Murtha's Moment: Not Soon Forgotten

PROFILE:

 

Name: John Patrick Murtha

 

Job: Congressman for Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District

 

Age: 73, born in New Martinsville, West Virginia

 

Education: Left college to join the Marines, but later received a B.A. in Economics at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

Life and Career Highlights:

 

* Left college in 1952 to join the Marines, where he served during the Korean War and eventually rose in rank to captain

 

* After his discharge from active duty, Murtha reenlisted and volunteered to serve in Vietnam in 1966-67, where he won two purple hearts, a Bronze Star with Combat "V" and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

 

* After a five-year stint in Pennsylvania's House, in 1974 Murtha was elected to the U.S Congress, the first Vietnam combat veteran to win a seat in Congress.

 

*As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Murtha quickly built a track record of support for the military, voting consistently for money for both active duty soldiers and veterans.

 

*Breaking ranks with many Democrats, Murtha backed President Reagan's incursions in Central America in the 1980s.

 

*Among the most fervent backers of the 1991 Gulf War with Iraq, Murtha worked closely with President George H.W. Bush to gain support for the war in Congress.

 

*In September, 2002, Murtha voiced grave doubts about President George W. Bush's plans for war, complaining that he has not built a proper coalition and estimating the war will cost taxpayers at least $50 billion. He nonetheless voted later to authorize the war With Iraq.

 

*In May 2004, Murtha joined fellow Democrats in criticizing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for his role in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. But he stopped short of calling for Rumsfeld to resign, as other Democrats do.

 

*In the fall of 2005, he led a House effort to pass the so-called McCain Amendment, a measure that would expressly prohibit "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of terror suspects.

No fewer than five American flags flanked the podium when Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha strode into a Capitol briefing room to announce his dramatic reversal on the war in Iraq. Once a solid vote in favor of the invasion, Murtha now says the troops should come home "at the earliest practicable date."

Murtha, 73, is not one of the Capitol's many dandies; he is a large, leathery, no-nonsense kind of guy who makes his own grammatical rules. He won two Purple Hearts as a combat Marine in the Korean and Vietnam wars, after which he tacked on 23 more years in the Marine Reserve. In Congress since 1973, he has been a staunch supporter of the Pentagon, voting to back the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and for the current Iraq conflict in 2002 (unlike most Democrats, in both cases). Since 1989, he has been either chairman or the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

So for this legendary advocate of the military to express such a position was breathtaking.

Murtha's aides handed out copies of his written speech beforehand. There were also copies of the resolution he would introduce calling for redeployment of U.S. forces, and a thick packet including correspondence between Murtha and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the war. Supplied with these things, reporters knew the substance of what was coming — though we could not have known its timbre.

The congressman began by reading his written statement, the very first two sentences of which were typically direct:

"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion."

But Murtha did not stick to the script. Reading his own words seemed to make him angrier and angrier, and as he started talking about the troubles young soldiers are having returning from the war — what Murtha called "battle fatigue" — and the rising cost of their health care, he began to choke up. It is rare to see a member of Congress cry, and especially one as rough-hewn as Murtha. As his words got softer and he labored to speak, reporters leaned forward in their chairs, watching with attention.

He described watching a father, also a retired Marine, stroking the hand of a son who came back from Iraq in a coma. Murtha told of working inside the Pentagon to have a Purple Heart awarded to a young soldier whose body had been torn apart by an American bomb.

Perhaps most poignant of all was Murtha's story of visiting a soldier at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. He told of touching the wounded man's hand, accidentally causing wracking spasms of pain up the young man's wounded arm. You could feel the grief Murtha was still carried at having caused this one victim more pain.

Murtha has previously been critical of the U.S. approach to the war. In 2004, he said the Pentagon had to commit more troops and money if it wanted to win in Iraq. At the time, he caught considerable flak from the House Republican leadership. Tom DeLay of Texas, then the Majority Leader, said Murtha was essentially declaring "surrender in the war on terrorism."

But that was a dust-up beside the firestorm Murtha ignited this week. No sooner had he left his midday news conference than 14 Republicans were on hand to tell reporters that proposing immediate withdrawal was outrageous and out of the question. Some members of Congress took to the floor to denounce him, while others asked what it meant when a lifelong hawk was ready to advocate such a policy.

For its part, the White House pronounced itself "baffled" that a man of Murtha's record would turn against the war, comparing his new views to those of controversial documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.

The next day, House Republicans said they would bring "Murtha's resolution" to an immediate vote on the House floor. But what they offered up for a vote instead was a one-line resolution penned by Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter that Murtha himself, as well as the rest of the Democrats, immediately disavowed. It read: "It is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately."

This last maneuver sent the House spinning into a high-volume and vituperative debate on the eve of the Thanksgiving recess. Ugly as it was, it was a fitting end to a ragged week, in which tensions over the war, the budget and the management of the GOP majority often reduced the normally disciplined House to an unruly caricature of itself.

It's a good bet that all the members are grateful they won't be in town again until December.

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