Maureen Dowd wasted no time before psychoanalyzing Richard Blumenthal in the New York Times, wondering if “residual guilt about avoiding Vietnam” was responsible for misstatements about his military record.
The Associated Press talked to a former FBI agent who mused about a need for “an ego boost,” and to a historian who believes some men of the Vietnam generation feel they missed “some primal, male testing experience.”
Nearly a month later, in his first interview on the subject that took his U.S. Senate campaign off cruise control, Blumenthal is disinclined toward introspection about ego or male testing, primal or otherwise.
He resisted exploring what it means when a Yale-educated lawyer, who speaks in the cadence of a man dictating a letter, mistakenly refers to service in Vietnam if he means during Vietnam.
“You know, all I can say is I regret it,” said Blumenthal, sitting jacketless on a folding chair in his Hartford campaign office. “I take full responsibility. And I am truly sorry to anyone who was hurt or offended or confused.”
Blumenthal, whose official biography accurately describes his military record as a stateside Marine Reservist, said he was “astonished” to be told by the New York Times on May 17 that he had at least twice referred to being in Vietnam, once in 2003 and again in 2008. A few other examples have since surfaced.
He declined to detail what he and his staff did to check the public record before defiantly asserting the next day at a nationally televised press conference at a VFW, surrounded by supportive veterans, that his misstatements were rare and inadvertent, nothing more than mistakes. Days later, he apologized.
“I’m just not going to talk about it at this point, you know,” Blumenthal said. “I think I have asked and answered the questions that matter.”
Asked and answered. It is a lawyer’s objection, a way to tell opposing counsel to move on, that his client has nothing more to say, no matter how many times, how many ways a question is posed.
Blumenthal, 64, who has been the attorney general for 20 years, declined to fix a number on the times he misspoke, wary of setting up a target. Whether it is five, six or seven, he said he is confident “it was very limited.”
“But whatever the number, I regret the mistakes. I’m sorry for them. I take full responsibility,” Blumenthal said. “I have been asked and I have answered questions about my service.”
In two polls, a majority of voters say they accept that Blumenthal misspoke about his record, not lied. The national press pronounced his campaign dead, then quickly moved on when it seemed the political crisis had passed. MSNBC took Connecticut off its races-to-watch list.
According to two Quinnipiac polls, his support has stabilized at 55 percent of the vote.
“Now seems to be an appropriate time to move toward what should be the main focus, which is problems that really matter to people’s lives, like rebuilding the economy and creating and keeping jobs and keeping faith with our veterans and making sure we have a strong national defense,” Blumenthal said. “Those and other real problems in real people’s lives are what ought to be the focus going forward.”
But the oft-delayed interview is the first opportunity to press him about the episode, which broke days before he won the Democratic nomination by acclamation. The endorsed Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Linda McMahon, whose campaign says it provided the Times with a video recording of Blumenthal referring to being in Vietnam, intends to keep it alive.
“Dick Blumenthal’s fabricated war record and his refusal to admit he misled will be an issue throughout this campaign,” said Ed Patru, McMahon’s communications director.
No evidence has emerged of Blumenthal spinning a tale about actions in Vietnam, despite Chris Matthews denouncing him on MSNBC for claiming to be a combat vet. Still, Blumenthal, who never left the states as a reservist, put himself there in public remarks.
“We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam,” Blumenthal said in Norwalk during a rally in support of the troops in March 2008, one of the speeches cited by the Times. “And you exemplify it. Whatever we think about the war, whatever we call it – Afghanistan or Iraq – we owe our military men and women unconditional support.”
The Advocate of Stamford quickly located a comment in November 2008 at a Veterans Day parade: “I wore the uniform in Vietnam and many came back to all kinds of disrespect. Whatever we think of war, we owe the men and women of the armed forces our unconditional support.”
Had anyone ever warned him that he had misspoken about Vietnam?
“Never, not a word,” he said.
All the reported examples of his misstatements come after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Blumenthal, whose oldest son is now a Marine, found himself at more veterans’ events, as well as the wakes and funerals of Connecticut’s war dead.
Every politician has stump speeches. Blumenthal’s usual riff at military occasions is to talk about the importance of giving men and women in uniform support and respect often denied soldiers returning from Vietnam.
“To put it in context, the way that I raised the issue was to say we’ve learned a lesson since the days that I wore the uniform during the Vietnam era, when I served in the United States Marine Corps Reserves,” he said. “And that lesson is we owe our military men and women unconditional support.”
Blumenthal has given variations on the same speech hundreds of times. His schedule over the weekend included a ceremony Saturday in Trumbull for war heroes killed in action. The event organizer says the mother of Sgt. Benjamin Gilman, one of the honorees, wanted Blumenthal to speak about her son.
He had no explanation as to how he deviated from familiar phrases and referred to service in Vietnam.
“The phraseology has been the same again and again and again, which is why if you go to veterans, if you go to reporters, if you go to people who heard me, they say, ‘We heard you talk about it. You never made that mistake when we were listening.’ There is no question that on some occasions I did,” he said. “And I truly regret it. I am sorry for it. I take full responsibility.”
Blumenthal, whose educational and employment deferrals kept him out of the draft from 1965 to 1970, joined the Marine Reserves in 1970, when he says his draft number was probably high enough to keep him out of the military. He said he does not remember, however, the number he drew in the draft lottery.
According to a table published by the Selective Service System, Blumenthal’s birth date of Feb. 13 was the 152nd date drawn in the December 1969 lottery, which covered men born from 1944 to 1950. Blumenthal was born in 1946. The highest lottery number called for possible induction was 195.
At the time he enlisted, Blumenthal was an aide in the Nixon White House, working for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a professor from his undergraduate days at Harvard. Previously, he worked as a personal assistant to Katharine Graham, the publisher of Washington Post, a job that did not qualify for a deferral.
Blumenthal said employment deferral during his time at the Post was the result of his involvement in a teaching program in the Washington D.C. public schools.
“I applied, and it was a program that was offered about that time,” he said. “I in effect worked both jobs. I was an assistant to Kay Graham, and she was pretty flexible about what my hours would be.”
Regardless of his lottery number, Blumenthal said his White House job would have kept him from the draft.
“I could have stayed in the White House and continued the deferment,” Blumenthal said. “I did not want to avoid service. I did realize reservists could be called up, and that it was something I wanted to do.”
Blumenthal, who says he had questions about the wisdom of the war, could not explain what moved him to enlist or why he chose the reserves over active duty.
“It was the decision I made at the time,” he said. “I wanted to serve. The Marine Corps Reserve was immediately open, and I literally went to the phone book and called the recruiter.”
What was the impetus?
“You know, I think I’ve said all I’m going to say about it. What was the impetus for it? It was a decision that I made. I’m not sure there was an impetus in the sense of, you know, an event or an external happening. I had to decide whether to stay at the White House and continue my deferment or leave the White House. And for various reasons I wanted to leave the White House, and I knew that I wanted to move on with my life.”
He would not be pressed.
“Well, I’ve answered these questions I’ve been asked,” he said. “I’ve answered them. And frankly, I don’t mean any disrespect to you, and I accept what you are doing, but that’s about all I’m going to say about this episode.”