Back when Richard Blumenthal had a fuller head of hair, a bright shining future, and a circle of distinguished friends, he left his job at the White House and joined the Marine Reserves, the holy grail of its day among college students trying to avoid the draft and very possibly serving in Vietnam. Yet he now finds himself mired in a political swamp as unforgiving as the Mekong Delta in typhoon season.
Somewhat unbelievably, considering Blumenthal’s experience and intelligence—to say nothing of his reputation for moral rectitude—he appears to have tempted fate and put his goal of the United States Senate in jeopardy by misleading the public about what he did during the war.
“Absent anything else,” the damage to Blumenthal’s chances in November would be minimal, said one influential Democratic consultant in Connecticut.
What could have made Blumenthal, the Democratic attorney general of Connecticut and likely replacement for retiring Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT), repeatedly mislead the public about serving in Vietnam? Was the embellishment simply a manifestation of Democrats’ deep-seated insecurity over national security issues? Or a carefully cultivated misperception about an episode in his life that, over time, began to seem to Blumenthal (no relation to this reporter) like the truth?
At a news conference in West Hartford on Tuesday, Blumenthal responded to an article in The New York Times by acknowledging what he called “making a few misplaced words.”
“On a few occasions I have misspoken about my service, and I regret that and take full responsibility,” he said. But he adamantly refused to apologize, and chorus of Marines who surrounded him bristled at the suggestion.
Blumenthal dismissed any notion that he joined to avoid the draft. “You want to know how I got into the United States Reserves?” he said. “I looked them up in a phone book. No special help, no special privileges.”
Still, Former Representative Christopher Shays, a Republican of Connecticut, told The Times the myth seemed to grow over time, and that he regretted not having said something earlier to his friend. “He is the kind of person I cared enough about that I wish I had nipped it in the bud when it was fomenting,” the paper quoted him as saying.
Time spent in the Reserves during that era still doesn’t earn much respect among some members of the military. Colin Powell, for instance, wrote in his autobiography: “I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed...managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units...Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country.”
It’s too early to say how this will affect Blumenthal’s aspirations. In a poll made public two weeks ago, he held more than a 20-point lead over his potential Republican opponent, though that could thin out in the days and weeks ahead. One Republican candidate, Linda McMahon, the wife of the wrestling executive Vince McMahon who has vowed that she plans to spend $50 million to win the seat, boasted on her Web site of giving the story to The Times, though the link was later removed—apparently after her campaign thought twice about the possible backlash.
One influential Democratic consultant in Connecticut played down the disclosure, whose impact, he said, was waning by the hour. “Absent anything else,” the damage to Blumenthal’s chances in November would be minimal, he said.
But the Republican pollster John Zogby said it was “hard to see the clouds lifting. My gut tells me he has a problem.”
“Americans don’t like hypocrisy,” he added.
What’s more, Zogby said, the Vietnam flap “opens the door. He better not have anything else out there,” noting that, in that case, you “get into a character flaw matter.”
Why Blumenthal, an extremely popular politician in Connecticut, would burnish the truth and jeopardize his goal is a mystery. And though he has vehemently denied having wittingly done so, the record, which he has repeatedly failed to correct, suggests otherwise. Flattering articles about him in Slate and The Hartford Courant described him as having been captain of the swim team at Harvard, false assertions he also failed to correct.
The whole mess was jarring, given the clean-cut image of the 64-year-old Blumenthal, who is viewed in his state as the ultimate consumer advocate, albeit a very media-conscious one. And the predicament is an odd one for an attorney general with such a gilt-edged résumé, including a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a law degree from Yale, a fellowship at Oxford, and stints at The Washington Post and the Nixon White House as an assistant to Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
It brings to mind another former state attorney general with an upper-crust pedigree and crusading manner who was tripped up by his own deceit: former Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York, who had to resign from office after his dalliances with a prostitute were exposed.
But perhaps the more relevant comparison here is to Dodd, the once-popular Democrat whom Blumenthal is trying to replace in the Senate and who was tripped up by his own run-in with the finer points of situational ethics. Dodd, after 30 years in the Senate, found himself in an increasingly difficult position while chasing after his sixth term. Questions about an allegedly discounted loan he received from Countrywide Financial, the company that went down under the weight of bad subprime loans, did not sit well with an electorate reeling from a plunging economy.
Dodd dodged a bullet thanks to colleagues on the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, who said they found “no credible evidence” that he had accepted a gift in the form of a sweetheart loan. Rather, they simply smacked his hand for the appearance of impropriety. That, along with his decision to move his family to Iowa in 2008 in a futile run for the Democratic presidential nomination, did not sit well with Dodd’s neighbors in Connecticut.
Should Democrats in Connecticut be inclined to show Blumenthal the trap door, they don’t have much time. They have to formally endorse a candidate by May 25 and certify the nomination by June 8.
But there’s no sign of a coup movement yet. To the contrary, the chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said after the news conference, “I think he’s corrected the record in the past and I think his actions as it relates to standing up for veterans over a long period of time speaks volumes about where his heart and his actions are.”
Rather, the Democrats are hoping that the slime, like the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, loops around and splatters McMahon.
Semper fi. For now.
This story has been updated with the quote from Rep. Shays.
Mitchell Blumenthal was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years. He served as assistant to the national editor and New Jersey editor. Before coming to The Times, he worked at newspapers in Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and on Long Island.