In Defense Of John Murtha

02/08/2010 08:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is both a defense of a centurion and a private perspective on a public man. First, two disclaimers: I'm proud to count Chairman Murtha as a personal friend. I will also acknowledge that on one occasion I accepted a fee from his campaign committee for writing a speech for him. This was only after it was my honor to freely and gladly offer him writing help on a number of occasions.

So, I'll come to his unfortunately necessary defense. Rather than rallying around John Murtha, too many Democrats, many of them "guilty" of similar earmarking, are looking the other way or worse, making him the whipping boy for decades-old flaws in the system.

Just this week Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics In Washington (CREW) issued a call to urge citizens to petition that John Murtha step down as Chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee. I've long been an admirer of CREW and what they do.

I understand, to a point, their stance on Chairman Murtha, but I believe their perspective and that of many of his other critics to be both narrow and shortsighted. The criticism of Mr. Murtha has gone on for a number of years, with increasing clamor born both of the recent investigations by the F.B.I. of lobbyists associated with the Congressman and allegations about Mr. Murtha's nephew, Robert Murtha, a defense contractor. These investigations, while certainly casting a cloud over Mr. Murtha, haven't named him as a target. But "innocent until proven guilty" doesn't nearly do justice when defending a great American.

John Murtha is a big target. Think back just a few years, to the darkest days of the previous administration, when Cheney, Bush, Rove and Tom Delay had America trapped in a brutal, costly quagmire in Iraq, quaking with fear, with much of the public, press and Congress fully and pathetically intimidated. John Murtha stood up in the House on November 17th, 2005 and issued a call for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. He was the first to do so.

Mr. Murtha not only had the courage to carry the flag, he had the credibility to back it up. As a longtime member of the Defense Appropriations Committee and thirty-seven year veteran of the Marine Corps and Reserve, Mr. Murtha had bona fides that some others say, Dennis Kucinich did not have. Yet Mr. Murtha immediately came under intense, hostile fire from Republicans both in and out of government.

But Mr. Murtha, a five times decorated war hero, would not be intimidated; when Dick Cheney questioned his patriotism, Mr. Murtha's reply was, "I like guys who got five deferments, and never been there, and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done." That actually shut Cheney up -- Mr. Murtha was the first to do it.

John Murtha's passion and valor in leading that uphill charge is well known. But much of the criticism of Mr. Murtha has centered around his steering lucrative Defense contracts to his Western Pennsylvania district. In 2007, the Wall Street Journal led off a front-page story datelined Johnstown, Pa. -- "If John Murtha. were a businessman, he'd be the biggest employer in this town" It went on to detail how Representative Murtha "used his clout on Capitol Hill to create thousands of jobs and steer billions of dollars in federal spending to help his hometown in western Pennsylvania recover from devastating floods and the flight of its steelmakers." The story, meant as a hatchet job, seemed like a helluva compliment to the man who had steered more money, more companies and more jobs to his constituents than any other member of Congress. Isn't that what a Representative is supposed to do? What District in America wouldn't want that now?

Now, less than two years later, desperate Republicans like Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, are actively looking to turn Mr. Murtha into a Democratic Tom DeLay. And if the eventual outcome in Iraq turns out to be worse than expected, you can expect a Republican blame game along the lines of the "Who lost China?" battles of the Truman era.

This week Dan Henniger in that same Wall Street Journal (or maybe the realpolitik Murdoch Journal isn't the same?) offered up a huge (albeit backhanded) compliment to Mr. Murtha. Henniger, justly lamenting the spendthrift culture of Washington, wrote "John Murtha of Johnstown is the canary in the mine shaft. In politics, the canaries don't die. They adapt and learn to live with the toxic fumes of public spending on scales beyond morality or understanding." I won't argue with that - not in the face of the obscene trillions of dollars appropriated to replenish the coffers of AIG, Barclay's Bank, First Credit Suisse etc. Whose District is Zurich in?

John Murtha didn't invent massive public spending, nor the culture of lobbyists and lawyers who grease the wheels. He managed to accumulate power and move the right levers to benefit his constituents. But when CREW named him one of the ten most corrupt members of Congress, that grossly distorted the idea of corruption.

As far as I know, there are no allegations that John Murtha is a corrupt thief like Randy Cunningham, nor has he ever been accused of personally profiting like Ted Stevens. Those are orders of corruption that simply do not apply to Mr. Murtha. John Murtha has a modest home in Johnstown, a small condo in Arlington and drives a Buick. He will only drive American cars. And, as I've been told, he's working for thirty thousand dollars a year -- as a seventeen-term Congressman he could retire today with a pension almost equal to his salary. CREW's expanded definition of corruption may often be necessary to stoke the fires of public outrage, but useful distinctions have to be made. I hope I've made one.

Would that that were the end of my defense of a patriot. But CREW criticism of Mr. Murtha comes today in the luxury of current Democratic dominance in Congress and the White House (by the way, some of that Democratic majority comes from Mr. Murtha contributing his supposedly tainted campaign funds to needier Democratic candidates).

In the populist, reformist fervor of Barack Obama's ascendancy, and with the country and the world subsumed by economic crises, we forget that we are, in two countries at least, still at war. We are also in the ugly backwash of a war we are attempting to withdraw from. We need experienced warriors as much as we need high-minded reformers. Or is "high minded" as offensive a term as "corrupt?"

At almost 77, old soldier John Murtha has a few important tasks left for him. His stewardship of the Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee is one of the most complex, vital and least understood jobs in the Government. He's helping to manage our current defense and, equally important, the re-building of our military readiness, which was shockingly depleted by Iraq.

He's also deeply personally committed to the welfare of veterans and military families and to our wounded. One small anecdote -- I remember him in tears telling me how, on one of his weekly visits to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he witnessed a father holding the hand of his comatose son. There were no reporters present and the tears weren't for show.

John Murtha is a great American, a patriot and a man of both duty and honor. These are old fashioned and often devalued terms from an era where words like corrupt were rarely used as loosely or over-zealously as they are now. Let the investigations take their course; history will judge John Murtha as a hero, a public servant and a Marine. This country is profoundly lucky to have him on the job.