Profile of Rep. John Murtha

Terry Madonna, head of Franklin and Marshall College's Center for Politics and Public Affairs and director of the school's Keystone Poll, discusses John Murtha, the hawkish Democratic representative from Pennsylvania whose call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq has sparked heated debate.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A little more now on Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha. He might be described as a conservative Democrat. He is, as we just heard the vice president mention, a decorated Marine and Vietnam vet. For nearly 30 years he's been known in Congress for his support for the military, and he voted to give the president authority to use force against Iraq. So when Murtha, of all people, held his news conference last week calling for US troops to pull out, it turned the volume of debate over the war up by several notches. To find out more about Congressman Murtha, we called on a veteran watcher of Pennsylvania politics. Terry Madonna directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

Mr. TERRY MADONNA (Director, Center for Politics and Public Affairs, Franklin and Marshall College): He's known as someone very close to the uniformed officers. And if any--I don't think you can find another member of the institution--Congress, that is--who cares more about and spends more time on veterans' activities than John Murtha, who is a regular visitor to Walter Reed.

NORRIS: What does he do there?

Mr. MADONNA: It's my understanding that he visits with the folks who have been injured in war. He visits the wounded. That's...

NORRIS: Is it unusual for members of Congress to do that? Usually, you know, they go there and there's usually photo ops and it's done with quite a bit of fanfare.

Mr. MADONNA: Oh, no. You don't have to worry about getting in between John Murtha and a camera. He is very camera-shy and is sort of the old-school politician who will refrain from, you know, direct quotes. He'll talk with reporters more often off-the-record, but, more importantly, he just doesn't make himself available. But he cares, you know, about the troops, about the needs of the troops in the field. And I think that's one of the reasons he ends up spending so much time with veterans, with folks who have been wounded. And even in his own district when he travels around the 12th Congressional District, his rather mountainous and sometimes bucolic district in southwestern Pennsylvania, he spends a lot of times with veterans groups.

NORRIS: Given his relatively low profile, how unusual was it for him to take on the administration and, in your estimation, how much courage did it take?

Mr. MADONNA: For him maybe not as much courage because he has a shirt full of medals. I mean, he's--you know, from Korea and Vietnam--he's a pretty gutsy, outspoken guy. I mean, outspoken in the sense that he's firm in what he believes. He doesn't waffle, but he doesn't do it publicly that much. But I think it's been a year now that he--he's been slowly ratcheting up his criticism, particularly of troop levels in Iraq and also in the support that the troops have in the field to complete the mission.

NORRIS: Do you get the sense that he took no pleasure in wagging his finger...

Mr. MADONNA: Oh...

NORRIS: ...at the White House?

Mr. MADONNA: Oh, I don't think there's any doubt about that. I mean, I don't think--you know, he's not political in the same way that other Democrats have been, you know, using the war for the past year or so. You know, not to say that these Democrats don't obvi--don't care about, you know, our position in Iraq and the troops and victory, but he's not been political about it. I think he legitimately feels--again rightly or wrongly--legitimately feels that the men and women on the front line--and that's where his heart is--are in jeopardy and that the government of this country has not been supportive enough. This is not a political statement, and I think no one should take much in the way of consolation out of it. Although, I must tell you...

NORRIS: This was not--I'm sorry to interrupt you, Terry--you say this was not a political statement...

Mr. MADONNA: Well...

NORRIS: ...but the Democrats--there were Democrats that were immediately rubbing their hands together...

Mr. MADONNA: Of course...

NORRIS: ...and saying, this is an opportunity for them to really beat up on the administration. Is there--could he be used by...

Mr. MADONNA: Of course--oh, sure...

NORRIS: ...who want to make hay of this?

Mr. MADONNA: Absolutely. When Murtha did this, I think he was much less concerned about the political implications of this and much more concerned about the veterans and about the troops. And despite the early reporting, he has not suggested that we pack up lock, stock and barrel. That's not--and get out of Iraq. He thinks it can be accomplished gradually over a six-month period of time and we should leave Iraq stable. Now there are serious questions about, you know, whether that can be accomplished if we get out in six months. But on the political side of it, he didn't do it for partisan advantage. Some will interpret it in a sense that will--in which they will try to make partisan hay out of it, take partisan advantage of it, but that's not what--that was not his intent.

NORRIS: Terry Madonna, good to talk to you.

Mr. MADONNA: My pleasure.

NORRIS: Terry Madonna is the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): And you can find more political analysis of Representative John Murtha at our Web site, npr.org.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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