When political candidates are caught exaggerating their academic, athletic or, even, their romantic successes, I am generally forgiving. Maybe it has something to do with Original Sin and the human condition. But many of us seem occasionally unable to resist the temptation to harmlessly embellish our own sto-.
But when it comes to serious charges that a man has made self-serving exaggerations about his personal military service during wartime, I lack tolerance. Of course, the accused individual shall have the full chance to refute such damning allegations.
That was the case, this past week, when Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, previously the heavy November favorite to keep his state’s open U.S. Senate seat in Democratic hands, sought to rebut The New York Times’ front-page story that he had publicly misrepresented himself as having served as a member of the U.S. military in Vietnam during the war there.
Blumenthal, a man of authentic academic achievements — Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard College and editor in chief of the Yale Law School Journal — with an earned reputation for being both precise and deliberate in his speech, resorted to the language of the dissembler: “On a few occasions, I have misspoken about my service, and I regret that,” he said. “And I take full responsibility ... .”
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“I take full responsibility?” Who else might be responsible for what the attorney general said on public platforms? Nobody had suggested that a diabolical ventriloquist had been uttering those false words.
But in all my years on this planet, I have never heard any straightforward, truth-telling individual, when caught in a web of whoppers, use any variation of “I have misspoken.” These are weasel words that raise warning signals much like, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
The mystery is why did Richard Blumenthal — who, unlike so many of his classmates during the Vietnam War, did enlist in the Marine Corps, endure the fierce challenge of Parris Island boot camp and then fulfill his six years of Marine Reserve obligations — feel the irresistible need to pretend that he had fought in Vietnam?
That’s exactly what Blumenthal did when he told Connecticut crowds that “we have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam,” as well as, “I wore the uniform in Vietnam and many came back ... to all sorts of disrespect.” To a 2003 rally, which included many military families supporting U.S. troops in Iraq, he said, “When we returned, we saw nothing like this.”
Unable to discredit the Times’ story, Blumenthal employed an old political ploy: When you cannot contradict the substance, attack the source. The Times is attacked for having taken a lead from the campaign of one of Blumenthal’s Republican opponents. And the point is? The story was independently and thoroughly reported — the words are Blumenthal’s own. It is a not a compilation of blind quotes.
“Serving during Vietnam,” which Blumenthal cannot inaccurately say that he did, is as profoundly different from “serving in Vietnam” as “being the police officer who bravely saved the drowning child” would be different from “seeing the police officer who bravely saved the drowning child.”
Nobody, without real problems, misremembers about being in a war zone where your fellow Americans are on an hourly basis losing their limbs and their lives. What this is about is not what Richard Blumenthal did 40 years ago, which was legal and honorable service. No, this is about what Richard Blumenthal has, himself, said falsely — and too often — that he did 40 years ago.
You can overstate or hyperbolize about scoring the winning touchdown or being first in your high school graduating class. But never fake having served your country in the war zone during wartime when you haven’t even left stateside, because to “misspeak” about war is to mislead.
Mark Shields, Creators Syndicate, 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA 90045