Democratic Congressman John Murtha Dies At 77

Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) died Monday of complications from surgery at the age of 77. Murtha was a retired Marine Corps Officer, a Vietnam veteran, one of the most outspoken critics of the U.S. war in Iraq and a strong defender of Congressional deal-making. NPR’s Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving remembers Murtha and his legacy.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Democratic Congressman John Murtha died today of complications from gall bladder surgery. He was 77 years old. Murtha, a retired Marine Corps officer and a Vietnam veteran, was one of the most outspoken opponents of the Bush administration policies in Iraq. In 2006, Congressman Murtha was a guest on this program a week after Donald Rumsfeld announced his resignation as secretary of Defense. Congressman Murtha called for a timeline on the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

Representative JOHN P. MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): We have to adopt a policy that's best for America, not what's best for Iraq. We went into this as a war of choice. We went in with insufficient forces, inadequate equipment and no exit strategy. The exit strategy is the answer to stability in Iraq, and that's to start the redeployment and give them the incentive to take over themselves.

CONAN: Congressman Murtha, a longtime member of the powerful House Appropriations Subcommittee at the time of the death. He was chairman of the Defense Subcommittee. Congressman Murtha known in some circles as the king of pork, a man who defended deal-making and earmarks - many of which, of course, went to his district.

Joining us here in Studio 3A to remember Congressman Murtha is Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor.

Ron, always good to have you on the program.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And sad news today - this was a powerful man in Congress during both Democratic and Republican administrations.

ELVING: Yes, he liked to say that the P in his name - John P. Murtha -stood for power. And, of course, it stood for Patrick, but it also stood for the ability, the authority to move an awful a lot of money around. That's what appropriators do. And he had been an appropriator throughout his career. And he was more than just a member of the Defense Subcommittee; he had been either the chairman or the subcommittee - or that is the ranking member of the subcommittee back over more than 20 years. So he really was kind of running the show there.

CONAN: And I don't think people quite understand how much power a subcommittee chairman or ranking member might have.

ELVING: Yes. In fact, in the House, they referred to the 13 subcommittee chairs as the College of Cardinals. Seriously, they call them cardinals in parlance of the House. And this reflects the almost plenipotentiary power they have to move money around. They can favor contractors in one part of the country or another. And, of course, usually, that favoritism is shown to people back in their home state or in their home district, and sometimes that has resulted in investigations.

Just as recently as December, the House Office of Congressional Ethics recommended against further investigation of Chairman Murtha, but he has been in and out of the news because of this particular association back over the years, and a number of other members who have worked with him as well.

CONAN: We forget, sometimes, that he was the first Vietnam veteran to be elected to Congress.

ELVING: That's correct. In February of 1974, just 36 years ago this month, he became the first Vietnam vet. He was not just another Vietnam vet, either; he had also fought in the Korean war in the early 1950s, dropping out of college to do so. And - so he fought in that war, he fought in the Vietnam War, he was, in between, and instructor at Parris Island. So if you're familiar with all these movies with the drill instructor at Parris Island, John P. Murtha was one of those men.

CONAN: He was praised by many in the military as somebody who always stood up for them and their interest, as, well, perhaps, the most hawkish member of the Democratic Congressional Caucus.

ELVING: Often so described, he was a champion of the uniformed military. He was not so much necessarily always a champion of the Pentagon or the officers, but he was certainly a rank and file guy. Now, he was hawkish on the Iraq war as he had been on all previous military issues in 2002 when the war was authorized.

But by the fall of 2005, John Murtha had turned against the war. And he decided it was too small a force for the mission they were taking on, that they couldn't solve all of Iraq's problems, as we heard in that tape a moment ago. He said it's a bad policy wrapped in an illusion. He turned against it quite forcefully. And for the next couple of years, was an enormous pain and several years, he was in enormous pain for the Bush administration, because he was known as a hawk, and here, he had turned so strongly against their Iraq war.

CONAN: The tremendous credibility on those points. Nevertheless, after the Obama administration came to power, then he became - used that power to defend earmarks, pork, which a lot of people were upset about.

ELVING: Yes. There are a number of things that John Murtha symbolized, if you will. I mean, he was the old-fashioned grand example of the blue-collar, hardscrabble, district Democrat who came from not much. He had worked in a gas station. He worked in a carwash that he ran. And he rose to great power in Washington. And he represented how a sort of new deal product - and he was born just at the dawn of the new deal - could come to great authority through the governmental system.

So he represented much. He was, in many respects, the embodiment of a kind of strong power, both military and governmental, Democrat. And, you know, at the same time, he went to the University of Pittsburgh and got an economics degree on the G.I. Bill. So he represents, in a sense, the transformation of the old new deal Democratic Party to the more educated, more affluent Democratic Party of today.

CONAN: John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, dead today. And he died at the age of 73 years old.

ELVING: Seven, 77.

CONAN: Seventy-seven years old. NPR's senior Washington correspondent Ron Elving. Of course, stay tuned to NPR News for more on the life and death of John P. Murtha.

Thanks, Ron, very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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