Richard Blumenthal, the respected and popular attorney general of Connecticut who is currently running for senator, has lied consistently about the instructive years during which he — to quote him — “served in Vietnam.” In a nutshell: There weren’t any.
Blumenthal, now cornered, prefers the word “misspoke” to describe his public pronouncements on a perilous service he never quite rendered. But even a very young man who spent some of the war years as a coddled civilian and the rest safely ensconced in the Marine Corps Reserve probably knows the difference between Vietnam and the United States, the far away battlefield and home. He could not possibly have been, as he has also recalled for public consumption, “spat on,” by angry war protestors on his return to shores he never actually left.
As The New York Times just discovered, Blumenthal received in his long-ago youth a series of five deferments, my own personal favorite being the exquisitely rare occupational exemption from military service for reasons of “national health, safety and interest.”
His vital job at the time? Working as a special assistant to Katharine Graham, now long dead, but back then the publisher of The Washington Post. It was a plum Blumenthal snagged at age 22 because of his friendship with Graham’s son Donald (who, interestingly, volunteered for the draft and did serve in Vietnam), and this is just a guess, but my bet is fetching Kay’s coffee didn’t do much to advance the nation’s health and safety.
In other words, Blumenthal lied as a young man hoping to escape the draft and he lied as an older politician embarrassed by that decision, and now that he calls all these fantasy recollections symptoms of misspeaking rather than the lies they are, he is lying still. And I feel very sorry for him.
It’s sometimes hard to explain to those who never were around at the time, but the Vietnam War was an entire skein of lies: for those who were drafted, those who managed not to be, and still others who sat on the sidelines, slackjawed. Lyndon Johnson, who ran as a peace candidate in 1964, promised he wouldn’t commit “American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia.” But he did. Robert McNamara, then Defense Secretary, knew full well that his strategy of steady build-ups wouldn’t win the war — but he kept that unpleasant news from LBJ. Enemy body counts, courtesy of the military, were famous concoctions.
And on the other side too there were lies upon lies: shrinks who claimed that healthy men were so mentally disturbed as to be unfit for combat; young heterosexuals who claimed to be gay with the same aim in mind; non-Quakers pretending to be Quakers who were conscientious objectors. Newspaper boys insisting the nation couldn’t survive without them in their current jobs. And who could blame any of them?
Years go by. Decades. And the non-combatant alumni, many of them, have begun blaming themselves. They never confronted danger as young men, and now that they are old (and on death’s short list) perhaps they regret it. They have met, as Blumenthal regularly does, the men who really did go off to a war they themselves despised, and with every encounter more guilt sets in. So they exaggerate. They invent. They invoke, like LBJ, like McNamara — and, oh yes, like George W. Bush, that other famous noncom — fantastic scenarios about war. The numbers of troops needed. The swiftness of victory. The steely-eyed resolve during times of stress. Lies and more lies.
It’s a tradition.