R.I.P. Jack Murtha

On February 8, 2010, in On the Hill, by Josh

Rep. Jack Murtha (1932-209)

A quick note about Jack Murtha, who passed away today in a Virginia hospital at the age of 77.

He was the first Vietnam Veteran elected to Congress–he had left the Marines in 1955 but returned to active duty, received a bronze star and two purple hearts in Vietnam. After being elected to Congress, he remained part of a Marine Reserve Unit until 1990.

Because of his service, Mr. Murtha was a fierce advocate for veterans and active duty service members while in Congress. He rose through the ranks to chair the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee–overseeing our military spending and budget.

But this is what everybody knows about Jack Murtha.

Working in Pennsylvania politics for several years, I had the opportunity to meet Rep. Murtha on several occasions. Much will be written about him in the coming hours and days, but there are things I will remember from those times away from the bright lights.

Murtha was intimidating–a hulking figure who loomed as large in person as he did by reputation. He was a commanding presence in any room, which served him well in Congress. As the Dean of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation, Murtha would hold court in the “Pennsylvania Corner” on the house floor. All of the state’s Congressional members would check in with him before going to vote. Still, it always seemed to me that he preferred the behind-the-scenes work. While other Members grandstand, Mr. Murtha worked quietly behind the scenes, building alliances and getting things done.

Of course, that all changed in 2006, when Jack Murtha took the spotlight to become a vocal critic of the Iraq war. To me, it was his reluctance to take the spotlight that made his words more impactful. At the time, I was working with now-Representative Patrick Murphy. Murphy was running to become the first Iraq War Veteran elected to Congress, and I think Mr. Murtha took a shine to Patrick because of their shared experiences.

I will never forget the morning that Patrick and I spent in Mr. Murtha’s office, along with another Marine-turned-Pennsylvania-Congressman, Bob Brady.

The four of us sat around a table in Mr. Murtha’s office, and at first, nobody spoke. Mr. Murtha was reading his morning clips, which that morning included a map showing the current number of Iraq war fatalities in every state. Pennsylvania led the way.

What struck me that morning was how soft-spoken this enormous man was–this marine, this appropriations cardinal, this power broker–and also how much pain was in his voice when he spoke about the war and its toll. This was when first saw Mr. Murtha’s passion, and it was an incredibly humanizing moment.

For the next hour, I don’t remember anybody speaking other than Mr. Murtha, except when he specifically addressed one of us with a question. He had brought us in so that he could give his advice. He wanted to share his experiences.

As the only non-veteran in the room, and the only one there who had never run for office, it was an amazing thing to watch.

As the senior officer, as well as the senior Member of Congress in the room, the respect and attention that he commanded were palpable, and I’ve not seen anything like it since.

At the end of the discussion, after we’d spoken about Iraq, about Pennsylvania, and about Congress, Mr. Murtha offered his last piece of advice:

“You have to have an issue–a cause,” he said. “For example, mine has been diabetes.”

I did a double take because, right there, Jack Murtha had at the same time thrown me for a loop and said something completely obvious without saying it at all.

I knew Mr. Murtha as a military advocate and a powerbroker. I had never thought of him as a Representative looking out for the people of his district. Of course, this is why he was there in the first place…but it had never crossed my mind.

Mr. Murtha explained that became involved with diabetes because of high rates among his constituents. He was able to use his position as an appropriations subcommittee chair to ensure that research dollars went to addressing the problem. And despite his national importance, his chairmanship, his newfound celebrity status in the progressive community because of his opposition to the war, Jack Murtha was telling us about the importance of being responsible to the people who send you to Congress every time there’s an election.

So, when you see the obituaries and remembrances in the next few days, when you read the histories, remember this: Jack Murtha was genuine. He was passionate, cerebral, and fierce. And he never forgot why he was there.

Rest in Peace, Jack.

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