An Unlikely Lonesome Dove

By Dana Milbank
Friday, November 18, 2005

In his 37 years in the military, John Murtha won two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star with a Combat "V," and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. As a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania for the past 31 years, he has been a fierce hawk, championing conflicts in Central America and the Persian Gulf.

Yesterday, he was called a coward.

After Murtha stunned the Capitol with a morning news conference calling for a pullout from Iraq because our "troops have done all they can," the denunciations came quickly.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) accused Murtha of delivering "the highest insult" to the troops. "We must not cower," Hastert lectured the old soldier.

Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) informed Murtha that his views "only embolden our enemies" and lamented that "Democrats undermine our troops in Iraq from the security of their Washington, D.C., offices."

At a rival news conference called four hours after Murtha's appearance, Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), who like Hastert and Blunt does not have military service on his rsum, alerted the 73-year-old Murtha that "the American people are made of sterner stuff." And Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.) said the likes of Murtha want to take "the cowardly way out and say, 'We're going to surrender.' "

Murtha, whose brand of hawkishness has never been qualified by the word "chicken," was expecting the attacks. "I like guys who've never been there to criticize us who've been there. I like that," the burly old Marine said, hands in pocket. Referring to Vice President Cheney, he continued: "I like guys who got five deferments and never been there, and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done."

It was a lonely day for once-mighty Murtha, who has long served as Democrats' conscience on military matters because of his moral authority on the subject. But Democrats were cutting and running yesterday -- not from Iraq, but from Murtha.

"I don't support immediate withdrawal," came the statement from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Aides to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hinted that she would back Murtha, but when she finally spoke, it came out as "Mr. Murtha speaks for himself."

Murtha being to the left of his Democratic caucus on military affairs is like Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) being to the right of the caucus on gay rights. But Murtha seemed unconcerned. Asked if he had any co-sponsors, he replied, "I didn't ask for any."

Murtha was not subtle at his news conference, standing in front of seven American flags and a photo of John F. Kennedy. He was almost finished reading a seven-page statement when he went off script to describe the wounded Iraq war vets he visited. He described a father stroking the hand of his comatose son and the soldier who lost both hands but couldn't get a Purple Heart because it was friendly fire.

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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