For the past few days I’ve been troubled by reports I read last week in The New York Times and our newspaper chain quoting former Republican U.S. Congressman Christopher Shays on how Richard Blumenthal has described his military service.
The Times earlier in the week reported that Blumenthal, who is the Democrat’s U.S. Senate nominee, has mislead the public to believe he served in Vietnam rather than stateside in the Marine Corps Reserves.
Blumenthal, who as an attorney recognizes the power of words, said he misspoke and never intended to mislead people, something critics continue to find hard to believe.
Shays was the focus of a follow-up piece by The Times and his comments, characterized as coming from “a good friend” were used as further evidence that Blumenthal has inaccurately portrayed his Vietnam-era service. The newspaper wrote that the former Congressman, who lost his seat in 2008 and recently considered running for Governor, “had watched with worry as Mr. Blumenthal gradually embellished his military record over the years.”
“As prominent Democrats in the state rallied to Mr. Blumenthal’s side on Tuesday (following The Times’ initial report), saying they had never seen him describe himself as a Vietnam veteran or chalking such misstatements up to a momentary lapse, Mr. Shays’ comments appeared to bolster the idea that Mr. Blumenthal’s descriptions of his military record had been somewhat embroidered, bit by bit, with the passage of time.”
“More and more it kept creeping in,” Shays was quoted as telling The Times.
And our story quoted Shays as saying Blumenthal “evolved from being pretty clear about his service to being somewhat nebulous about it and really giving a false impression about his service.” Shays also told our reporter Blumenthal is a friend of “high integrity.”
What bugged me was nowhere in these articles was Shays specifically asked to judge Blumenthal, as other Republicans and some veterans and some political commentators had been doing. Did he agree that Blumenthal was purposefully trying to mislead voters for political benefit? Did Shays get the impression the guy was doing something nefarious? That was the question at the heart of last week’s national political furor caused by The Times’ first story – is Blumenthal duplicitous? – and no one asked Shays. We in the media were, apparently, just eager to have his quotes about this being a pattern for Blumenthal.
So I called Shays today to get an answer.
“Let me just say this to you. I think he’s a very good and decent guy and I think he slipped into this. I don’t think it was nefarious in any way,” Shays said. “I just think Dick is a very good and decent guy. I don’t think he wanted to give people the wrong impression. I don’t think he wanted to. When you’re with groups that you want to identify (with) you can slip into something that, if you really thought about it, you wish you hadn’t.”
Shays also said he specifically told The Times “I’ve never heard him say he’s been in Vietnam. I just heard him say things that made me think he had, and that was an impression others had.”
The Times’ article instead reported “Mr. Shays … began hearing Mr. Blumenthal refer to having served in Vietnam.”
Our newspapers found other examples of Blumenthal’s making incorrect statements about his time during the Vietnam era, and yet we also found evidence Blumenthal had been clear and accurate about his military record over the years.
Shays continued: “If you’re asking me do I think he would have wanted to give a false impression? No. I think he just didn’t think about it, and now he’s struggling with what he’s having to struggle with … As a friend I would tell him to stay in the race and just deal with it as best he can. I wouldn’t be suggesting in any way he should get out of this race. But it’s a legitimate issue that he has to deal with.”
I asked Shays if he felt the criticism being leveled at Blumenthal this past week has been unfair.
Shays noted the reality is anyone else in Blumenthal’s situation would be facing the same attacks.
“I’m not saying that’s unfair,” Shays said. “I’m saying I felt that particularly the television media and many people who don’t know him were, I think, unduly harsh.”