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Pelosi on Murtha: 'A master at work'

February 16, 2010 | 11:18 am

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha 

They were always an odd couple -- the fashionable San Francisco progressive and the crusty Marine from Johnstown, Pa. She supported abortion rights. He supported gun rights. She was camera-ready for the cable news era. He was more at home in the cigar-filled rooms of an earlier time. 

But they were joined by a simple creed as old as politics -- loyalty.

It was really House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's father who brought them together. Baltimore's first Italian American mayor, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., kept a statue of a miner in his office when he was in Congress, to remind him to always value constituent concerns. Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha applauded the instinct, and they became friends.

Later they were married by their shared and fierce opposition to the Iraq war -- he as a former Marine with a lot of constituents coming home in body bags, she as a representative of the most anti-war district in the country. But earlier, when Pelosi defeated Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer for minority whip in 2001, clearing her route to the speaker's office, Murtha was a big reason why. He had convinced some of his conservative Democratic allies to go with her.

When Democrats won control of the House in the fall of 2006, Murtha announced that he was challenging Hoyer for majority leadership. The power grab was a public relations disaster for Pelosi, a great vote-counter who must have known it was a losing cause. But he had been loyal to her. And she was loyal to him. Hoyer won anyway.

To many, Murtha was a symbol of what's wrong with Washington. The earmarking empire. The defense contractors pipeline. The ethics violations.

But even if his reputation was tarnished, Murtha left Capitol Hill with a lot of chits still out. President Clinton, only days after having a heart procedure, showed up at his funeral. So did much of the Pentagon brass.

As for Pelosi, she said that to watch Murtha legislate was to see “a master at work.”

And that is how politics makes strange bedfellows. Read the full transcript below.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo credit: Reuters   

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“Dr. Stevens, thank you for welcoming us here today and giving us this opportunity to pay our respects to Joyce, to Donna, to John, to Patrick, to Jack’s precious grandchildren and family.
“It is with great sadness that I lead a very large Congressional delegation to extend our condolences to you and our thanks to you for sharing Jack with us and to bid our friend very sad farewell.
“Jack was greatly mourned in Congress because of the respect and admiration which was accorded him there.  Those who served with him were honored to call him colleague.  Many of us were privileged to call him friend.
“President Clinton, all of us who loved Jack in Washington and here extend our appreciation to you for the honor of your presence here to the family and to those who loved Jack.  Thank you for your friendship and that of Secretary Clinton to Jack Murtha.
“The outpouring of accolades for Chairman Murtha over the past week and in the thousands of people who have arrived here to pay their respects to him bring to mind the passage from the Ecclesiasticus honoring the heroes of the Old Testament: ‘Now let us praise great men, the heroes of our Nation's history.  Some led the people by their counsel and their knowledge of our nation’s laws; out of their fund of wisdom, they gave instruction.  Their bodies are buried in peace, but their names will live forever.  The people will tell of their wisdom and the congregation will show forth their praise.’
“As this congregation shows forth its praise, it is fitting that Jack was escorted into this church by the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation, because that is how Jack served in Congress, surrounded by the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation.  They were planning a celebration of Jack’s service in the Congress.  On Saturday February 6th, he became the longest-serving Member of Congress from Pennsylvania ever to serve.  They were planning a celebration.  Today, they presented him to us for celebration of his life.
“Many of you who are familiar with Congress know about the ‘Pennsylvania corner.’  But for those of you do not, let me just say in Congress Jack held court in that part of the House chamber that was respectfully, sometimes fearfully, known as the ‘Pennsylvania corner.’ Members from across the country and across the aisle would come to the corner to get Jack’s blessing.  Jacks’ great-grandmother would be very proud and satisfied that he constantly made a difference.  Every day.  It was a sight to behold.  There was Jack, always smiling, twinkling eyes, flanked by his two lieutenants, Mike Doyle on the West, Bob Brady on the East.  They had a twinkle and a smile too. Sometimes.  [Laughter.] Depended.

“Jack passed on to Mike and Bob and men and women with whom he served a pride in the institution that he learned from his friend and mentor, Tip O’Neill.  Jack was known for his Irish sense of humor, as you know, but he was never funnier than when he regaled us of his stories as a lieutenant to Tip O’Neill.  Jack loved Tip and continued his tradition of honor, authenticity, and loyalty to his constituents.  Every Member of Congress thinks that he or she represents the best Congressional district in the country and that they have the best constituents.  Jack Murtha was absolutely certain of that.  He loved this district.
“To watch Jack Murtha legislate was to see a master at work.  But more indicative of his character was to watch him communicate with our men and women in uniform, whether right off the battlefield or at their bedside at the military hospital.  Many of us have had this experience traveling with him or visiting Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Medical Center.  He always answered their needs by responding to their call for body armor, up armored vehicles or reliable radios.  In this moment, he bonded with them from his own military experience but also as a father.
“I will never forget the sparkle on Jack’s eyes one day when we were visiting one of the hospitals and as we went into the room a wounded warrior was standing by his bed to welcome Jack Murtha into his room, saluting him wearing a Steelers jersey.  [Laughter.]
“The nation saw Jack’s courage and integrity when he bravely spoke out against the war in Iraq.  In his opposition though, he taught us all to make a distinction between the war and the warrior.  Jack was committed to our national security and measured our strength, not only in our military might, but in the well-being of our people.  He was a much-decorated champion.  Certainly he was decorated as the Commandant mentioned, but he was a much-decorated champion in advancing scientific research to fight breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, the list goes on, so many more.
“I know what Jack is thinking now: ’Don’t go on too much longer.’  Jack wasn’t big on long speeches, right Joyce?  In fact, one day when debate was going very long in the Congress and Members wanted to go home, I was the closing speaker as the Speaker.  And I got up there and just said one sentence, ‘This bill is about jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.  Vote aye.’  Jack cheered.  He came up, he said, ‘I think that was the best speech you ever made.’  [Laughter.]  You remember that day.
“But I will say this, that those of us who have seen him in action in the Congress and across the country, traveled across the country, he’d be cheered in airports for his courage, for speaking truth to power, for helping with health issues, bringing an almost Biblical power to cure to diseases that affected so many people in our country.
“‘Semper Fi’—the motto of the Marine Corps where he served for 37 years, was the motto of his life.  Always faithful to God and country, to his hometown of Johnstown, most of all to Joyce, and to his children and grandchildren.  Patriot.  Champion.  Hero.  Giant.  Jack Murtha.  We will never see his like again.”