Richard Blumenthal, Al Gore, and Your Humble Blogger

Your Humble Blogger has been both busy and unproductive lately, which is never a winning combination. As a result, I have got very far behind my intentions for this Tohu Bohu, not just on the Book Reports (which is really getting out of hand) but on notes of more topical or wide-ranging interest that I mean to talk about. With the Book Report, although I may have forgotten what I intended to say by the time I get around to logging them, they aren’t really topical notes, and can wait. With news items and political commentary, if I don’t get around to noting them within a week or so, I may as well not bother, as y’all will have moved on. Ah, well.

And, of course, sometimes the story has moved on. I might have written a note just after reading the NYT article about Richard Blumenthal and his military service, and that note would have been very different from the note I would write today. Am writing. Hope to finish. Anyway.

Any of y’all Gentle Readers in the Nutmeg State, that is, those who will have to make up their minds to support Mr. Blumenthal or not in his Senatorial campaign, should probably be reading Colin McEnroe’s blog (even if y’all don’t like his radio show, which I don’t much either, alas). Mr. McEnroe appears to be very well-connected within the state government and what remains of the crew who report on it; he also is a bit crazy, which gives him the opportunity to call things as he sees them. It’s a great combination for a blogger.

Anyway, for those who haven’t been paying attention, Richard Blumenthal has been Attorney General of our State for twenty years, during which time it was quite difficult to get a photograph of state leaders without Mr. Blumenthal in it. You know? A terrific AG, and terrific at getting in the news, and all. So, when Chris Dodd moved to Iowa, and we needed a new Senator, Mr. Blumenthal decided to be that Senator, and the deal was pretty much over at that point. Only the other day, the Times reported that Mr. Blumenthal had been claiming that he served in Vietnam, when in fact he did not.

It turns out that it’s more complicated than that. What seems to have been happening, over a period of years, is that Mr. Blumenthal found a formula for saying things that were not false but which gave a false impression. He was in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1970-1975, stateside and part-time, and only joined after his deferments ran out; this not a dishonorable record, but it is not serving in Vietnam. However, it is, technically, serving during Vietnam, it is being in uniform when the soldiers were coming back from Vietnam, and saying those two things are accurate but without the context misleading. Of course, it depends on who you are speaking to. If your audience knows your actual record, and you say you wore the uniform when ‘we’ returned from Vietnam, they will know that you are referring to the attitudes that civilians had toward all veterans at that time, or at least the attitudes that many veterans seem to have been convinced that civilians had (the actual story is much much much more complicated than that)(of course). But if you don’t know the actual record, the audience may well draw a different conclusion.

This is fairly common. It’s not lying, but it can certainly be deceiving, and the speaker should be on the hook for it. It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for me in a Senatorial candidate, but it needs to be taken into consideration. The habit of saying things that are true in the sense that they are not false, but that lead listeners to believe things that are false—well, that’s not a good thing. And the thing is—if you are running for elective office, you are going to have to say a lot of the things you say not just once but many, many times, and unless you have tremendous discipline, you are going to wind up straying from your usual formulation. If you do have that discipline, of course, the press will call you robotic, so that doesn’t necessarily help. But if you stray from your careful choice of words and say we instead of they or even in some cases just switch the order of your clauses, you can wind up saying something that is outright false. And get caught doing it.

All of this reminds me very strongly of Al Gore. You all probably know both the first and second versions of Al Gore and the internet. The first was that Al Gore laughably claimed to have invented the Internet, as one of a string of bizarre lies. The second was that the media made up the story that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet, as one of a string of bizarre stories they made up about Al Gore’s ‘lies’, none of which were true. The second version is not true either, of course; it was more complicated than that. Mr. Gore certainly never claimed to have invented the internet, true. What he did was take credit for the creation of the internet. While you could argue that he deserves some small portion of credit (he supported federal funding for the project at an early stage), the phrasing was designed to be technically not false while giving the impression that he deserved much more credit than he actually did. And, in fact, there were a string of such phrasings; he was in the habit of using language in that way (including some recent examples that I can’t bring to mind). This is not uncommon among politicians—not just seekers of elective office, but corporate politicians, academic politicians and jockeys of all heirarchies. One difference, though, is that most people don’t have to keep making their claims in speeches, town halls and interviews over a period of months or years, many of which are recorded and searchable.

I hope that Mr. Blumenthal learns something from this experience more than that the New York Times is out to get him. I hope that he understands that he is responsible not only for the technical truth or verifiability of his statements, but for their connotations. That as a Senator, he will carry responsibility not only for what he implies but for what people infer. No, he can’t control it. Neither is he free of responsibility for it, and he should watch what he says accordingly.

I should, when I have time and energy, connect this to the fad for so-called fact-checking, which I hope y’all are taking with a grain of salt. But that will have to wait. For now, really, I’m just observing that when Left Blogovia first condemned Mr. Blumenthal for dishonesty and is now condemning the Times for, well, dishonesty, the truth is it’s more complicated than that. But in interest ways, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.