He was a great, gruff, bear of a man who was quick to anger but the sort of fellow you wanted on your side in a political fight. He was proud of his Irish-American heritage, loved the Marine Corps, and for 35 years, represented the people of Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District.
It was only later in life when John Murtha became a poster boy for much of what was wrong with Congress that the unsettling truth began to dawn on many of his former friends and supporters — John Murtha had gotten so caught up in insuring his own incumbency that he sacrificed almost everything of value to maintain and augment his power in Washington, D.C.
The decorated Vietnam veteran and unofficial King of Pork died today at the age of 77.
You could start with his involvement in the Abscam scandal in 1980, where he was offered a bribe of $50,000 on tape but turned it down — saying, “I’m not interested … at this point. [If] we do business for a while, maybe I’ll be interested, maybe I won’t.”
Not exactly a ringing declaration of moral certitude, but not a smoking gun of wrongdoing either. And that dichotomy would mark his career in Congress for the last three decades. Murtha was a man who shamelessly wheeled and dealed to bring home the bacon. He once said: “Dealmaking is what Congress is all about.”
At the same time, until recently no one ever questioned his devotion to the men and women in uniform. There is no doubt that members of the armed forces are better off because of John Murtha’s battles to make their health care, pensions, housing, and pay better than it would have been if he had not been there to champion their cause.
He was a reliable vote for the defense buildup in the 1980s — one of the few Democrats who consistently went against their party to help Ronald Reagan rebuild the military. At the same time, he used his position as a member and then chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to steer plenty of contracts to his district. In the end, his problematic relationship with a former staffer who ran a consulting business and received millions from Murtha’s subcommittee in contracts was being investigated by both the FBI and the House Ethics Committee.
But it was the sheer volume of earmarks that flowed from his office back to his district that was truly mind-boggling. Hundreds of millions of dollars in pork for which he made no apologies — and indeed, in which he seemed to revel. He challenged his critics by simply stating that this is what a congressman does: takes care of the home folks. Others might say that Murtha’s shameless dealings were a classic illustration for why there should be congressional term limits.