Unindicted and Misunderstood

Jack Murtha was a dying breed: an unapologetic partisan for his district.

Jack Murtha

The one promise Jack Murtha broke to me was to explain Abscam. The night the news broke that a group of congressmen had been caught boozing up, taking bribes—one tucked the money into his suit and asked, “Does it show?”—Murtha seemed the most implausible of the bribed.

“Dennis, after this is all over, I’m going to tell you what happened,” Murtha promised. I’d reached him at his house at about 11 at night. He was astonished at what had just happened. Two congressional pals had taken Murtha along for a visit to a group of guys who said they wanted to get their client, some sheik from the Middle East, into the United States. They told Murtha they were lawyers, seeking a special deal to make sure the sheik could stay in the United States.

“I thought, these lawyers couldn’t be very good, because they didn’t know how to get their client into the goddamned country,” Murtha said. (Caveat: I’m going by memory here, but my memory is pretty clear. Murtha was not impressed by these guys.)

Murtha played around with them for a while, and then they opened a briefcase—he later recalled it as a drawer. “They pulled this drawer open, and I said ‘I’m not interested. I’m interested in investment in my district.’ And I’ve been doing that ever since I’ve been in Congress,” he recollected in an interview after a subcommittee meeting last year.

Matt Mazonkey, Murtha’s press secretary, cringed when his boss said that into my tape recorder. Me? I laughed. This was absolutely how things were done in Washington, and would somebody kindly show me how such a thing violated any statute or law save that of good manners and polite fiction?

Murphy and Thompson left with money in their pockets. Murtha, who’d been told there was “walking-around money” available, couldn’t be bribed. The most he suffered was the temporary opprobrium of testifying against two fellow members of Congress.

Instead of taking the moolah, Murtha teased his federal moles with talk of how he might be interested in doing business later on—but for now, he wanted to know what the sheik might invest in Johnstown, Pa. That was Murtha’s hometown. To anyone raised there, that city is the blood of his heart. Three generations of Johnstowners have been driven out by floods. Death, recession, unemployment, and general struggle are the coda of the place.

Murtha was “not interested” in a bribe that did not go directly to his hometown. The fictitious Abscam sheik’s bribe meant nothing to Murtha unless it was an earmark for his district. That’s why, try as they did for three decades, federal prosecutors never nabbed Murtha: He didn’t want to be rich. He wanted to be powerful. So far, that’s not illegal.

Murtha’s stature within Congress was predicated on his power: his ability to turn the spigot of federal dollars on or off depending upon his goals, strategy, even his mood. He served on the appropriations committee and, at life’s end, chaired its outrageously well-endowed defense subcommittee. This penchant for directing federal dollars into his district, the perennially recession-wracked 12th of Pennsylvania, annoyed reformers.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington annually ranked him among the most corrupt in the House. Republicans howled at his penchant for redistributing federal monies. Advocates of abortion rights and gun control found his western Pennsylvania ethos odious. Nobody liked John Murtha but the voters. Since he first won office in a special election in 1974, Murtha always won at least 55 percent of the vote in the general election. For the most part, he could count on 60 percent.

That was true even after Murtha astonished his constituents in November 2005 by announcing that the Iraq war was unwinnable and that the United States ought to get out. For a longtime defense hawk, a man whose counsel was sought by every president save the feckless George W. Bush, such a stand meant something. If Jack Murtha didn’t want to fight another country, forget it.

“I feel like I’ve been preparing my whole life for this,” he told me after making that announcement. He meant that he had the moral authority and personal history to speak against war because his doubts about war would mean more than Rush Limbaugh’s certainties. Jack Murtha had seen combat. Most of the guys blathering about military authority had not.

What explains this is a combination of things, and the first is not so much his delivery of federal pork as the fact that he was a perfect fit for the political sensibilities of western Pennsylvania. Democrats here would be perfectly happy if George Meany’s bones were elected president so long as they were assured that his skeletal hands held a hunting rifle and a set of scapulars were wrapped around the bony neck. This is a socially conservative place, and those social conservatives recall their grandparents facing down armed guards in coal towns or trading blows with company goons outside of steel plants.

Murtha’s Democratic politics fit famously with this view. If someone were to accuse him of redistributing the wealth, he’d have smiled and said he certainly was: He was sending it back where it came from.

If truth be told—and I’m not writing this from Washington, so let’s do it—there were three Jack Murthas.

The first was the young Pennsylvania legislator who was pushed before the electorate in a special election in February 1974, as a test case for Richard Nixon’s future. A few months earlier, Nixon had fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. The vote to replace longtime Republican Rep. John Saylor, who died on an operating table around the same time Cox was fired, was posited as a test case for Nixon’s popularity. This was stuff and nonsense: The people of the rural coal and steel towns of the old 12th District paid no more attention to Washington politics than they did to Argentine soccer. Nonetheless, it was fun to get the attention.

Murtha won in a squeaker. Then he became Young John Murtha, the first Vietnam combat veteran to serve in Congress. That vanished in less than three years when he became the “Congressman Who Saved Johnstown.” In July 1977, a flood clobbered the city. Murtha turned up everywhere: helicoptering in to relief centers; bringing the governor, then Cabinet members, into the city to promise relief; facing down closet racists in the suburbs when they objected to people from the city’s poor areas being set up in trailers on high ground.

The third John Murtha was the one who figured out that what the free market failed to do, he could do in other ways. In the 1990s, after Bethlehem Steel had fled the city, he began earmarking defense money to companies that set up shop in his district. Doing so, he employed, without apology, whatever lobbyists would do the paperwork.

He put it to me this way last year, in the midst of a federal investigation in which he was the clear target: “I have no idea why they’re going after these lobbyists. Lobbyists play an important part. These forms that they have to fill out, the small companies, the small universities, the small corporations, the small hospitals, are complicated. When you come to Washington you don’t just come and say ‘I need something.’ You don’t come to a member and say ‘Look, here’s what I need.’ You gotta fill out forms. You have to know exactly where the forms are.”

In short, to his dying day, John Murtha saw lobbyists as clerks, Washington as the bank, and himself as little more than a conduit for the flow of those dollars back to his district. For all that clarity, nobody of virtue understood him. And nobody in his district could understand why anybody beyond the Alleghenies saw him as anything other than Robin Hood with a per diem.

Murtha was not the last of his kind. He was just the last of his kind who knew how to be that kind.