Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general, recently took deserved lumps for saying he served in Vietnam when he actually had been a Marine reservist. He responded by saying he took responsibility for his error and was proud of his service.
Lee Barnes, an English professor at the College of Southern Nevada, has published several outstanding works of fiction, including Gunning for Ho (University of Nevada Press, 2000) and Minimal Damage (University of Nevada Press, 2007), both of which deal with Vietnam. Now he is writing a memoir about Vietnam and has spent considerable time pondering why so many Americans claim to have served there when they didn’t.
“I don’t think there is any one simple answer,” Barnes says. “But I think if they’re politicians, it’s just part of self-promotion and the arrogance that they won’t be discovered in their errors and outright lies.
“The second reason is that the single biggest event of our generation was the war and America’s reaction to it. I think because the climate about soldiering and the war has changed so radically about those who serve, there’s no longer this notion of blame—that a lot of that generation that would have identified with being against the war now wants to be warriors without having been warriors.”
Blumenthal might fit in with some Nevada politicians who have overstated their achievements. Former Sen. Pat McCarran, D-Nev., tended to exaggerate conspiracies by communists and anyone he considered a political enemy. But he also lied about some accomplishments. He claimed to have introduced the legislative bill creating the eight-hour workday in Nevada, but he didn’t.
His congressional biography listed a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Reno. Actually, he never finished; he had to leave school to work on his family’s sheep ranch, and sat with his mother in the audience at graduation, where both of them cried because he wasn’t getting his diploma.
Republicans tried to make a case that Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., exaggerated about an attempt to blow up a family car in 1981 over the mob’s displeasure with his record as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. When radio talk-show host Heidi Harris questioned the story, Republican challenger Sue Lowden merely chuckled, prompting attacks on Lowden—way before she denied ever saying she supported the idea of bartering medical care or came up with several different explanations for how she got her campaign bus.
Gov. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., chimed in on the Reid issue for reasons known only to him, suggesting the bomb was really a telephone book in a shoebox. Reid’s campaign produced the police report and the story died down, though it revealed that Lowden sometimes isn’t too with it. As for Gibbons, his list of exaggerations is longer than the decade he claims to have gone without sex, although he did serve in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War.
Some lies are more blatant than others. Many politicians claim business acumen, based on the misbegotten theory that government should be run like a business. This claim leads to problems when your business has problems. James Ray Houston ran for governor in 1974, claiming to have a gold-and-silver business that proved to be a scam, and once the reality became known he was finished as a candidate. In 2006, Jerry Airola touted his business background in running for Clark County sheriff, but his businesses were collapsing and he exaggerated his law enforcement experience. Not surprisingly, he lost.
Since all of us shade the truth at some point, perhaps we should consider the lie and the teller. Lying about extramarital dalliances somehow seems less hypocritical and annoying when it’s Bill Clinton than, say, a Promise Keeper senator from Nevada. Not all lies are created equal.
For example, among historians, Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin committed plagiarism—a far worse offense that Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis, whose research has been beyond reproach, lying about his Vietnam service. Happily, nothing like that has happened to historians in Nevada. That kind of nobility is why the caricature atop this column was touched up to reduce my uncanny resemblance to George Clooney.
Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.