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

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Feb. 9 2010 8:45 AM

Unindicted and Misunderstood

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

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"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.

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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.

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