Monday, February 08, 2010

John Murtha (1932-2010)


John "Jack" Murtha, the long-time (from 1974) Democratic representative from Pennsylvania's 12th District, has died at the age of 77.

He was an admirable man, a Marine officer who volunteered for duty in Vietnam, a decade after first leaving the service, receiving the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, as well as the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. But while his opposition to the Iraq War was similarly admirable, his career in public service, where he rose into the Democratic leadership in the House -- he ran for majority leader in 2006 but lost to Steny Hoyer (I didn't like either candidate all that much, as I wrote at the time over at Steve Benen's old Carpetbagger Report blog) -- was a corruption-filled, Abscam-laden porkfest of misconduct. (Is that too strong? Well, suffice it to say he did a great deal for his constituents, bringing home the bacon at the expense of other, more noble priorities. To this end, he was perhaps no different than many others on Capitol Hill, but he was nonetheless notorious for it.)

And while I generally dislike the military service fetish in American politics -- as in, you have to have served to have any credibility on military and national security issues (not that this ever troubles Republicans, who glamorize military service and then let Dubya and Dick and rest of them so-called "chickenhawks" recklessly and bloodthirstily send young men and women to their deaths in ill-conceived overseas misadventures) -- I think Benen is right about this:

Murtha's career -- both as a war hero and as an accomplished lawmaker -- has been rather extraordinary, but when I think of him, I immediately turn to the moment in 2005 when Murtha decided he'd made a mistake in supporting the war in Iraq and began calling for an end to the conflict. It made him a hero to many the Bush administration's critics, but just as important, Murtha's stand represented something of a turning point -- if someone of his reputation, stature, and experience, especially on defense issues, came to believe the war was a mistake, it made it easier for others to reach the same conclusion.

For his trouble, Republicans literally accused Murtha -- a decorated combat veteran -- of "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." Murtha nevertheless refused to back down. It was a defining characteristic of his adult life.

It was. And it was the key decision of his political career.

Think back to that difficult (and, in Iraq, violent and bloody) time, when public and political opinion had yet to turn resoundingly against Bush and the Iraq War. It was an extremely courageous stance to take, not least given the venomous Republican opposition, and it really did open the door for further, broader criticism of that disastrous war, pointing the way to Democratic victories in '06 and ensuring that the debate would focus on ending the war, not continuing it (even Bush's "Surge" was about preparing for eventual withdrawal). A shift in public and political opinion likely would have happened anyway, eventually, but Murtha's opposition to the war, coming from a position of personal credibility on military issues, very much made the difference at the time. And for that he deserves enormous credit.

As for what happens next, a special election to fill Murtha's seat will likely be held on May 18. It will be a tough one for Democrats to win.

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