everybody pounced. The process was probably more gradual, though. Politician tell stories over and over, adding tidbits every time. That’s how you get Hillary Clinton saying she landed under sniper fire in Bosnia. It’s also what happened with Blumenthal, according to former Rep. Christopher Shays: “[H]e just kept adding to the story, the more he told it. I think what happens in a case like this, it’s a tiny increment of change, but when you haven’t heard him in years you say, that’s a big difference.”

It doesn’t help that Blumenthal flails off-script. In an interview with the Times, he struggled to articulate why he was running for Senate. When a reporter asked if he would have voted for TARP, he turned to an aide and asked, “Have I taken a position on this?” For voters concerned about Blumenthal’s record—wartime or otherwise—that quote may be the most damning of all.

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