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Murtha and the Mudslingers

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

I underestimated the viciousness of the right wing.

Last November, Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat and a decorated Marine combat veteran, came out for a rapid American withdrawal from Iraq. At the time, I wrote: "It will be difficult for Bush's acolytes to cast Murtha, who has regularly stood up for the military policies of Republican presidents during his 31 years in Congress, as some kind of extreme partisan or hippie protester."

No, the conservative hit squad didn't accuse Murtha of being a hippie. But a crowd that regularly defends President Bush for serving in the Texas Air National Guard instead of going to Vietnam has continued its war on actual Vietnam veterans. An outfit called the Cybercast News Service last week questioned the circumstances surrounding the awarding of two Purple Hearts to Murtha because of wounds he suffered in the Vietnam War.

John Kerry, as well as John McCain -- who faced scurrilous attacks on his war record when he was running against Bush in the 2000 South Carolina primary -- could have warned Murtha: If you're a Vietnam veteran, don't you dare get in the way of George W. Bush.

David Thibault, editor in chief of Cybercast, made it very clear to The Post's Howard Kurtz and Shailagh Murray that Murtha was facing accusations about his 1967 service now because "the congressman has really put himself in the forefront of the antiwar movement." In other words, if Murtha had just shut up and gone along with Bush, nothing would have been said about his service.

As it is, the charges are remarkably flimsy. Former representative Don Bailey (D-Pa.), whom Murtha defeated in a 1982 congressional primary after a redistricting, said that Murtha had told him he did not deserve his Purple Hearts, Kurtz and Murray reported. Bailey, who won a Silver Star and three Bronze Stars in Vietnam, recalled Murtha saying: "Hey, I didn't do anything like you did. I got a little scratch on the cheek."

Authentic war heroes (including McCain) often play down their own heroism. In any event, what we know about Murtha, McCain, Kerry and, yes, Bailey, is that they served in combat in Vietnam. What we know about Bush and Vice President Cheney ("I had other priorities in the '60s than military service'') is that they didn't.

What's maddening here is the unblushing hypocrisy of the right wing and the way it circulates -- usually through Web sites or talk radio -- personal vilification to abort honest political debate. Murtha's views on withdrawing troops from Iraq are certainly the object of legitimate contention. Many in Murtha's party disagree with him. But Murtha's right-wing critics can't content themselves with going after his ideas. They have to try to discredit his service.

Moreover, the right has demonstrated that its attitude toward military service is entirely opportunistic. In the 1992 presidential campaign, when the first President Bush confronted Bill Clinton -- who, like Cheney, avoided military service entirely -- conservatives could hardly speak or write a paragraph about Clinton that didn't accuse him of being a draft dodger. In October 1992, Bush himself assailed Clinton. "A lot of being president is about respect for that office and about telling the truth and serving your country," Bush told a crowd in New Jersey. "And you are all familiar with Governor Clinton's various stories on what he did to evade the draft."

But from 2000 forward, the Republicans had a problem: They confronted Democrats, first Al Gore and then John Kerry, who actually did go to Vietnam, while it was their own standard-bearers who had skipped the war. Suddenly, service in Vietnam wasn't the thing at all. When a Democrat went to war, there must have been something wrong with the way he did it. Gore's service was dismissed because he worked "only" as a military journalist. You can even find Bush's defenders back in 2000 daring to argue that flying planes over Texas was actually more dangerous than joining the Army and serving in Vietnam the way Gore did.

The Republicans had an even bigger problem with Kerry, who did unquestionably dangerous duty patrolling rivers. Not to worry. The Swift Boat Veterans simply smeared him.

"War's a nasty business," Murtha said on CBS's "60 Minutes" on Sunday. "It sears the soul. The shadow of friends killed, the shadow of killing people lives with you the rest of your life. So there's no experience like being in combat."

Unfortunately, politics is a nasty business, too. And there is no honor given to those who serve if they choose later to take on the powers that be.

postchat@aol.com


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