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.

Was Blumenthal careful enough not to have this kill his candidacy? He was in the Marines during Vietnam in a way. He wasn't directly lying in every instance the NYT cites, just being misleading. Then there's the flat-out lie about being captain of the swim team. I'm betting these won't be the only two things.

Historian Joseph Ellis got caught really telling whoppers about Vietnam. Is there anyone else caught this way?

Dickerson: Darrow "Duke" Tully, publisher of the Arizona Republic and McCain friend, lied about being in the Air Force during Korea and Vietnam.

Josh Levin: In 1999, Toronto Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson got fired for lying about serving in Vietnam. He told his players made-up stories about his battle experience to get them fired up for games. Turned out he was in the Marine Corps reserves. He also said he was a basketball star who'd been offered a basketball scholarship to UCLA. Blumenthal ripped off this guy's whole fake résumé!

More Vietnam liars: Brian Dennehy, David Duke, Tom Harkin, Joseph Ellis.

Larimore: Isn't it also the case that Vietnam is the last war that we'll have this kind of problem with? It was the last war with a draft, for one, to create tensions between the privileged with their deferments and everyone else. And with the exception of the brief first Gulf War, it was the last war fought pre-Google. Anyone who tried to brag about serving in Afghanistan or Iraq would be figured out in about five minutes.

Dickerson: What if being a politician is what causes this? You spend so much time faking enthusiasm and interest and deep friendships (I love Arlen Specter!) that you live a day of constant embellishments.

For those of us not in politics it seems like there's a huge gap between saying "I did A" and actively avoiding A. How could a person say something so far from the truth without being twisted deep insider? But when making stuff up is part of your job, maybe you start from a different base line. Remember Hillary Clinton and the Bosnia sniper fire? (Which, I'll remind, was once offered by Barack Obama's campaign as disqualification from office.) You see this all the time on the campaign trail where politicians add a little more to a story at each campaign stop. If campaigns were any longer, they'd end up with a kung-fu fight and a marching band.

Or it's like being a writer like Edmund Morris or even Barack Obama, who made the story better where it needed to be in Dreams From My Father.

The only problem is that Blumenthal is an AG who is supposed to go the other way, getting very specific about things.

Emily Bazelon: From Connecticut, it all feels over-determined. Blumenthal has been the boy wonder for so long that as he aged out of boyishness, Democrats wondered if he'd ever do them the favor of running for higher office. Now here he is, screwing up his campaign with weird exaggerations/lies about the bygone era of Vietnam, of all things. His statements obviously and sort of pathetically contradict his own public record. John, I think you're right about the parallel with Hillary saying she'd been under sniper fire. Politicians are supposed to be covered in glory. Blumenthal didn't have real war glory to cover himself in, so at particular moments he got carried away by the image he wanted to project and pretended. You're allowed to do that in front of your mirror but not to an audience. Even (especially) if you're the favorite son.

Slate V: Blumenthal admits he misspoke about his military record

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