Jack Murtha, 77, Dies

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Pennsylvania Rep. John C. Murtha, died today of complications relating to a gallbladder surgery. He was 77.

A decorated Vietnam War hero, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi credited Murtha — who was her first choice for majority leader — with helping to turn public opinion against the war in Iraq after he announced his opposition to the war in 2005. Murtha had voted to send troops to Iraq in 2002 but over the years changed his mind after no weapons of mass destruction were found and questions emerged about the intelligence leading up to the war. “The American public is way ahead of us,” Murtha wrote in November 2005 as he was sponsoring a resolution asking President Bush to set a timeline of withdrawal of troops from Iraq. “The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq, but it is time for a change in direction.”

Murtha “understood the misery of war,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey in a statement on Murtha’s passing. “Every person who serves in the military has lost an advocate and a good friend today.”

Murtha was born in 1932 in New Martinsville, West Virginia, near the Pennsylvania border to an Irish American family. The Eagle Scout left William and Jefferson College to enlist in the Marines, becoming a drill sergeant at the Marine’s training facility on Parris Island before he was selected as an officer. He left the Marines in 1995, enlisting in the reserves, only to raise his hand for the Vietnam War in 1966-67, winning a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry.

In 1969 he became the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress. Over the years he weathered several tough reelection challenges exacerbated by scandal, in particular, the 1980 FBI Abscam investigation during which he told a person he believe to be a Saudi national looking to bribe his way through the U.S. immigration process with $50,000, “I’m not interested… at this point. [If] we do business for a while, maybe I’ll be interested, maybe I won’t.”

As chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Murtha presided over hundreds of billions of dollars annually in Pentagon spending, much of it secret. The position led to several accusations of corruption over the years as military projects multiplied in Murtha’s home district in western Pennsylvania. He was accused by several watchdog groups of being amongst the most corrupt members of Congress, though the charges have never stuck. Opening night at the Johnstown Opera, Murtha’s wife’s favorite charity, was considered a must-attend for defense contractors from around the country. In fact, Murtha and six other members of his subcommittee were under investigation by the House Ethics Committee at the time of his death.

Murtha became a mentor and close friend to Pelosi after her election to Congress in 1987. He ran her successful campaign for the House Whip and she endorsed him to be her No. 2 in command in 2006 when she was elected Speaker, but Democratic members pick Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer over Murtha.

Coming from Pennsylvania’s coal and steel country, Murtha was a strong union supporter, though he was socially conservative: he was pro-life and pro-gun. He accused his own constituents, located in an area of Pennsylvania often dubbed Alabama for its cultural conservatism as opposed to the rest of the blue-trending state, of racism for refusing to vote for Barack Obama the 2008 campaign. He later apologized.

Murtha was also known for bluntly speaking his mind. Days after his failed bid for majority leader, Murtha infamously called “total crap” Pelosi’s pledge to pursue lobbying reform in an ethics bills. He is survived by his wife Joyce, their three children and several grandchildren.