On the night of Monday, May 17, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's Senate campaign received a phone call from New York Times reporter Ray Hernandez. The paper wanted to talk to the attorney general about discrepancies between the Connecticut Democrat's public comments about his military service in Vietnam and the actual record. The reporter was going to run the story the next day and Blumenthal had only a few hours before deadline.
Blumenthal had spent decades ingratiating himself among Connecticut voters and prepping for his chance at a Senate bid. With the publication of the Times story, he would have roughly a 48-hour window to ensure his career didn't end in infamy.
What followed was a chaotic, tense and high-stakes game of political damage control. But one that proved remarkably successful. Whereas similar exaggerations about war records and military valor have derailed previous candidates, Blumenthal has emerged largely intact. A poll taken roughly a week after the crisis surfaced found him with a comfortable 25-point lead over his nearest Republican challenger.
The background story of how Blumenthal, his aides and the national Democratic apparatus weaved through the week provides a telling illustration of how political crises are managed in the modern media age. It also offers powerful lessons to future politicians caught in similar quandaries.
Days after Blumenthal escaped the clasp of political infamy, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) was caught making similar exaggerations about his own military record. But the Republican senator's crisis-management efforts differed in certain important respects -- primarily in a willingness to, first and foremost, simply own up to the mistake. And the result seems to be perfectly avoidable storylines that threaten to damage Kirk's standing within the state.
"There is no substitute for being forthcoming," said John Samerjan, the press secretary for former Rep. Bruce Caputo when the New York Republican's senatorial campaign went up in flames after he was caught lying about his experience in Vietnam. "People have a remarkable capacity to forgive and forget. Sometimes the politics weighs against you. But certainly the substantial part of the public seems to not care that Bill Clinton looked into the camera and lied to them."
The night that Hernandez made his call to the Blumenthal camp, Democratic consultant Mo Elleithee got a phone call from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. How fast could he get on a plane to Hartford?
A veteran of multiple campaigns and campaign crises, Elleithee hadn't seen the story yet. But he booked a plane ticket for the next morning. By the time he relayed the flight information to the DSCC, a strategy was being finalized. There would be a press conference the next day at which Blumenthal would take responsibility for his mistakes, admit he misspoke, and reaffirm his commitment to veterans (a cadre of whom would surround him at the lectern). The AG would also take questions -- a sign he wasn't backing down from the scrutiny -- but would not address the obvious role his opponent, GOP candidate Linda McMahon, played in helping with research for the story.
There was a debate over how much the campaign should go after the Times itself, which featured a damaging quote from Blumenthal claiming to have served in Vietnam high up in the piece but declined to place alongside it exculpatory remarks. The path ultimately chosen was to push the idea that the Times had done an unfair reporting job but to not wage a campaign against the paper (a la what John McCain's presidential campaign did after the paper suggested he had had an affair with a lobbyist).
Fortunately for Blumenthal, the Times's reporting was called into question without much prodding. The day after the press conference, video emerged that showed him accurately discussing his service during the same speech in which he exaggerated it. Blumenthal's staff, which included prominent media consultants Mandy Grunwald and Marla Romash, helped push this in private to reporters. "Suddenly," recalled one aide, "there was video proof to show that he was misspeaking."
More clarifying points followed. Local papers looked through archives to find similar misstatements and came away with only a few examples. A reporter tracked down a member of the Harvard swim team who confirmed that (contra to the Times's assertion) Blumenthal had indeed been a member. McMahon, meanwhile, admitted to being the source for the piece, adding an element of overt politics that made Blumenthal seem more sympathetic.
Perhaps the most beneficial factor for Blumenthal, however, was a press corps that was actively interested in reporting the original story's shortcomings. The Connecticut press, for one, felt it knew its AG better. National political bloggers, meanwhile, weren't willing to give the Times ipso facto treatment. Indeed, without much of a public effort, Democrats were able to shift attention away from Blumenthal and onto his opponent and the nation's most respected paper.
"The media has changed so much that almost everybody is a content producer, including the candidate," said Joe Lockhart, President Clinton's former press secretary, when asked to discuss how Blumenthal handled the story. "And this was a case where two dynamics worked to his advantage. One was the complete idiocy of his opponent's campaign. It is just moronic. Whatever your role is in feeding a story to the press, to go out and do a victory lap undermines the legitimacy of it.
"The second is, the traditional media compact with voters is so broken that nobody trusts anything. You are able now to make how someone did a story as important as what the story is. And just from my 35,000-foot perch, it looked like the Times leaned way too hard into this. If they had just thrown in a contextual paragraph, they would have been fine."
So what lessons could Kirk learn? And what tactics has he failed, so far, to appropriate? The situations aren't pure parallels. For starters, the Illinois Republican actually served in combat. His fib was over the distinctions he received and the theaters in which he served which, because his service is a prominent feature of the campaign, may end up proving more damaging. Like Blumenthal, Kirk tried to find validation in the form of veterans and military officials re-endorsing his campaign. He also copped to a singular misstatement in suggesting he won an award for officer of the year when, in actuality, it went to his unit.
But the Illinois Republican has been far more defiant than Blumenthal in the wake of their respective scandals. He lashed out against his opponent, Alexi Giannoulias, for spreading the story instead of allowing the public to decide for itself whether the Illinois State Treasurer had been involved in seedy politics. And instead of apologizing for his misstatement (which Blumenthal did days into his scandal) Kirk insisted that it was inadvertent.
All of which has had the opposite affect of calming the waters. When reporters invariably found more evidence of exaggeration in Kirk's record, they didn't put it in the context of the totality of his remarks; they held it up as evidence that there was nothing inadvertent about the initial error. Local editorial boards were particularly brutal, with the Chicago Sun-Times writing: "If you're a politician who pumps up your military record, you should admit it, beg for forgiveness and move on as best you can. But, please, don't insult the public by pretending your exaggerations were all honest errors."
Soon the congressman's response itself became the story, with columnist Lynn Sweet reporting that Kirk had not even been upfront with how his office was first alerted to the mistake. It was the Navy itself that had tipped the congressman off.
There were, to be sure, several conservative media outlets who wrote stories exonerating the Illinois Republican. But the prospect of following Blumenthal in the course of war-experience-exaggeration scandals proved daunting. The same Republican lawmakers who rushed to condemn the Connecticut Democrat for his Vietnam remarks have been all but radio silent in the wake of Kirk's misstep.