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The Life and Times of John Murtha

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.

It was his outspoken criticism of the war in Iraq and subsequent libels against Marines who fought a confusing engagement in Haditha that riled war supporters and caused many in the military to despise him. Some saw his opposition to the war as a political ploy to gain favor with liberals in Congress to buttress his failed campaign for majority leader. Others believe he saw the effect of the war on the nation’s readiness, and the toll it was taking on individual soldiers who repeatedly went back to Iraq or were prevented from coming home due to the “stop-loss” policy. Either reason is plausible given Murtha’s history.

His criticism of the Marine action at Haditha is less justifiable. Murtha took to the floor of Congress to angrily denounce the Marines involved in the incident, saying that they had killed the civilians in “cold blood.” He based this conclusion not on any official report on the incident from the military, but on an article in Time.

Charges were eventually dropped against seven of the eight Marines, one of whom sued Murtha for defamation. The suit was dismissed because of Murtha’s congressional immunity.

This was a curious attitude from Murtha, the first Vietnam veteran to be elected to Congress.

He joined the Marines in 1952 after quitting college to enlist. Following his stint with the Second Marine Division, Murtha left the Corps in 1955 and finished college, opening a small business in Johnstown.

As a reservist, he volunteered for active duty in 1966, serving as a S-2 intelligence officer in Vietnam. He was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star during his tour of duty, which ended in 1967. He was also awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal following his retirement from the reserves in 1990.

Is it possible that Murtha’s Vietnam experience colored his attitude toward the Haditha Marines? Perhaps he was too quick to believe the worst because of similar incidents that had occurred in Southeast Asia. We’ll never know. Murtha never apologized for slandering the Haditha Marines by accusing them of murder before any evidence had been presented.

As late as early 2005, Murtha opposed bringing the troops home from Iraq. At that time, he told 60 Minutes:

A premature withdrawal of our troops based on a political timetable could rapidly devolve into a civil war which would leave America’s foreign policy in disarray as countries question not only America’s judgment but also its perseverance.

Following the Democrats’ triumph in 2006, Murtha introduced a resolution calling for a “redeployment” of combat troops in Iraq. He briefly became the object of considerable derision when he suggested that the troops could be redeployed to Okinawa. “We can redeploy there almost instantly,” Murtha offered.

Questions about Murtha’s sudden change of heart on Iraq dogged him to the end of his life. It was a sad chapter in the story of a brave Marine who served his country well, but in the end succumbed to the fate reserved for those who place a premium on congressional sinecure and forget that serving the people does not mean aggrandizing oneself at their expense.