John Murtha, Hero of the War Protesters
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Gruff, jowly John Murtha wouldn't seem to be a Code Pink kinda guy, what with his appetite for pork and his pro-gun, antiabortion Marine hero bona fides.
But there the congressman was, in a Rayburn House Office Building hallway, gallantly protecting some war protesters from the group who had been tossed out of a hearing room and threatened with arrest.
"He said 'I know these people,' he gave me his hand and said we wouldn't be arrested," said Medea Benjamin, a San Francisco human rights activist who was doing her earnest best Tuesday to end the war when her lobbying methods provoked the displeasure of the U.S. Capitol Police. Code Pink ladies on one side; uniforms on the other. In the middle, the impressive bulk of 74-year-old Murtha. He called the sergeant at arms and didn't leave until he was assured the women would be released, Benjamin said.
"He's one of the most principled people I have ever met," said Benjamin of the Pennsylvania Democrat. "I don't know about the past. I'm sure there's plenty I wouldn't like. I'm sure there's plenty about his present record I wouldn't like. But I really respect his position on this issue. And today, he stood up for us."
For the antiwar women of Code Pink, the progressive thinkers at MoveOn.org and liberals from Berkeley to Brooklyn, the 33-year congressional career of Murtha might as well have begun on Nov. 17, 2005.
That's when the defense hawk and decorated 'Nam vet from Johnstown, a gritty town best known for its worst flood, stood alone on the House floor and called for an end to the war in Iraq. He called it "a flawed policy wrapped in illusion." He stunned his colleagues and electrified war protesters, who recognized that his staunch military support could supply credibility to a cause sputtering between teach-ins, action alerts and e-mail campaigns.
They made him an icon, his fellow Democrats eventually moved his way and into control of Congress, and tomorrow, the House is expected to vote on a resolution that would set an end date for the conflict. The legislation, due largely to Murtha's efforts, allows President Bush to deploy troops who don't meet readiness standards as long as he publicly declares it. It includes nearly $1 billion in money for mental health services and brain injury care for Iraq soldiers and veterans, $2.5 billion for training and equipment for military reserves, and $123 million more than the president requested to armor vehicles and upgrade other equipment headed to Iraq.
To embrace him, the antiwar left has ignored Murtha's dealmaking with a man they revile, former Republican leader Tom DeLay. And his support for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and doling out pork from his seat on the powerful Appropriations defense subcommittee to defense companies in his district. And the delight he also inspires in antiabortion, pro-gun advocates.
"To be honest, I didn't know much about him before he stood up against the war," said Gael Murphy, a District resident and co-founder of Code Pink, which awarded Murtha its "badge of courage" last year. "Then I was reminded about the Abscam scandal. He has another side of him."
Ah, yes, Abscam. That 1980 FBI sting featured G-men posing as the posse for an Arab sheik named Abdul who needed asylum in the United States. The public corruption probe brought down a flock of officials, including a senator and five congressmen, before it was over. Murtha's canny political wiles were captured right on hidden camera: He repeatedly refused the $50,000 proffered, but kept the door open if the sheik might invest in some business in his district. "I want to get the goddamned jobs in the district, some bank deposits, later after we've dealt awhile, we might want to do more business," Murtha said. The FBI named Murtha as an unindicted co-conspirator in the scandal. He testified against two other House members who were convicted of bribery and conspiracy.
Then there was the nonprofit a staffer set up in Johnstown to help disabled people find work; defense contractors and lobbyists wound up on its board.
None of that bothers Tom Matzzie of MoveOn.org, the progressive group calling for an end to war. "For people who want to get out of Iraq, John Murtha is a hero," he said. "The issue is the war. Americans are getting shot and killed every day. If Tom DeLay wanted to become an antiwar activist, we'd take him."