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Murtha's Second Act

By Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday, Rep. John Murtha repeated his call for "redeploying" U.S. troops from Iraq with something new -- and disturbing to fellow Democrats. Asked by moderator Tim Russert about sites for redeployment, Murtha replied: "We can go to Okinawa. ... We can redeploy there almost instantly."

When Russert expressed doubt about "a timely response" from Okinawa to meet a Middle East crisis, the 16-term congressman from western Pennsylvania and new national security spokesman for his party stumbled: "Well, it -- you know, they -- when I say Okinawa, I, I'm saying troops in Okinawa. When I say a timely response, you know, our fighters can fly from Okinawa very quickly. And -- and -- when they don't know we're coming."

In fact, a Pentagon spokesman says it would take "under a month" to prepare and send a 4,500-man Marine Expeditionary Force 6,000 nautical miles from Okinawa to Bahrain and then 600 more miles to Baghdad.

Murtha's Okinawa answer embarrassed Democratic House members who would not dream of criticizing publicly the former backroom pol who became an icon to the party's antiwar base last November by calling for an immediate troop withdrawal. His performance on "Meet the Press" reinforced dismay inside the party that Murtha, at age 74, has announced his candidacy for majority leader if the Democrats regain control of the House in the 2006 elections.

Jack Murtha proves there are second acts in American politics. I had forgotten that federal prosecutors designated him an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam investigation 26 years ago. I was reminded of it after Murtha became a candidate for majority leader, not by a Republican hit man but a Democratic former colleague in the House. In a long political career, Murtha has made bitter enemies inside his party who are alarmed by his new stature.

Murtha got into politics in 1968 as a 36-year-old highly decorated Marine and in 1974 became the first Vietnam War veteran elected to Congress. By 1980, Murtha was a lieutenant of Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill and was moving to the top in the House when the FBI named him as one of eight members of Congress videotaped being offered bribes by a phony Arab sheik.

The other seven congressional targets took cash and were convicted in federal court. The videotape showed Murtha declining to take cash but expressing interest in further negotiations, while bragging about his political influence. Murtha testified against the popular Rep. Frank Thompson in the Abscam case, which created lifelong enemies in the Democratic cloakroom. The House Ethics Committee exonerated Murtha of misconduct charges by a largely party-line vote, after which the committee's special counsel resigned in protest.

That salvaged Murtha's political career but limited his public exposure. The current Almanac of American Politics says: "He speaks for attribution to few national or local reporters, hardly ever appears on television and rarely speaks in the House chamber." That reticence has disappeared the last seven months, as he became one of the party's most visible faces.

Murtha now wears his heroic combat record like a suit of armor. In recent House debate over the Iraq war resolution, Murtha dominated the Democratic side -- compensating for a lack of articulation with vehemence. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a freshman Republican from Texas, had the temerity to suggest that had Murtha "prevailed after the bloodbaths in Normandy and in the Pacific ... we would be here speaking Japanese or German." Murtha pounced on Gohmert, asking whether he had been in Normandy, Vietnam or Iraq as a combat solider. The Republican had not, and he meekly thanked Murtha for "all that he has done with the wounded."

Murtha disqualifies adversaries who have not tasted combat, which includes the vast majority in the Congress. He repeats the comparison between civilian officials in "air-conditioned chambers" and soldiers carrying "70 pounds every day facing IEDs." On "Meet the Press," Murtha referred to presidential adviser Karl Rove "sitting in his air conditioned office with his big, fat backside, saying, 'Stay the course!'"

The transfer of Murtha's tough-guy rhetoric from the back row of the hall of the House of Representatives to national television may not be what Democrats want communicating their side of the Iraq debate. It is why Murtha's candidacy for majority leader is cause for concern among serious Democrats.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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