Everything is OK, Just Don't Lie About it

The scandal surrounding Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's apparent misrepresentation of his military record has me feeling nostalgic for the Good Old Days in politics. Everything was so simple back in that innocent time of the early 1990s. Back then, politicians got in trouble for getting caught doing bad things, like dodging the draft, smoking pot when they were in college, or cheating on their spouses.

Then Bill Clinton came along. He admitted to having affairs, to having smoked pot (sort of), and trying to avoid serving in Vietnam, and he was still elected president. But the scandal that he will be best remembered for is his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and, more than the affair itself, the fact that he lied about it. Once it had been established that the public could accept private indiscretions from elected officials, Clinton's enemies needed a new excuse to harp on his infidelities. Dragging him into court to ask him about whether, in Clinton's famously equivocal phrasing, he "had sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky," set him up perfectly to violate the new standard morality: anything you do is OK, just don't lie about it. Remember those Republican refrains that they were not going after Clinton for sex but for lying under oath?

At least from then on they were consistent. When Dick Cheney said he skipped serving in Vietnam because he had "other priorities," no one questioned his fitness for office. When George W. Bush coyly refused to answer whether he had ever done drugs or not, his political calculation was that not lying about past drug use was more important than never having done drugs, since his non-committal stance left open the possibility, even created the impression, that he had, in fact, done drugs but he was just too moral to lie about it. By the time Barack Obama was running for office, his recollection that he smoked marijuana and tried cocaine in his youth was a non-issue. What did become an issue were accusations that Obama exaggerated his history of drug use to make his adolescence sound more angst-ridden.

The ultimate distillation of this logic was the response to accusations that Arnold Schwarzenegger had sexually harassed women during his 2003 gubernatorial campaign. Much like his past steroid use, he was excused because he readily admitted to it. This response is perfectly embodied by Tammy Bruce's article defending Scharzenegger. (Bruce identifies as both a feminist and a conservative, making her support for a sexual harasser doubly ironic).


Some people might reasonably wonder whether the trend towards excusing anything -- as long as you don't lie about it -- is going too far. Should Arnold Schwarzenegger have been let off the hook for sexually harassing women because he admitted it? Should socially conservative Louisiana Senator David Vitter be getting away with having visited a prostitute in Washington, D.C.? Arguably yes, because personal behavior is not the measure of a public official. But it's a little bit perverse when these behaviors are all excused, but occasionally saying you served in Vietnam, instead of during the Vietnam era, is potentially career-killing error for a popular politician.

And that incoherence is why I think Blumenthal will survive this scandal. When people when get mad at politicians for lying about sex, or drugs, or draft-dodging, it is often the actual behavior that gets people upset, especially if it fits into a politician's most negative image. How many people were really upset that Bill Clinton was disingenuous in a deposition for a civil case that was later dismissed? Not as many as the number who were really upset that Clinton, in their view, was a philanderer with lax morals who disrespected the White House. Blumenthal's problem is not anything he did, it's the lying about something that he otherwise would be in no trouble for at all.

In fact, the scandal it reminds me of most is back in 1988 when a promising young senator who was running for president was caught lifting portions of his speeches from those of a British politician named Neil Kinnock. Like Blumenthal, he had a plausible excuse -- that he typically said he was quoting Kinnock, but occasionally, over time, forgot to. It ended his presidential bid, and, many probably assumed his career. His name? Joe Biden.