Why should anyone give Richard Blumenthal a break?

Why should anyone give Richard Blumenthal a break?

Why should anyone give Richard Blumenthal a break?

How you look at things.
May 18 2010 5:36 PM

The Blumenthal Rules

Why should anyone give Richard Blumenthal a break?

Richard Blumenthal. Click image to expand.
Richard Blumenthal

Richard Blumenthal, the attorney general of Connecticut, has a problem. He's running for the U.S. Senate, and he's been caught on video implying falsely that he served in Vietnam. He'd like your understanding as he explains that he simply "misspoke" about his service. He'd like you to give him a break.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

But Blumenthal has never given anyone a break. He has made a career out of holding others to the strictest standards of truth—and mercilessly prosecuting them when they fall short.

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During Vietnam, Blumenthal went into the Marine Reserves and obtained several deferments to avoid the draft. But in 2008, he told an audience, "We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam." In 2003, he said of U.S. troops coming home, "When we returned, we saw nothing like this." In a report published Monday night, the New York Times reviewed other speeches and noted several patterns: that Blumenthal has often used "ambiguous language," that "he does not volunteer that his service never took him overseas," that he "describes the hostile reaction directed at veterans coming back from Vietnam, intimating that he was among them," and that he has never corrected news organizations (including Slate) that erroneously inferred he had served in Vietnam.

Today, Blumenthal rebutted the Times story. Let's look at the rules he has enforced on others over the last year or so and see how his rebuttals compare.

1. Beware those who exploit veterans. Last year, Blumenthal denounced "exploitive, poorly managed or even fraudulent fundraisers" who raise money in the name of veterans. He warned the public to donate only "to well-known organizations with a history of helping veterans."

Today, to dispel the allegations against him, Blumenthal stood in front of veterans at a press conference and boasted: "They've heard me again and again and again stand up for justice and fairness to our veterans."

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2. Blurring is lying. Last fall, Blumenthal launched an investigation of food companies that put a "Smart Choices" logo on their products. He called the labels "potentially misleading" and decried marketing gimmicks that "blur or block the truth." Though the labels made no explicit claims, he protested that they "misguided" the public and sowed "confusion." He pledged to teach companies, through his investigation, that "labeling must be completely truthful and accurate without hype or spin." And he depicted the industry in the harshest terms: "Big Food has been feeding big lies to consumers about nutritional value."

Today, Blumenthal said he merely "misspoke" about his service, using the wrong preposition in a small and "unintentional" oversight.

3. Fudging is cheating. Two months ago, Blumenthal announced "a crackdown on companies that illegally misclassify employees as independent contractors." This wasn't a debatable distinction, he argued: It was an outrage and a crime. "Misclassification is cheating—plain and simple," he preached. "I will fight to stop companies from falsely claiming their employees are independent contractors. …"

Today, Blumenthal proudly declared, "I will not allow anyone to take a few misplaced words and impugn my record of service to our country."

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4. Failure to state the truth clearly is trickery. Last summer, Blumenthal won a $50,000 fine against a company that collected goods for charity. He blasted it for "prominently displaying charitable and service organization logos on its boxes while failing to state clearly that it keeps most of the proceeds." He called the firm an "imposter" and condemned its behavior as "reprehensible trickery."

In another case, Blumenthal sued a charity telemarketer for "failing to clearly and conspicuously state its name and its paid solicitor status." He argued that the firm had "listed its true name and solicitor status in barely legible print on the back of its mailing, effectively concealing its identity and purpose."

Today Blumenthal brushed away his inaccurate remarks about Vietnam as "a few occasions" compared with "hundreds" (including this one) in which he had told the truth.

5. Good faith is no defense. In March, a court agreed with Blumenthal that R.J. Reynolds had run misleading ads about a new tobacco product. The court concluded:

At bottom, although Reynolds' marketing of the Eclipse cigarette was ultimately misleading and deceptive because the support relied on was scientifically and medically insufficient, there was no "bad intent" and in fact a deliberate, indeed considerable effort to develop and sell a tobacco product which might potentially do some good for some smokers, and more likely than not do no additional, or different harm.

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Did Blumenthal cut the company any slack for its good intentions and efforts? Not a bit. "The court rightly found RJR's ads deceptive and disingenuous, falsely stating that Eclipse is safer than other cigarettes," he charged. "I will continue fighting Big Tobacco's snake oil sales strategies that mislead consumers about the dangers of smoking. We will seek strong and significant sanctions against RJR in the upcoming penalty phase."

Now, in defense of his statements about Vietnam, Blumenthal argues, "My intention has always been to be completely clear and accurate."

6. No misrepresentation is too small to prosecute. Last fall, Blumenthal threatened legal action against a hotel and a musical performance company for calling their tribute show "An Evening With the Platters." He said it was "unclear" whether the company owned the rights to the Platters' name. After the hotel backed down and renamed its show "A Tribute to the Platters," Blumenthal declared victory but warned, "I will continue fighting to enforce Connecticut's truth-in-music law."

Today, Blumenthal accused his critics of nitpicking his record and missing the big picture.

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7. You're responsible for monitoring things written by others that serve your interests. For more than a year, Blumenthal has hounded Craigslist to "scrub" and "rid" its site of porn and sex ads posted by users. Brushing aside the company's pleas that it can't police everything, he has subpoenaed documents and instructed the company to "immediately hire staff to screen for" offensive ads and images. Two weeks ago, he demanded: "Describe in detail the manual review process craigslist has created to screen posts in the adult services section, including … the number of individuals assigned to review postings and the name of any company craigslist has or will contract with to perform this function."

Today, when Blumenthal was asked why he had failed to correct erroneous reports that he had served in Vietnam, he replied: "I can't be held responsible for all the mistakes in all the articles—thousands of them—that are written about me."

8. Claims of virtue deserve investigation. In February, Blumenthal urged Connecticut authorities to "investigate the validity of claims by electric suppliers and generators about their reliance on renewable energy sources." Some companies, he observed, claimed to exceed (not just meet) the state's renewable-energy requirements, "and they advertise these claims in order to lure environmentally conscious consumers." While offering no evidence of deception, Blumenthal called on regulators to "investigate when companies claim to exceed these standards."

9. Hand over all your records. In his probe of the "Smart Choices" program, Blumenthal demanded "details about the consumer research and selection criteria," the "process and fees involved in administering the program," and any "role that major food manufacturers might have provided for the program." His subpoena to Craigslist was even more thorough, encompassing everything but the kitchen sink.

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Will Blumenthal call for an investigation of himself? Will he hand over all records of his public statements about Vietnam? Will he show himself as little mercy as he has shown others?

Give me a break.

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