Slate staffers on Richard Blumenthal's Vietnam lies.

Conversations in real time.
May 18 2010 12:42 PM

Blumenfall

Is lying about military service worse than lying about an affair?

Connecticut Attorney General and Senate hopeful Richard Blumenthal never served in Vietnam, the New York Times reported yesterday, though he'd claimed so for years. (Slate's David Plotz was snookered, too, referring to Blumenthal's military service in a 2000 "Assessment" of the pol.) Over e-mail, Slate staffers considered why Blumenthal might have done it and what the fallout will be.

David Plotz: If you're a politician, is lying about your war record worse or better than having an affair?

John Dickerson: Worse. The voters of Louisiana may re-elect a senator who admits going to a hooker. I wonder why we think lying about going war is worse? I mean, I know why we do, but I wonder why we do. What's the difference between an unfaithful man who parades his marriage before voters and a man who pretends to be a Vietnam vet?

William Saletan: Extramarital temptation (and action) is a common experience. Pretending to be a war veteran isn't. Much easier to conclude that the vet impersonator is seriously twisted.

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Dickerson: Right. But arguably, the unfaithful man must produce more regular lies in both his private and public life, whereas the war veteran does it far less frequently. So which do the doctors consider more twisted?

Saletan: Clinically, a longtime adulterer is probably sicker, for the reasons John cites. Politically, it seems just as clear that the war lie is worse. The only people who matter in a war lie are the 2 million who fought, the 58,000 who died, the 200 million for whom they thought they were fighting, and the one who pretends he was one of them.

Dickerson: Is that body count why we think they're twisted, though? As a moral math problem, you're exactly right—and that argues for it being a greater sin on the secular moral failings chart. But I was assuming* that, as Will pointed out, people would think the war lie worse because it comes from a more screwed-up brain.

*Based on zero proof, polling, or even an interview with a cab driver that more people think the lying war fighter is worse.

Chris Wilson: But being happily married is a job qualification in our screwed-up system—we like to pretend it's evidence of integrity and values. Somehow this persists in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

Rachael Larimore: However stupid it is to make fidelity a qualification, it is sometimes useful. If Mark Sanford hadn't cheated on his wife and then treated us all to that deliciously embarrassing meltdown, he might still be considered a candidate for 2012. And if he can't handle the revelation of an affair without such melodrama … say it with me now … do we really want his finger on the nuke button?

Nathan Heller: Isn't there also the issue of Vietnam's unique role in the culture? This was in many ways the central moral crisis, and the single highest-stakes political issue, for the dominant postwar generation. Extramarital business is basically a private issue, and (though coverage sometimes suggests otherwise) it's pretty easy to find and draw that line. Lie about your position or involvement in Vietnam, though, and you're thumbing your nose at the boomers' crucial political and emotional narrative. You're basically falling afoul of your whole (voting) generation. The public-life stakes are immeasurably higher.

June Thomas: And it was a war that rich, privileged people avoided. Blumenthal claimed to be a rich, privileged guy who went, when in fact he was yet another rich, privileged guy who got deferments and coveted reserve positions.

I realize this is screwy, but on a visceral level this offends me more than his lies, which are somehow pathological.

Yoffe: You could say Blumenthal Swiftboated himself. An irony here is that his friendship with [Washington Post Co. CEO] Don Graham helped start his career, and Don Graham was a young man of privilege who actually volunteered for the military and served in Vietnam.

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