Thursday, June 17, 2010

Backing Into The Porcupine: The Times Examines Blumenthal Deferments

In mid-June Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the nominee of the Democratic Party for the U.S. Senate, popped out of his bunker long enough to give a brief interview to Mark Pazniokas. Formerly a state politics writer for the Hartford Courant who lost his job in a downsizing, Pazniokas, a veteran reporter of 25 years, now writes for the Connecticut Mirror (CTMirror).

Pazniokas sought to tease from Blumenthal a rough accounting of the number of times Blumenthal “misspoke” concerning his service in Vietnam.

Whether it was five, six or seven, Blumenthal remonstrated, “It was very limited… But whatever the number, I regret the mistakes. I'm sorry for them. I take full responsibility. I have been asked and I have answered questions about my service."

Blumenthal strongly suggested in the interview that he had exposed himself to a draft by joining the Marine Reserves: "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."

When Pazniokas pressed lightly on the issue, Blumenthal appeared to wince and retreated to a stratagem familiar to most seasoned politicians. Pazniokas asked what had induced Blumenthal to join the reserves:

“’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.’"
Comes now Act II: “Blumenthal Comments Stir New Questions on Military Service,” by Raymond Hernandez, the New York Times reporter whose initial story induced some Connecticut newspapers to review old files in a search of other instances in which Blumenthal asserted he had served Vietnam.

Their labors were not in vain.

In his first story, Hernandez reported how Blumenthal was able to avoid the Vietnam draft by obtaining five deferments, enlisting eventually in the Marine Corp Reserves, “considered a haven from the war.”

In his follow-up story, Hernandez quoted Blumenthal’s assertion in the Pazniokas’ interview that “I did not want to avoid service… I did realize reservists could be called up, and that it was something that I wanted to do.”

Military experts, Hernandez noted in his report of the Pazniokas interview, disputed Blumenthal’s assertion:

“But military experts said there was no expectation that reserve units would be activated at the time Mr. Blumenthal enlisted, particularly given how drastically public opinion had turned against the war.

“In fact, President Richard M. Nixon had begun in 1969 to reduce the American troop presence in Vietnam and transfer more responsibility for fighting to the South Vietnamese, said James E. Westheider, a history professor at the Clermont College campus of the University of Cincinnati who has written about Vietnam.

“’By the time he was in the service, if he was in the Marine Reserves, he was not going to Vietnam,’ Mr. Westheider said.”
On the face of it, Blumenthal’s assertion that he did not want to avoid service is a bit hard to swallow. His five deferments, if nothing else, testify against him.

In his most recent story, Hernandez demonstrated the importance of the lottery number assigned to Blumenthal:

“His number in the December 1969 draft lottery, according to the Selective Service, was 152. People with numbers as high as 195 in that lottery were eligible to be drafted…

“David Curry, a professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, who is an expert on the Vietnam draft, said Mr. Blumenthal’s lottery number would have been cause for worry for someone who did not want to be drafted.”
Blumenthal asserted in the Pazniokas interview that while he did not remember his lottery number, he thought it was high enough to keep him from being drafted.

Not true, said Curry:

“’I’d say he had a medium-level lottery number,’ Mr. Curry said. ‘It’s not really a safe number. But once he joined the Reserves, he would not have been eligible for being drafted.’

“Mr. Curry, who served in Vietnam, also questioned how anyone could forget his draft number. ‘I find it hard to believe that anyone would forget their lottery number,’ he said. ‘I am betting if I call my colleagues who were in that same lottery,’ he said, ‘every one of them would know their draft number.’
The facts marshaled by Hernandez in two stories cast a doubtful shadow over Blumenthal’s assertions that in joining the Reserves he was not attempting to avoid a draft or that he was exposing himself to a draft.

Confronted with these disparities, Blumenthal responded through his spokesperson, Marla Romash, that he believed “as a reservist he could have been sent to Vietnam, but she declined to say what basis he had for that belief.

“Asked whether Mr. Blumenthal wanted to serve in Vietnam, Ms. Romash did not respond.”

Questions such as these do not magically flee the political stage when they are unaddressed. They wait patiently behind the curtain for an answer. Even those journalists friendly to Blumenthal, who criticized Hernandez for having given insufficient attention in his first story to assertions by Blumenthal in public addresses that he had served in the Reserves during the Vietnam War, may be growing impatient for an answer.
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