MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
One of the Iraq war's most passionate critics has died, Democratic Congressman John Murtha of southwestern Pennsylvania. He was 77 years old. A Vietnam veteran, Murtha initially supported the Iraq invasion, but he ultimately changed course, clashing with President Bush over his Iraq policies. Here he is speaking with me in December 2005.
Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): When you look at the rosy scenario that the president tries to portray, none of those things are accurate. You know, you can sit here in your air-conditioned office and you can say: stay the course. But let me tell you something, those troops out in the field are the ones that are suffering.
BLOCK: John Murtha served in the House for nearly 36 years and became one of its most influential members.
NPR's David Welna joins us now. And, David, first, how did Congressman Murtha die?
DAVID WELNA: Well, Melissa, this was not entirely unexpected. Murtha had been hospitalized in intensive care after having his gallbladder removed last week at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. And it appears he then contracted a serious post-operative infection and died this afternoon at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington where he had been transferred.
BLOCK: And John Murtha first elected in 1974, part of the post-Watergate wave into Congress, tell us some of the highlights of his career.
WELNA: Well, although he spent most of his adult life as a lawmaker, Murtha was first and foremost a big, tough talking Marine. In fact, he spent one more year in his military career than he did as a U.S. congressman. And he won two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star for his combat service as an intelligence officer in the Vietnam War. And in 1974, when Murtha was elected to Congress, he was the first Vietnam combat veteran to do so.
And that coincided with his western Pennsylvania district getting hit hard by the demise of coal mining. And Murtha became a champion of steering federal spending to his district. But early on, Murtha also got tainted by a scandal in the early 1980s when he became ensnared as an unindicted co-conspirator and witness in the FBI's Abscam sting.
BLOCK: John Murtha was an unapologetic king of earmarks or king of pork. He did get in trouble for earmarks that he put in defense spending bills.
WELNA: Yes he did. Yet, Murtha indeed was shameless about steering hundreds of millions of dollars worth of defense contracts to his district and, you know, he could do so because he chaired the committee that decided on the biggest part of the budget that Congress has a say over, which is defense spending. Last July on the House floor, Murtha defended all the earmarks he had stuffed into the last defense spending bill.
Rep. MURTHA: The people of my district are hardworking. We got the unemployment down to below the national level, a diversified economy. All I could do is bring people in. I can't direct them where to do the business of the Defense Department. They do it on their own. They're the ones that award the contracts. And I visit those plants and I see those hardworking people. I see what they do for this great country.
WELNA: Late last year, the House Office of Congressional Ethics cleared Murtha in a probe into campaign contributions made by clients of the big defense lobbying firm that's since folded. And Murtha always claimed he'd done nothing wrong, but he did tell a home state newspaper: If I'm corrupt, it is because I take care of my district. Murtha has also clashed with the Obama administration over the past year, over hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons systems spending which he claimed was necessary and which the Pentagon said was unnecessary.
BLOCK: And, David, even with these ethical questions, Congressman Murtha managed to hold onto his seat for, as we said, 36 years.
WELNA: Well, you know, he was your quintessential bring-home-the-bacon congressman and many in his district felt that they owed their jobs to him. He did upset some of those constituents a couple of years ago, calling people in his district racist in their attitudes towards then presidential candidate Obama. But Murtha had a lot of powerful friends there and in Congress and one of them here was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who stood by him through thick and thin just as he backed her bid eight years ago to lead House Democrats.
But I also think that with his death we're seeing hastened the demise of the al-powerful bulls of Congress. Murtha had a lot of clout, but the earmarks he loved so much lately have become a liability in the eyes of lot of voters.
BLOCK: Okay, David, thank you.
WELNA: You're welcome.
BLOCK: NPR's David Welna talking about the death today of Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania.
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