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An Unlikely Lonesome Dove

Murtha, choked up, had difficulty finishing the tale. "I met with the commandant," he said. "I said, 'If you don't give him a Purple Heart, I'll give him one of mine.' "

"Our military's done everything that has been asked of them," Murtha said, regaining his composure. "The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It's time to bring the troops home."

The questioning turned to the inevitable charges that Murtha was irresponsibly advocating a cut-and-run. The Old Bull roared like a lion. "This is a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion!" he said, pounding the podium.

There was a long silence in the room when Murtha finished, as journalists assessed the damage. It was a political temblor, a Murtha-quake. But would it make a difference?

It would not. In the Speaker's Lobby off the House floor, Democrats ran for cover. Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) walked away when reporters asked if Murtha's move would change the Democrats' position. Asked if he agreed with Murtha, Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Service Committee, replied: "Talk to you later."

Murtha had said he got a "standing ovation" when he announced his position to colleagues in the morning.

Evidently, they were just being polite. At her afternoon news conference, Pelosi was meticulous in avoiding any agreement with Murtha's "very provocative" statement.

"But do you agree with the call for immediate withdrawal?"

"As I said, that was Mr. Murtha's statement," she replied.

The Republicans showed no such caution. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called a news conference to respond. "I respect John Murtha, he's a friend of mine, and he's wrong," said Hunter, who had only three flags behind him but had 16 visible on his necktie.

Some of those who followed Hunter at the microphone dropped the "respect" part.

Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), an Army veteran, even accused Murtha and his ilk of treason for their "shameful statements." Terrorists "have brought the battlefield to the halls of Congress," Davis said. "And, frankly, the liberal leadership have . . . cooperated with our enemies and are emboldening our enemies."

It was enough to qualify Murtha for a third Purple Heart.

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