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.

Jack Murtha. Click image to expand.
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?

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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.

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