POLITICS
04/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Remembering The 'Murthquake': When John Murtha Took On The Iraq War

The passing of Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) on Monday from gall bladder surgery complications brought to an end one of the most dynamic careers of the political generation that emerged from the Vietnam War.

The 77-year-old lawmaker and warrior, who remained an officer in the Marine Reserves for the first eight of his 18 terms in office, was a classic blue-collar Democrat. He was a consistent and effective advocate of local working-class issues, as well as a supporter of gun rights and an opponent of abortion rights. His extraordinary talent for bringing home the pork made him legendary among insiders -- and landed him in ethical hot water.

But the Johnstown native forever cemented his legacy during a mid-November afternoon in 2005 when he went public with his skepticism about the course of the Iraq War.

"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised," he declared in a speech. "It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of us. The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq, but it is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We can not continue on the present course."

It is rare that a political figure can literally re-chart the course of his political party. But in coming out for an immediate troop withdrawal, Murtha gave his Democratic colleagues the cover they needed to express their own reservations about the war. Those who worked closely with the congressman at the time -- both on and off the Hill -- credit him with elevating Iraq on the Democratic platform and in turn putting the party in a position to benefit from the wave of anti-war sentiment that swept the 2006 elections.

"At the time, the debate was largely framed by George W. Bush's 'stay the course' mentality and Cindy Sheehan's protests down in Crawford," said Brian Katulis, a leading foreign policy expert at the Center for American Progress. "That summer, there was a sense of growing unease with some opinion leaders in the party. [Sens.] Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold and Carl Levin were out there, they all kind of came out in favor of a timely withdrawal. But when Murtha did it, just by virtue of who he was, the credibility he had; that did more than what the others could."

Looking back now, it's difficult to recall the shock that the congressman gave to the political system at the time. That may be due to the fact that, five years on, Murtha's vision is still unachieved: U.S. troops remain engaged in a now winding-down Iraq war.

But the "Murthquake," as Katulis labeled the time period, was more than just a speech. For his party, it was an invitation to cast off the post-Vietnam national security deficit disorder that compelled them to demur whenever the political conversation switched to matters of war and peace. Unaccustomed to being in the national spotlight, Murtha neither had nor wanted the customary filter when responding to his critics. And he was better off for its absence.

When Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex) thanked God that Murtha's sort of thinking had not prevailed "after the bloodbaths of Normandy and in the Pacific or we would be here speaking Japanese or German," the congressman threw the daggers right back.

"Were you there?" Murtha barked from the floor of the House, a stare of disgust clear on his face. "Were you in Vietnam? Were you in Iraq?" Gohmert had no response.

When Karl Rove, George W. Bush's senior political adviser and hatchet man, delivered a speech accusing the congressman of wanting to cut and run from Iraq, Murtha responded with a withering comeback: "He's making a political speech," Murtha said on "Meet the Press". "He's sitting in his air-conditioned office with his big, fat backside, saying, 'Stay the course.' That's not a plan. I mean, this guy -- I don't know what his military experience is, but that's a political statement."

And when then-Vice President Dick Cheney accused Democrats of "self-defeating pessimism," it was Murtha who took to the pages of the Washington Post, penning a column sarcastically titled "Confessions of a 'Defeatocrat'".

"It's all baseless name-calling, and it's all wrong," he said of Cheney. "Unless, of course, being a Defeatocrat means taking a good hard look at the administration's Iraq policy and determining that it's a failure. In that case, count me in. Because Democrats recognize that we're headed for a far greater disaster in Iraq if we don't change course -- and soon. This is not defeatism. This is realism."

And yet, for all the conviction he brought to the cause, going public was not an easy decision. Katulis recalled working with the congressman closely on matters of troop deployments and watching as his evolving knowledge of the situation in Iraq and his talks with generals on the ground, caused him to sour on the entire enterprise. John Isaacs, executive director of the anti-war group Council for a Livable World, recalled the more intimate arm-twisting that compelled Murtha to come forward.

"I remember the days during the early anti-war activities among House Democrats and people like Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) got involved and he would say, 'I think we might get Jack Murtha against the war,'" said Isaacs. "And when he did, it was quite significant."

Even after the November 2005 speech, there were road bumps. The congressman's rising stock within the party only went so far. Despite the close relationship he enjoyed with then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- having bet, early on, that she could (and would) be the first female speaker -- he came up well short in his own bid for Majority Leader in 2006. When George W. Bush's surge wielded incremental security benefits, Murtha struggled to defend his call for a full-bore troop pullout and took even more heat when admitting that, in a limited sense, the surge had worked.

By the time the Obama administration rolled into Washington -- when the congressman should have been a leading foreign policy voice within the Democratic ranks -- Murtha was, instead, an odd man out. His propensity for securing gratuitous appropriations that often benefited his home district was unseemly. His ties to a defense-lobbying firm that had secured millions in government contracts landed him atop a list of most corrupt pols in Washington and even spurred the intervention of the FBI.

On foreign policy, the Pennsylvania Democrat remained at odds with the White House -- resolute in his belief that more war did not mean better security. Now, however, it was his own party's leadership he opposed.

"I'm not sure there's a threat to our national security," he said of President Obama's Afghanistan surge, in a statement that did not command the television time or national attention that his speech against the Iraq war had five years earlier. "I do not see an achievable goal at this point."