A veteran backbencher becomes an anti-war movement darling
Monday, December 26, 2005
By Maeve Reston, Post-Gazette National Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Amid the media frenzy over U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha's proposal to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq at the earliest practical date, the Pennsylvania Democrat got an interview request from an unusual source.
He told an aide that he'd just gotten off the phone with Rolling Rock.
"The beer company, Congressman?" the puzzled aide asked.
"No, that magazine all the kids read," he replied.
The magazine, of course, was Rolling Stone.
Few of his colleagues would have made that mistake in a town where most politicians covet press attention. And for some, the story spoke to the authenticity of a congressman who has long preferred a backstage role.
That changed Nov. 18, when the Johnstown Democrat, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and legislative hawk, moved debate over the war in Iraq to the top of Washington's agenda by saying it was time for the United States to start pulling out.
The man described by another top Democrat, U.S. Rep. David Obey, of Wisconsin, as someone "who likes to get things done with virtually no spoken words," has become a regular on the news talk shows.
He has become a celebrity in blogosphere. One blogger recently dubbed him as the "anti-war movement's new darling," while others have begun picking apart the millions of dollars he has channeled back to his district.
Mr. Murtha's media omnipresence has opened him up to sometimes unmerciful ribbing from friends such as U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale. They have chuckled over his adjustments to prime time, most recently, his horror when a television producer tried to coax him into wearing makeup, and warned him about overexposure.
But this very public role is one Mr. Murtha is taking seriously.
"It's not about me, but I've become the spokesperson," he said in an interview last week during a break from negotiations over defense spending legislation. "There wasn't even a debate before, they just went blindly on. ... But we're starting to get the attention of the thoughtful people."
Todd Berkley, Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, AP
U.S. Rep. John Murtha: "You really get an awful lot done when you work behind the scenes."
Click photo for larger image.
Before this winter, Mr. Murtha was better known for making deals in the back halls of Congress.
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia, said that, if you counted the minutes Mr. Murtha had spoken on the House floor, "they'd probably add up to less than an hour during any given year of service."
"He has stepped out in a very unconventional role for himself ... and he's in the middle of a fairly serious fight," Mr. Fattah said. "Beyond the smiles and the joking, there's a real admiration for him taking a very courageous position."
As a young member in the mid-1970s, Mr. Murtha sought the advice of a senior member who told him he would maximize his impact in Congress by following two rules: Specialize in one area and always keep your word.
Mr. Murtha, a Marine who became the first Vietnam veteran in Congress, plunged into military matters and soon won a coveted seat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, where he is now the ranking Democrat overseeing billions of dollars in defense spending each year.
He gained gravitas through his advice to Republican and Democratic presidents. One year after he was elected, he went to Vietnam and Cambodia to assess the need for military aid. He led a delegation to the Philippines to observe their presidential elections at the behest of President Ronald Reagan.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush asked Mr. Murtha to chair a delegation to observe the elections in Panama, which were fraudulent and ultimately led to the invasion by U.S. forces. And in the early 1990s, Mr. Bush once again summoned Mr. Murtha to the White House for advice before launching the Persian Gulf War; Mr. Murtha led a House delegation to survey the region, traveling 13,000 miles across three countries in 100 hours.
In the House, the Johnstown Democrat built his power from the corner seat in the back row of the chamber, where he still sits today during votes, nearly obscured from the prying eyes in the press gallery above.
"People line up there in the corner to see him," said Mr. Doyle, one of at least a half-dozen Pennsylvania lawmakers who congregate near Mr. Murtha's chair during votes. "It's funny sometimes. We're standing there like we're almost selling admission tickets."
Mr. Murtha acknowledges that his quieter approach and his seat on the defense appropriations subcommittee had led to major successes for his district. One needs to look no further than the example of National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown. It was on the administration's list to be closed this year, but instead got $39 million in the defense spending bill Congress just completed.
"You really get an awful lot done when you work behind the scenes," Mr. Murtha said.
While he shows a bit of wistfulness for that time when he wasn't turning down seven or eight interview requests for each one he agrees to, he says he plans to stay in his new role until he sees substantive changes.
He's worried about what programs might be cut to support the $100 billion he expects the administration to request for Iraq and Afghanistan next year. And he intends to force attention to what he sees as the military's weakened state of recruiting, its shortages in specialists such as translators and bomb demolition experts, and the lower level of readiness because of the U.S. commitment in Iraq.
"Until they get the message where the withdrawal is significant," he said, "then I'll be satisfied and I'll certainly back down."
In the meantime, he'll be trying to get his message out while not getting snared by those who'd like to make him a symbol.
After the initial interview, the photographer for Rolling Stone showed up for the shoot and tried to wrap him in an American flag.
Mr. Murtha's aide nearly jumped out of her chair at the request, but the congressman quietly said, no, he wasn't going to do that.
(Maeve Reston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-488-3479.)
Murtha commands spotlight over Iraq policy