The About-Face of a Hawkish Democrat

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 25, 2005

Of all the Democrats calling for an end to the Iraq war, Rep. John P. Murtha is an anomaly. Unlike Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Russell Feingold (Wis.), he doesn't want to be president. He's no liberal, like his House colleagues Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) and Maxine Waters (Calif.). He's certainly the only one to call Vice President Cheney a friend.

A man of gruff familiarity -- most colleagues find it more natural to call him "Murtha" than "Jack" -- has been representing his Pennsylvania district for 16 terms, rising to become the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations panel's defense subcommittee. For that perch, he became known for his opposition to defense cuts and his willingness to send troops into battle -- and even to draft them, if necessary. He was the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress, and has fashioned a reputation as the Democrats' soldier-legislator -- a John McCain type without swagger or upward ambition. He generally prefers the shadows of Capitol Hill to the spotlight -- though that changed dramatically in recent days.

Last week, as Congress was preparing to leave town for a two-week Thanksgiving break, Murtha told a gathering of colleagues and, later, reporters that -- although he had voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the Iraq invasion -- he now wants American troops withdrawn immediately. "The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily," Murtha said. "It is time to bring them home."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) predicted that Murtha's statement would become a "watershed event for our caucus, for our Congress and for our country." The burly 73-year-old lawmaker ignited a news blitz, and Republicans scrambled to respond. House GOP leaders hastily drew up a watered-down version of Murtha's withdrawal resolution, and made Republican lawmakers remain in town for a bitter and emotional Friday night session to vote it down.

It's hard to imagine any other Democrat causing such a stir. Republicans privately acknowledge that Murtha is a worrisome opponent because he can hardly be portrayed as a liberal of the Michael Moore stripe.

What sets Murtha apart from most fellow Democrats is his close connection to different layers of the armed services. The congressman regularly visits with wounded troops, but he also talks to battle commanders. "Jack Murtha is one of a kind," said Rep. Curt Weldon (Pa.), one of the few Republicans who rose in Murtha's defense during the Friday night House debate. "He is an example for all us in this body, and none of us should ever think of questioning his motives, his desires or support for our American troops."

Other Republicans depicted Murtha's call for withdrawal as irresponsible and even dangerous. On Nov. 18, White House spokesman Scott McClellan described Murtha as "endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party" and suggested he was advocating a "surrender to the terrorists."

In the House debate Friday night, several Republicans suggested that Murtha is a coward who was proposing to "cut and run." But then the rhetoric started to cool. On Sunday, while traveling in Asia, President Bush called Murtha "a fine man, a good man who served our country with honor and distinction," who came to his Iraq position "in a careful and thoughtful way."

Democrats suspect that Republicans dialed back their criticisms after taking into account Murtha's hawkish track record. Judging from his history and close relationships at the Pentagon, Murtha probably was echoing a belief that runs deep within the ranks of senior officers. "He's someone who's a strong supporter of the military," said Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a West Point graduate and one of his party's leading Senate spokesmen on the military. "People will recognize that he's got their best interests at heart."

Murtha joined the Marines in 1952, and served in active duty or in the reserves until he retired in 1990. He volunteered for active Vietnam service and received the Bronze Star with Combat "V," two Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He was elected to the House in a 1974 special election, after a five-year stint as a Pennsylvania state legislator.

His hawk credentials were burnished early on. "He was one of our strongest supporters when I worked for Reagan," said Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985, and now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Murtha shared President Ronald Reagan's anti-communist views, supporting the military buildup against the then-Soviet Union along with covert aid to the Nicaraguan contras. "I supported Reagan all through the Central American thing," Murtha reminded reporters during his Nov. 17 news conference.

He was a strong supporter of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and today regards it as a model for international cooperation, both diplomatically and financially. He noted in an Oct. 2 C-SPAN interview that Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, also kept Congress well informed throughout the conflict. "President Bush One really did it exactly right," Murtha said.

Despite disagreements over defense spending, Murtha also forged a close relationship with President Bill Clinton. At the 1999 signing of a defense authorization bill, Clinton credited Murtha for pay and retirement provisions that Clinton called the biggest increase in military compensation in a generation. USA Today reported Monday that Clinton said in an interview he would reconsider his opposition to a withdrawal timetable in the aftermath of Murtha's proposal. "He's a really good man," Clinton told USA Today. "I'm going to have to think about it because I respect him so much."

Murtha leans conservative on social matters such as abortion and gun control, but his central Pennsylvania district is a union stronghold, and he tends to vote liberal on economic and workers' rights issues. He criticizes Bush's tax cuts as helping the rich at the expense of other needs -- including defense. He had an ethical scrape in 1979, when he was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam bribery scandal and testified against two House colleagues.

After a 1990 primary scare, Murtha spent more time tending to parochial interests. Of the 58 news releases posted on his Web site since August, three are about Iraq, one is about Hurricane Katrina, and the remainder address local concerns, including military contracts Murtha helped to secure and money he lined up for local dams and schools.

For the past few months, Murtha had dropped hints to colleagues that he would soon make a major announcement about the war. Although he supported the initial invasion, he soon came to believe that troop levels weren't adequate and that soldiers weren't properly equipped. He was one of the few Democrats to publicly advocate the reinstatement of the draft. In a CNN interview in May 2004, Murtha said that although "it would be an international disaster I think if we pulled out . . . the alternative is, we're going to struggle along, get more and more young people killed."

Last week, as Murtha prepared for his speech, he spoke to Pelosi, to whom he is close. According to aides who were privy to the conversation, she warned Murtha that "this is going to be a huge deal" and that people would "come after him." His reply: "I can handle it. I'm ready for anything."

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