To paraphrase Oscar Levant, there’s a thin line between draft dodging and draft avoidance, and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal erased it. Today’s New York Times revealed that in addition to inflating his military résumé to suggest he endured a tour of duty in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine, he also availed himself of enough military deferments and ploys to avoid going to Vietnam that he appears to have set some sort of record. According to the Times, Blumenthal collected five military deferments from 1965 to 1970. And as deferments began to wane, he found a slot in a Marine Reserve unit where the hottest combat he saw was policing Toys for Tots drives in the Washington, D.C., area.
I’ll leave it to other people to decide whether to call Blumenthal a sleazy liar. But dabbing him with that insult may not have the desired effect. After all, our current vice president, Joe Biden, told grandiose lies about his past during his 1987 run for the White House, and see where it got him.
Blumenthal wasn’t the only member of his generation to take evasive measures again and again to prevent his young ass from being shot in Vietnam. The Times reports that Blumenthal, like other draft-age young men, avoided conscription by obtaining student deferments as a college student. After graduating from Harvard College in 1967, he cheated the draft again in 1967—like thousands of other young Americans—with graduate school deferment. The government probably prevented Blumenthal from pursuing a doctorate by eliminating graduate school deferments. Society rightly recognized that graduate school deferments had become a way for the wealthy and privileged to elude conscription at the expense of the nonwealthy and nonprivileged.
The resourceful Blumenthal was nothing if not connected: When his student deferment clocked out, he got his draft board to give him a 2-A “occupational deferment” for his work as a special aide to Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham, whom he met through her son Donald, a classmate at Harvard. The 2-A deferment was for jobs essential to the “national health, safety, and interest.” (For the record, Donald Graham joined the Army and served in Vietnam, not that you’ll ever hear him brag about it.)
Blumenthal’s next stop was Richard Nixon’s White House, where he secured yet another occupational deferment in 1970. But then Nixon began to replace the deferment hodge-podge with a draft lottery that would conscript young men no matter how noble their work or their student status. Blumenthal, who drew a very low number in the first lottery—virtually guaranteeing that he’d be drafted—made a desperate move while the clock was still running on his occupational deferment: He weaseled his way into the Marine Reserves, a branch that he correctly deduced would not be sent to Vietnam.
In avoiding the potentially deadly draft for the safety of the reserves, Blumenthal did pretty much what President George W. Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle, and many other well-connected young men of every political persuasion did. I was a draft-eligible student when the second draft lottery was held in 1970, and had I not drawn a high number I’m sure I would have tried to do as Bush, Quayle, and Blumenthal did, except I probably would have failed. I had no powerful and connected friends. My other choices to avoid the shooting war would have been the Navy and the Air Force, but I’m grateful that fate didn’t force my hand.
Although Blumenthal worked the system well, he didn’t pitch a perfect draft-avoidance game. Among the deferments he never collected were the ones dispensed to married men with children. Vice President Dick Cheney’s last-ditch effort to stay out of the military required him to put a bun in Lynne’s oven, as Slate’s Timothy Noah reported in 2004. Blumenthal appears to never to have sought an exemption because he was a conscientious objector, because he had some medical complication, or because he claimed to be homosexual, as many did.
Yes, Richard Blumenthal ducked the draft, but don’t judge him too harshly for his circumventions. At least he didn’t duck it for two and a half years with a religious deferment as Mitt Romney did as a Mormon missionary in France.
My cousin Gale Craig Hoogendoorn joined the Marines in 1965, straight out of high school, and was dispatched to Vietnam where he saw beaucoup combat. He died last month from lung cancer. Here’s to you, Gale. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or dodge by Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type Blumenthal in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to email@example.com.