NYT: Sen. Candidate Blumenthal Misrepresented Vietnam Service

The news, for Democrats in Connecticut, was bad.

Sen. Chris Dodd, the state's longest serving senator, was in deep trouble in his bid for a sixth term.  His polling numbers were worse than any other Senate incumbent seeking re-election.  There were allegations about a sweetheart mortgage deal, charges that he protected bonuses for AIG executives and was too close to the insurance industry.  Republicans were licking their chops about picking up the seat in November.

But when Dodd announced in January that he saw the handwriting on the wall, and would retire instead of running again, Democrats rejoiced.  They got, with little prodding, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal — the state's most popular official — into the race.  Suddenly those chops Republican were licking stopped tasting so good.  The race moved from potential GOP takeover to likely Democratic retention.

It's too soon to tell whether the story that The New York Times broke Monday evening will have legs; at the very least, it's raising eyebrows.  The story, by reporter Raymond Hernandez:  In the past, when Blumenthal would talk about honoring veterans, he spoke of "the days I served in Vietnam."

There was "one problem," Hernandez writes.  He "never served in Vietnam":

He obtained at least five military deferments from 1965 to 1970 and took repeated steps that enabled him to avoid going to war, according to records.

The deferments allowed Mr. Blumenthal to complete his studies at Harvard; pursue a graduate fellowship in England; serve as a special assistant to The Washington Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham; and ultimately take a job in the Nixon White House.

In 1970, with his last deferment in jeopardy, he landed a coveted spot in the Marine Reserve, which virtually guaranteed that he would not be sent to Vietnam. He joined a unit in Washington that conducted drills and other exercises and focused on local projects, like fixing a campground and organizing a Toys for Tots drive.

Blumenthal, of course, is not the only politician who did what he could to stay out the war, Hernandez writes.

But what is striking about Mr. Blumenthal’s record is the contrast between the many steps he took that allowed him to avoid Vietnam, and the misleading way he often speaks about that period of his life now, especially when he is speaking at veterans’ ceremonies or other patriotic events.

Sometimes his remarks have been plainly untrue, as in his speech to the group in Norwalk. At other times, he has used more ambiguous language, but the impression left on audiences can be similar.

On Monday, as The Times was getting ready to publish its story, Blumenthal "said that he had misspoken about his service" and "might have misspoken on other occasions." “My intention has always been to be completely clear and accurate and straightforward, out of respect to the veterans who served in Vietnam,” he said.

But an examination of his remarks at the ceremonies shows that he does not volunteer that his service never took him overseas. And he describes the hostile reaction directed at veterans coming back from Vietnam, intimating that he was among them.

In 2003, he addressed a rally in Bridgeport, where about 100 military families gathered to express support for American troops overseas. “When we returned, we saw nothing like this,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “Let us do better by this generation of men and women.”

At a 2008 ceremony in front of the Veterans War Memorial Building in Shelton, he praised the audience for paying tribute to troops fighting abroad, noting that America had not always done so.

"I served during the Vietnam era," he said. "I remember the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse."

Blumenthal "is known as a brilliant lawyer who likes to argue cases in court and uses language with power and precision," Hernandez writes.  He is also "savvy about the news media and attentive to how he is portrayed in the press":

But the way he speaks about his military service has led to confusion and frequent mischaracterizations of his biography in his home state newspapers. In at least eight newspaper articles published in Connecticut from 2003 to 2009, he is described as having served in Vietnam.

The New Haven Register on July 20, 2006, described him as "a veteran of the Vietnam War," and on April 6, 2007, said that the attorney general had "served in the Marines in Vietnam." On May 26, 2009, The Connecticut Post, a Bridgeport newspaper that is the state’s third-largest daily, described Mr. Blumenthal as "a Vietnam veteran." The Shelton Weekly reported on May 23, 2008, that Mr. Blumenthal "was met with applause when he spoke about his experience as a Marine sergeant in Vietnam."

It is pretty remarkable that for someone like Blumenthal, who has spent nearly three decades in state politics, the question of service in Vietnam has never been checked.

But those days are over.  One of the two Republicans running for the seat, former Rep. Rob Simmons — who happens to be a Vietnam combat veteran — said:

As someone who served, I respect Richard Blumenthal for wearing the uniform, but I am deeply troubled by allegations that he has misrepresented his service.  Too many have sacrificed too much to have their valor stolen in this way.  I hope Mr. Blumenthal steps forward and forthrightly addresses the questions that have arisen about this matter.

The other Republican running is former World Wrestling Federation executive Linda McMahon.

As I said earlier, it's too soon to see what this does to Blumenthal's candidacy.  But my mind immediately wandered back to Wes Cooley, the Republican congressman from Oregon who was sailing towards re-election in 1996 until it was revealed that he falsely claimed to be a Korean combat veteran.  Cooley, who had other problems in addition to his fabricated war record, quit his race under pressure in August.

Update:  According to the Associated Press, Blumenthal called the New York Times story an "outrageous distortion" on his record:

Blumenthal says he's always tried to make it clear his Marine Reserve service never took him overseas. The Times reported he got five deferments to avoid going to war between 1965 and 1970.

Blumenthal told The Times he had misspoken at the 2008 event in Norfolk in which he said he served in Vietnam.

In a televised March debate, Blumenthal stated clearly he had not served in Vietnam.

Update at 8:15 a.m., May 18: On Morning Edition, Hernandez spoke with guest host Lynn Neary. During their conversation, Lynn played a clip of Blumenthal making that comment about "the days I served in Vietnam." You can hear it by clicking the link to the story.

"He's made statements that were flatly untrue," Hernandez says, and others that were "ambiguous enough that (they) left the impression that ... he had in fact served in Vietnam when he didn't."

Hernandez also tells Lynn that while "it's early to tell" whether the news will affect the Connecticut Senate race, Republicans have already come out "swinging."

Update at 8:55 a.m., May 18: The McMahon campaign has posted a video clip of Blumenthal making the comment about serving in Vietnam.

 

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