Students, today’s class in Congress 101 may be the most important of this semester. It deals with how the public dialogue is managed by Congressional leaders.
Our case study is Iraq and House Democrats.
In recent years, Democrats have been somewhat ineffectual in getting out their message in a coherent way. One of the main reasons for this is that television networks and cable shows often interview the most extreme members of the party who may be way off with the message and not taken seriously by the public at large.
These members are colorful and have controversial things to say but have nothing to do with communicating a coherent mainstream message.
Late last fall, however, House Democrats came up with a highly credible messenger — Jack Murtha — who is interviewed almost daily on television. While not all Democrats may agree with everything Murtha has to say, the 73-year-old former Marine has to be taken seriously. For years, he has been the military’s best friend in Congress.
He is no wild-eyed hippie. He speaks with authority and is an excellent responder to the latest nonsense from the Bush administration about how well the situation is progressing in Iraq.
Last fall, Murtha began the first real national dialogue about Iraq by stating that our troops there were at great risk in a country drifting toward civil war and that it was time to start a phased pullout. He suggested that this withdrawal begin within six months.
The Republican reaction was to lie about Murtha’s position — saying he wanted an immediate withdrawal — and to attempt to “swift boat” him like they did Sen. John Kerry by calling into question his combat military record.
The effort to disparage Jack Murtha’s military record failed from the very beginning. Murtha served 37 years in the Marines (active and reserve duty), retiring in 1990 with the rank of colonel. He served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967, earning the Bronze Star with Combat “V,” two Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
He was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal by the Marine Commandant when he retired.
For his 32-year congressional career, Jack Murtha has always answered the call for our military. Whenever our military needs anything for our troops they go to Murtha, who is ranking member and former chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
And it is universally considered that he speaks for the Marine Corps in Washington. It is highly unlikely he would have taken his outspoken position on our involvement in Iraq had he not discussed it first with the highest leadership in the Marine Corps.
My guess is that House leaders did not initially select Murtha to be their primary spokesman on Iraq. It just happened once he publicly made his proposal for phased withdrawal.
Republicans attempted to embarrass Democrats by calling for a quick vote on his proposal (though the measure they put up for a vote called for an immediate withdrawal rather than the phased pullout he suggested). Most congressmen in both parties voted against the Republican version of Murtha’s proposal.
However, once Murtha went public with his reservations about our continued involvement in Iraq, he quickly became the face of the Democratic Party, which turned out to be a good thing for House Democrats.
Now every time the Bush administration gets in trouble over its Iraq policy or every time the president makes a speech or holds a press conference on Iraq, the media (particularly television) goes to Murtha first for a comment. Murtha is a gray-haired solid citizen who speaks in blunt, clear language, not a bad image for a party often attacked as being weak on defense.
And a funny thing has happened since Murtha went public last fall. More and more of the public is questioning what the Bush administration is doing in Iraq and more and more of the public agrees with Murtha’s original position for a phased withdrawal in the face of a possible civil war.
House Democratic leaders have been smart enough to get out of the way and let Jack Murtha be the “go-to” person for the media. As a Democrat, it is my hope that more Jack Murthas will emerge as credible voices for my party, and I hope House Democrats have learned a valuable lesson from the Murtha experience.
And class, there is a fitting end for this story. On May 22, Jack Murtha will be presented the prestigious “Profile in Courage” award at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. I wish I could be there when Caroline Kennedy presents my old friend Murtha the bronze bust of her late father symbolizing the award.
Jack Murtha has earned it.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.