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If you’re awaiting indignation at Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal for “mispeaking” about his never-happened military service in Vietnam, this piece will disappoint you. There’s plenty of anger around, but in football there’s a foul called “piling on,” and it draws a 15-yard penalty.
I prefer to reflect more broadly upon the issue itself. In a way, the new Democratic candidate for senator from Connecticut is a stronger man than I am. I could never enjoy one moment of peace if I were to gain something like a Senate seat by claiming combat service I’d never performed.
My most uncomfortable moments as a speaker – and they’re not all that rare – come when the person introducing me intones into the microphone, “Mr. Farber fought for our country in Korea.” I never did any such thing. I never said any such thing. And I never knowingly allowed any such thing to be said. The one introducing me quite innocently mistook “served in the Army during the Korean War” with “fought in Korea.” And the difference between those two is – thank you, Mark Twain! – the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
What do I do after such an introduction? Do I stand up and splatter the poor guy who mistakenly elevated me from an American who did his duty honorably to the very exalted role of “fighting for America”? Or do I stand there and go through a whole speech while allowing the crowd to suppose I was holding off the Communists at the Pusan perimeter or storming ashore at Inchon? Do I mortify the introducer by correcting him or dishonor myself through silence? Over the years I did a little of each, until I learned to take him or her to one side before the speech and make it stomp-down clear that the only fighting I ever did was in the fifth-grade schoolyard and on my high-school wrestling team.
I did my military service at a small Army post in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Nice desk by day, comfortable bed by night. The raging rumor at the time was that there were eight women for every man in Washington. Oh, how I’d stretch out in my chaste little sack in the barracks and wonder which lucky guy was sporting around the District of Columbia with 16 women. Lots of aggravation; lots of frustration; but no Communist bullets incoming.
A lot of men who did combat duty in Korea were rotated back to our post and joined us. Language doesn’t always get its point across. “Courage” and “guts” are pitiful attempts to convey the meaning of the Finnish word “sisu.” Likewise, “gall” or “temerity” are insufficient and lame if you want to express the meaning of the Yiddish word “chutzpah.” In English, words like “respect” and even “awe” don’t approach what we desk-job warriors felt about our fellow soldiers who had, indeed, fought in Korea. There was a natural, organic “iron curtain” separating them from us. The notion of lying, or even permitting the impression to waft around that you’d done combat when you had not, was literally, clinically unthinkable.
The Democrats of Connecticut apparently had no difficulty “rallying behind” Blumenthal with the White House leading the cheers. The famous Democratic characteristic of tolerance now apparently extends even to liars.
Back to my speechmaking dilemma: What should you do if, through no fault of your own, you have been “over-introduced” and now face an audience that believes you are an entity much grander than you really are? I’ll never quit envying the man who did, I believe, the best job of all time.
He was the luncheon guest speaker years ago at, I think, a Rotary Club in San Francisco. The man who introduced him, no candidate for honors in that field if there ever were any, simply stood up to the podium and announced, “Now we’re going to hear from a man who made a million dollars in the oil business in California.” The speaker arose to a standard smattering of polite applause and, after allowing as to how nice it was to be there and how grateful he was for the honor of the whole thing, he leaned into the microphone and said, “Before my remarks, I’d like to straighten out an item or two in my much-appreciated introduction.”
“It wasn’t California,” he began. “It was Pennsylvania. And it wasn’t oil. It was coal. And it wasn’t anything like a million dollars,” he continued. ‘It was more like a hundred thousand.”
He allowed himself a sip of water and continued. “And it wasn’t me,” he asserted. “It was my brother.”
“And he didn’t make it,” our role-model speaker concluded. “He lost it!”