What Lessons Do We Learn When Politicians Behave Like Politicians?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 18, 2010


This day appears to be rich in political scandals. First, we learn that Richard Blumenthal, the leading Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Connecticut’s Chris Dodd, lied about his past service in Vietnam. Namely, he claimed to have served in Vietnam, when in fact, he did not:

Mr. Blumenthal, 64, is known as a brilliant lawyer who likes to argue cases in court and uses language with power and precision. He is also savvy about the news media and attentive to how he is portrayed in the press.

But the way he speaks about his military service has led to confusion and frequent mischaracterizations of his biography in his home state newspapers. In at least eight newspaper articles published in Connecticut from 2003 to 2009, he is described as having served in Vietnam.

The New Haven Register on July 20, 2006, described him as “a veteran of the Vietnam War,” and on April 6, 2007, said that the attorney general had “served in the Marines in Vietnam.” On May 26, 2009, The Connecticut Post, a Bridgeport newspaper that is the state’s third-largest daily, described Mr. Blumenthal as “a Vietnam veteran.” The Shelton Weekly reported on May 23, 2008, that Mr. Blumenthal “was met with applause when he spoke about his experience as a Marine sergeant in Vietnam.”

And the idea that he served in Vietnam has become such an accepted part of his public biography that when a national outlet, Slate magazine, produced a profile of Mr. Blumenthal in 2000, it said he had “enlisted in the Marines rather than duck the Vietnam draft.”

It does not appear that Mr. Blumenthal ever sought to correct those mistakes.

And not surprisingly, this is not the only fabrication in Blumenthal’s record:

On a less serious matter, another flattering but untrue description of Mr. Blumenthal’s history has appeared in profiles about him. In two largely favorable profiles, the Slate article and a magazine article in The Hartford Courant in 2004 with which he cooperated, Mr. Blumenthal is described prominently as having served as captain of the swim team at Harvard. Records at the college show that he was never on the team.

Mr. Blumenthal said he did not provide the information to reporters, was unsure how it got into circulation and was “astonished” when he saw it in print.

Mr. Blumenthal has made veterans’ issues a centerpiece of his public life and his Senate campaign, but even those who have worked closely with him have gotten the misimpression that he served in Vietnam.

By all rights, this ought to sink Blumenthal’s Senate campaign. But it ought to be noted that today features a Republican scandal as well:

Indiana Republican Rep. Mark Souder acknowledged an affair with a staffer Tuesday and unexpectedly announced his resignation, giving Democrats a chance at capturing what many had thought was a safe Republican seat.

The eight-term congressman apologized for his actions but provided no details.

“I am so ashamed to have hurt the ones I love,” he said at a news conference in Fort Wayne. “I am sorry to have let so many friends down, people who have worked so hard for me.”

His resignation is effective Friday.

So, as I ask in the title to this post, what do we learn from all of this?

Well, among other things, we learn (anew) that politicians are flawed people, prone to making stupid mistakes that stem from their belief that they are smarter, more privileged, and more deserving of special treatment than other people. The hubris of people in public life leads them to make disastrous decisions that destroy their own lives, and the lives of the people they care about.

All of this is bad enough. It’s appalling to see people make wrecks of their own careers and their own private lives. And seeing as how they cannot handle their own private lives, one wonders how they could possibly handle the public responsibilities that we trust them with.

So, I guess I have to ask why it is that so many people are willing to entrust to government–to the same politicians who make the mistakes that Blumenthal and Souder made, and who destroy their own lives and lives of the people they claim to care about in the process–control over economic and social decisions that ought to lie with individuals, and away from government. We have seen that politicians are not perfect; far from it. We have no reason to think that unelected bureaucrats are any better. These people are not possessed of any kind of special wisdom that would entitle them extra power over our lives. They can’t even run their own lives competently.

So, why give power to them? They have done nothing whatsoever to deserve it, after all.

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