Marshman: Blumenthal embroiled in fight of his life
Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles on the candidates for Connecticut’s open U.S. Senate seat, Richard Blumenthal (D) and Linda McMahon (R). This was originally printed on Oct. 14
Richard Blumenthal, now 64 and a longtime Greenwich resident, has spent more than half his adult life in elected office: six years in Connecticut’s General Assembly followed by five four-year terms as the state’s attorney general. In that office Blumenthal has been an activist, most notably as a leader of the class-action lawsuit by the states seeking compensation from the tobacco industry for the damages done to their citizens from smoking. The settlement amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars, so far paid on schedule.
The many other legal actions initiated by his office have been modest by comparison but Blumenthal’s courting of publicity for them quite the opposite. He will announce even minor indictments at a full-scale press conference timed for the evening news telecast.
“The most dangerous place in Connecticut one can be,” goes the joke, “is between Dick Blumenthal and a TV camera.”
When Blumenthal entered Harvard, at 17, the military draft was in force, with its demands increasing in line with the acceleration of the Vietnam war. Like most collegians, he applied for an educational deferment and one followed another – five in all, extending over te10n years – by which time he had graduated from Harvard, worked on the White House staff of U.S. Senator-to-be Daniel Patrick Moynihan – at the time an assistant to President Nixon – and graduated from Yale Law School. With the draft still on, Blumenthal then enlisted in the Marine Corps reserve, and, with the war winding down, he was unlikely to be called to active duty. During his five years of service, mostly on weekends, he clerked for two federal judges, one of them Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, and rose to the rank of sergeant.
Perhaps because the U.S. public never fully backed the war in Vietnam, young men who legally avoided it seldom incurred much blame, then or subsequently. Even when he ran for president there was little outcry about Bill Clinton’s two deferments and, later, even less about Dick Cheney’s five. (His explanation: “I had other priorities.”)
For Blumenthal, however, Vietnam has lived on. Like a character out of Rudyard Kipling or Joseph Conrad, his evasion of a challenge presented early in life seems to have haunted him ever since. As if to atone for his deferments Blumenthal has long been an advocate for Vietnam veterans. He attends their meetings, contributes to their causes and helps them when they need it. Although Vietnam, for most voters, is by now a dim memory or ancient history, it keeps turning up in Blumenthal’s speeches. “When I served during Vietnam,” he may declare, truthfully – but sometimes “When I served in Vietnam.” Or “When our troops came home from Vietnam” may come out “When we came home . . .”
Blumenthal has apologized several times and in public for these “mispeakings” (his term) but Linda McMahon’s commercials have pounced on them as deliberate lies. “What else is he lying about?” they demand. Connecticut’s veterans of ’Nam seem to view them more as Freudian slips perhaps rooted in wishful thinking. Many are actively pro-Blumenthal.
Besides stigmatizing him as a liar McMahon commercials repeatedly accuse Blumenthal (correctly) of voting for a statewide tax increase of $820 million – without mentioning that this occurred 21 years ago, when he was a state senator. He is also routinely scorned as a “career politician.”
With his résumé and connections (United States senator, Supreme Court justice) Blumenthal could easily have become a highly paid partner in a New York or Washington law firm. Instead, he returned to Connecticut and private practice until, at 38, he ran for office and seems to have found his true calling. In this new career, which family money no doubt made it easier to pursue, Blumenthal, though always a loyal Democrat, has largely steered clear of politics, presenting himself instead as a hard-working public servant committed to the principle that energetic enforcement of the law will make Connecticut a better place to live and work. Since the jurisdiction of his office is exclusively civil (i.e., not criminal) law, the indictments it brings sstem mostly from unfair or unlawful policies or practices of large employers, local governments, labor unions and state agencies. Over the years Blumenthal has taken on some of Connecticut’s biggest and in some quarters is regarded as anti- business – yet when seeking re-election he has never been seriously challenged.
With this record – achieved during his 40s and 50s, years when most career office-holders aggressively seek advancement – it’s surprising that for two decades Blumenthal has been content to stay in place. Specifically, he has shown no interest in running for governor, even though he almost certainly could have had his party’s nomination at least three times (running against incumbents, however: John Rowland or Jodi Rell). Instead, Blumenthal has bided his time waiting for one of Connecticut’s U.S. Senators, Dodd or Lieberman, to retire and make way for the election of a Senator Blumenthal – a plan now shattered by the surprise appearance of a determined Republican opponent willing to spend $50 million to win Dodd’s about-to-be vacant seat for herself.
In his past campaigns Blumenthal’s appeal to Connecticut voters has made heavy use of the verb “to fight,” as in “I’ve fought for …” “I’ll fight for …” and “Fighting for You.”
In a single debate with Linda McMahon he must have used the word, with clenched fist(s) front and center, at least a dozen times. It is therefore ironic that as he approaches the climax of an exceptionally trouble-free career centered on “fighting for you,”
Blumenthal is suddenly embroiled in the one really big fight of his entire life, this time for himself.