Senate hopefuls Mark Kirk (R) and Dick Blumenthal (D) will likely be dogged from now until November by accusations that they embellished their military backgrounds. But as galling as their transgressions may be, they’re part of a rich, scandalous tradition of American pols exaggerating—or simply lying about—their service records in front of the right crowds, when they think they can get away with it.
Herewith, our favorite examples of politicians getting caught red handed fibbing about their war records.
Cooley (R-OR) was elected to Congress as part of the 1994 GOP landslide, but only served one term. Why? A few reasons, actually, but the one that ultimately harmed him the most was the whopper he told about his supposed service in the Korean War. Cooley claimed he was unable to prove his service because, as a member of the Army Special Forces, his missions were secret, and that all records of his service had been destroyed in a fire. Oh yeah. He also claimed that his direct report—Sergeant Major Clifford Poppy had been killed—a claim to which the still-living Poppy responded “Tell him he’s a liar. Tell him Sergeant Poppy said that.”
Bruce Faulkner Caputo
When they fall, they fall hard…and fast. Caputo (R) hoped to unseat Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1982 midterms, but withdrew in March of that year after a run-in with then-Moynihan aide Tim Russert. The future Meet the Press host discovered that Caputo had claimed to have been drafted into, and served in, the Army during the Vietnam war. The reality? Caputo escaped the draft by working for the Pentagon as a civilian analyst.
An oldie, but a goodie. Stringfellow (R) was elected to represent Utah in the House in 1952, appealing to voters as a World War II hero, top-secret OSS agent, POW, and (as a result of the torture suffered during his stint in German prison) a paraplegic and Silver Star awardee. Just two years later, he was outed: He was not a paraplegic and had not earned a Silver Star. What injuries he did have were not suffered in prison. And he never worked for OSS, having served as a private in the Army Air Forces. He died in obscurity in 1966 at the age of 44.
This one needs no introduction. Blumenthal (D)—Connecticut’s Attorney General and Democratic nominee for Senate—has, at least a handful of times, claimed to have served “in” Vietnam. More accurately—and, in fact, the way Blumenthal himself usually describes it—he was a reservist who served during Vietnam, but never overseas. His chief rival, Republican, and professional wrestling executive Linda McMahon, dug up the claim, and fed it to the New York Times, which turned the indiscretions into a potentially major issue for a candidate who would otherwise sail to election.
Kirk’s case is a bit more complicated. There’s no denying he’s a decorated veteran, who continues to serve as a reservist while representing Illinois in the House. But Kirk explicitly claimed, a number of times, to have been the “Navy’s Intelligence Officer of the Year” when in fact he was not. The honor was awarded to Kirk’s unit, which he led in Aviano, Italy—not to Kirk individually. The flap comes at a bad time for Kirk (R), who’s hoping to win President Obama’s Senate seat, which is being vacated by Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL). Kirk is squaring off against Alexi Giannoulias who, as a Democrat and Illinois state treasurer, should be a shoo-in, but has been under siege for his ties to Broadway Bank, which his family owns and was seized by federal regulators this year.
This case is a little different, if only because Clinton never served, or claimed to have served in the military. But during her run for President, she recounted a trip she took to Bosnia in March 1996. Upon landing, she claimed, her entourage came “under sniper fire” and had to run for safety with “our heads down.” Well…Let’s roll the tape, shall we?
AKA Tailgunner Joe. Because of his education McCarthy was given a commission, and he retired from the Marines as a captain. But he later claimed he’d enlisted as a private, flown more missions than he’d actually flown and been sent a letter of commendation by the Chief of Naval Operations. Turns out McCarthy wrote the letter himself. This all occurred before the work that made him truly famous: chief Communist witch hunter on Capitol Hill and chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investagations.
Ronaldus Magnus. The most beloved man in all of conservatism repeatedly confused (or “confused”) scenes from his acting career with heroic battlefield moments…that he never participated in or witnessed. Reagan, for instance, is reported to have boasted to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal of photographing concentration camps at the end of World War II. He even told Shamir he’d helped liberate Auschwitz. In his autobiography he wrote “by the time I got out of the Army Air Corps all I wanted to do—in common with several million other veterans—was to rest up, make love to my wife.” But as Michael Schaller wrote in his book Reckoning with Reagan, “This obscured the fact that unlike most of the “several million other veterans,” Reagan had left neither home nor wife while in military service.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.