"When I served in Vietnam...."
A Democratic candidate's self-inflicted war wound
"When I served in Vietnam...."
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
I had planned to preview some of the marquee elections on tap for today; aside from the Specter-Sestak Senate smackdown, we have the special House election to fill deceased powerhouse John Murtha's seat in western Pennsylvania, as well as the Kentucky Senate Republican primary (starring tea party favorite Rand Paul) and the Arkansas Senate Democratic primary (where incumbent Blanche Lincoln is being challenged from the left). But I decided otherwise, for two reasons:
1. The key questions about those races likely will be answered within 12 hours anyway, once the actual votes are tallied.
2. The political story that just broke in Connecticut has to take precedence. It's impossible to ignore such a self-inflicted wound.
If the Democrats hope to retain control of the U.S. Senate, they obviously need to keep the seats they currently hold in blue states such as Connecticut. And they have generally assumed that Connecticut is safe; the baggage-laden Chris Dodd was yielding the Democratic nomination to state attorney general (and former U.S. attorney) Dick Blumenthal, a well-regarded guy who literally has been awaiting His Turn for decades. Blumenthal would keep the seat in the Democratic column. Finally, his moment had arrived...
But what do we have here today: A New York Times investigative report that threatens to torch his candidacy.
It turns out that Blumenthal has repeatedly stated in public that he served in Vietnam - whereas, in reality, he never did. Quite the contrary, he received at least five military deferments and took various steps to avoid being sent.
He told a veterans group two years ago that "we have learned something important since the days when I served in Vietnam." He has reminisced at public events about how he and other Vietnam veterans returned home, only to be spat upon. Indeed, over the years, Connecticut newspapers have repeatedly described him as a Vietnam vet - yet there's no evidence he ever tried to correct the error. And it was a doozy of an error, considering his five deferments - and the fact that his 1970 stint in a stateside Marine Reserve unit was quite benign; as The Times wryly noted, his unit did stuff like "fixing a campground and organizing a Toys for Tots drive."
Hello, character issue.
This morning, Blumenthal's PR people are predictably denouncing The Times story as "an outrageous distortion" - which is absolutely priceless spin, given the fact that The Times gained access to Blumenthal's Selective Service records via a Freedom of Information request; and that Connecticut newspapers have frequently reported on his Vietnam reminiscences (The Shelton Weekly, 2008: Blumenthal "was met with applause when he spoke about his experiences as a Marine sergeant in Vietnam"). Nevertheless, the Blumenthal team essentially seems to be saying: Yeah, but what about all the times when he didn't say he served in Vietnam?
Vietnam has long been a touchy topic for baby-boomer candidates; it's the old "what did you do in the '60s" question. Bill Clinton's '92 presidential bid was nearly torpedoed by his maddeningly elusive remarks about the various measures he took to avoid the draft - but at least he never claimed to have served in Vietnam when the truth was the opposite. Connecticut voters may well view Blumenthal's behavior as evidence of a serious veracity deficit. He'll need to engage in major damage control if he hopes to soldier on; he'll undoubtedly stand at a podium today surrounded by as many supportive military vets as his spinmeisters can muster. That's the usual drill...And sure enough, there we go: a midafternoon press conference, with Blumenthal surrounded by vets, and the candidate doing what Dick Nixon used to call the modified limited hangout route - a defiant sorta confession, in which Blumenthal admits to having spoken "a few misplaced words."
This story is a potential gift for the normally bereft Connecticut Republicans. One GOP contender for the Senate seat is ex-congressman Rob Simmons - an actual Vietnam veteran. The other, wrestling mogul Linda McMahon, has already posted a video of Blumenthal talking publicly about his so-called service in Vietnam. Yes, there is video. And as we've already seen this spring in Pennsylvania, a candidate is most imperiled when he imperils himself with his own words.
Speaking of Pennsylvania...In the Senate Democratic primary, the consensus is that Arlen Specter imperiled himself when he was caught on video saying, "My change in party will enable me to be re-elected." Challenger Joe Sestak is still featuring that soundbite in a TV ad, and most observers agree that the ad itself is potentially devastating.
On CNN yesterday, however, host Rich Sanchez insisted that the ad was unfair to Specter because Sestak's media team had cut the rest of the Specter quote. The entire quote, aired by Sanchez, goes like this: "My change in party will enable me to be re-elected - and I have heard that again and again and again on the street. 'Senator, we're glad you'll be able to stay in the Senate, to help the state and the nation.'"
Sanchez concluded: "It's effective, the ad. But it's not true."
I disagree. The ad is essentially true. As I have mentioned previously, Specter in the other venues had made it quite clear that he was leaving the GOP because his electoral prospects were blocked, and that he was joining the Democrats because they offered a path to re-election. As for the full quote cited above, that's just the standard political rap. Candidates always claim to have found people "on the street" who miraculously say exactly what the candidates want to say about themselves.
Meanwhile, I'm due to talk about the race results tonight on Philadelphia National Public Radio, from 9 to 10.