Vietnam’s Last Shot Grazes Perfect Candidate: Margaret Carlson

In America’s entire quiver of politicians, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is the straightest of arrows. Exaggerating his service in the Marine Corps to include a stint in Vietnam is so out of character, it’s like Barack Obama doing a cartwheel, Sarah Palin quoting Madison from memory or Joe Biden clamming up.

The bomb dropped on May 18 in a front-page story in the New York Times is that Blumenthal, 64, now running for Chris Dodd’s seat in the Senate, had been going around claiming to be a Vietnam vet when he was no more than a Parris Island reservist whose most dangerous mission was a Toys for Tots campaign. As quoted in the Times, his assertion was unequivocal: “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam.” There aren’t a lot of ways to parse that sentence.

The report was so at odds with Blumenthal’s reputation that you had to wonder: Was he really, secretly, a pathological liar all these years, or was this a case of a slip of the tongue being made into a federal case? The inquiry may not have been the sole work of the Times. Blumenthal’s opponent, wrestling impresario Linda McMahon, star of World Wrestling Entertainment’s vulgar program “RAW,” took credit for tipping off the newspaper.

It must have been like looking for a needle in a haystack, one frame amid a million. Publishers don’t have that kind of time and money required to comb through 30 years of a public life and the thousands of speeches given to get the money shot.

Gratuitous Lies

As the day wore on, Blumenthal inevitably found himself being compared to Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton. Both are a stretch.

Spitzer participated in something illegal, prostitution. Clinton lied under oath about his extramarital activities. The underlying act in both cases was adultery, to which lying is a lesser included offense.

Blumenthal’s deception violated no law but could prove just as troublesome. It was gratuitous and unnecessary and raises questions that aren’t legal but ethical and psychological.

In Connecticut, Blumenthal is regarded as having the best resume in the history of politics; magna cum laude from Harvard, a tour at Cambridge, editor of the Yale Law Journal, Supreme Court clerkship, White House staff, U.S. attorney, attorney general and now the obvious successor to Dodd. It makes the Times story seem either ironic or highly improbable: Why burnish a resume that would make Obama envious?

Straw Man

In a press conference on May 18, Blumenthal tried various gambits at damage control.

He castigated those who impugned his service, but that was a straw man, since what they were really attacking was his lack of service. He told what sounded like a whopper concerning how much, at the height of the Vietnam War and after multiple deferments, he really, really wanted to serve. If that were true, Uncle Sam certainly wanted him.

He did regret uttering misplaced words on a “few occasions” for which he takes “full responsibility.” He blamed it all on faulty use of prepositions. What he meant to say was not “in” Vietnam, but “during” Vietnam.

An error of grammar? In another setting this wouldn’t have worked. Too many Nixonian weasel words without using the one word likely to work: sorry. But Blumenthal was speaking to a packed room not only of reporters but supporters, including many Vietnam-era veterans who looked genuinely connected to Blumenthal, not like extras from “Apocalypse Now.”

Small Spark

And he had a powerful case to make that had been left out of the Times story: All of his campaign and biographical materials had stated his service correctly. He had tons of personal testimony from those who had heard him tell the true story over and over on the stump, with audio and video for backup. He hadn’t made up heroic tales of derring-do, of buddies shot or bodies maimed. The Times story and McMahon’s presumably massive search did in fact boil down to one occasion. It was an awfully small spark to set off such a big explosion.

There was a curious dissenter: former Republican Congressman Chris Shays. He told the Times that in recent years he noticed Blumenthal had begun to embellish his military service. Shays, who lost his seat in 2008, was the recipient of donations from McMahon.

There’s no good reason for Blumenthal to make more of his military service than it was. As a requirement for public office, going to war has faded -- just ask Dick Cheney, George W. Bush (who flew planes to protect Texas against an invasion by Oklahoma) or Clinton, who didn’t even do that but wrote long letters to a colonel agonizing over it. Because our political class is drawn from an elite class, experience in uniform will become even less important as time goes on. Will anyone ask where a candidate was while blood was being shed in Fallujah?

Young Fogy

Blumenthal is emotionally distant and singularly focused. There’s no ladder he didn’t climb. After pleasing every teacher he encountered, he went out into the world and became the young fogy that eminent older men love to mentor.

As an aide to Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Ben Bradlee, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Supreme Court Associate Justice Harry Blackmun into his 30s, Blumenthal had to do little but please the boss. Even as he went on to become one of the best attorneys general in the country, as a politician, the reflex to please remains.

And pleasing one’s self can be the hardest challenge of all. What Blumenthal did, if intentional, comes not from the pathology of the liar but from that of the perfectionist who wanted to, at one moment on one day amid hundreds of other days, erase the blemish only he could see.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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