Rep. Murtha Remembered As Military Advocate

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Democratic Congressman John Murtha died Monday at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., after complications from gallbladder surgery. He was 77. Murtha represented southwestern Pennsylvania for 36 years. Most of that time he was the top Democrat on defense appropriations — moving billions of dollars and sending as much as he could to his home district.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we'll remember a congressman who spent much of his career as the ultimate insider. For decades, John Murtha quietly steered money to his Pennsylvania district and quietly influenced American defense spending. Then, late in life, he became a very public critic of the war in Iraq.

John Murtha died, yesterday, at age 77 after suffering complications from surgery. The reporters who covered Murtha, for many years in Congress, include NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR: John P. Murtha - the P, he used to brag, stood for power - was first elected to the House in 1974 in a special election. It was the year Richard Nixon resigned the presidency and Murtha ran on the slogan: One honest man can make a difference.

Murtha was a decorated Marine who won a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam. The first Vietnam combat veteran to serve in Congress, Murtha was devoted to the military, rising to become the Chairman of Defense Appropriations. That post enabled him to influence military policy and also steer millions of dollars in defense contracts to his Southwestern Pennsylvania district.

The first time most people outside of Pennsylvania heard of Murtha was in an FBI investigation known as Abscam in 1980. Murtha was taped meeting a phony sheik - actually an FBI agent - who offered him a $50,000 bribe. Murtha said he wasnt interested.

Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): I'm not interested...

Unidentified Man: Okay.

Rep. MURTHA: ...at this point.

Unidentified Man: Okay.

Rep. MURTHA: You know, we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested, maybe I won't, you know.

Unidentified Man: Okay.

NAYLOR: Murtha would later say he seemed to leave the door open to taking cash so as to persuade the phony sheik to create jobs in his district. Over the years, Murtha claimed to have directed $2 billion in federal funds to Southwest, Pennsylvania, becoming known as the King of Pork. In a 2002 campaign stop, he appeared at the groundbreaking for a new defense plant, clearly proud of what he had delivered.

Rep. MURTHA: In the last few years, weve created $35,000 jobs and 1,000 jobs just this year alone. Now, most of them have come from this kind of operation. We're talking about starting out with four or five people and ending up with hundreds of people.

NAYLOR: But Murtha's efforts to deliver for his district led to accusations of ethical lapses. He was never formerly charged with anything, though the House Ethics Committee did conduct an investigation. Murtha was close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was also seen as a supporter of ethics reform. But Pelosi became speaker, in part, thanks to Murtha's support for her in an earlier Democratic leadership battle.

In recent years, Murtha, a legendary hawk, became a leading voice against the war in Iraq. Though he had originally voted for the resolution approving of President Bush's decision to send troops, in 2005 he grew disenchanted with the war's conduct.

Rep. MURTHA: This war has been so mismanaged that we have the responsibility to force the White House to be accountable. The policy's not set by the military; the policy is set by the White House, and we have to hold the White House accountable for the mistakes that they have made.

(Soundbite of applause)

NAYLOR: Murtha raised hackles in 2006 when he said Marines had killed civilians in cold blood after a bomb blast in Haditha, Iraq that killed two Marines. Two years later, he created another stir when he said many residents of his district were racist and unlikely to vote for an African-American presidential candidate. In many ways a reminder of another era, Murtha was often gruff and impolitic in public and in private, but he will be remembered as on who played the inside game in Congress with uncommon skill.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

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