The controversy over Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s claim of service in the Vietnam War continues. After the New York Times was accused of leaving out exculpatory statements made by Blumenthal on one such occasion, the newspaper insists that the earlier comment does not alter the misleading representations, here. Moreover, newly disclosed statements like “I wore the uniform in Vietnam and many came back to all kinds of disrespect” undermine his defense. Below is my column today on the New York Times blog discussing the scandal.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s reported exaggeration of his military record is a shock to many supporters. But the irresistible temptation to invent or exaggerate military service is common to politicians and non-politicians alike.
Whether it is a pick-up line in a bar or a boast on Memorial Day, people often learn that a little fib of military service can go along way in achieving certain advantages. It is a way of instantly giving yourself a better image — perhaps becoming the person you wish you were.
For the state’s top lawyer (and a senatorial candidate), such claims are particularly problematic. Blumenthal’s office routinely prosecutes fraud and false statements in various contexts. Moreover, federal law makes certain false military claims a criminal matter. (Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, a person claiming specific military decorations or medals could be sentenced to a year in jail).
What is fascinating is that Blumenthal was already considered one of the nation’s leading politicians and lawyers. He is not some Walter Mitty who desperately wants to reinvent himself like Steven Burton, 39, of Palm Springs, who appeared at his high school reunion in a Marine Corps uniform supporting about a pound of medals.
Burton was just some schmo who worked in a bank and decided to remake himself into a decorated officer. Blumenthal is the guy that many people want to pretend to be: a Harvard-educated lawyer with a record of fighting for the public interest. Yet, even he wanted a degree of personal enhancement or reinvention.
In that sense he is similar to other leading citizens like Illinois Circuit Judge Michael F. O’Brien who claimed not one but two Congressional Medals of Honor. Likewise, there was Admiral Jeremy Michael Boorda, the 25th Chief of Naval Operations, who was a legend in the service as the only C.N.O. to have reached that position from the enlisted ranks. He committed suicide after being accused of wearing unearned “Combat Vs” on his Navy Commendation Medal and Navy Achievement Medal indicating valor in combat.
For politicians, the desire to claim military distinctions is sometimes irresistible. Politicians thrive on symbols and rhetoric that create bonds with the public. Military service is perhaps the strongest such self-authenticating qualification. It recasts a politician in a new light — not some self-serving egomaniac but a selfless public servant. Blumenthal’s comments about the trauma of returning home to a hostile nation would resonate with anyone and elicit universal affection.
Of course, the terrible irony is that reinventing oneself in this way can wipe away years of well-deserved respect and trust. In the eyes of many, Blumenthal has joined the ranks of the “semper frauds.” While he told crowds that he still remembered “the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse” following Vietnam, he is now experiencing that very reaction from citizens.
For the other views on the New York Times blog, click here.