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The Murtha Files

Yesterday Congressman John Murtha, an influential House Democrat on military spending matters, made a speech in which he called for the beginning of an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Murtha's words were big news, at least from the media's perspective. All three nightly newscasts led with them, as did the New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers. Some Republicans and conservative-leaning bloggers, however, felt otherwise. They pointed out that Murtha has been criticizing the administration's war effort for a long time, and many questioned why members of the media felt this latest speech was noteworthy. Here's Glenn Reynolds: "WHY IS MURTHA'S STATEMENT ON THE WAR NEWS today when he said basically the same thing a year and a half ago?"

Reynolds was referring to Murtha's statements on May 6, 2004, in which he said, "[w]e cannot prevail in this war as it is going today." He also said: "We either have to mobilize or we have to get out," and said the war was "unwinnable" unless changes were made. Murtha added, however, that he was in favor of increasing the number of U.S. troops rather than pulling out, a far different position than he took yesterday. CNN summarized his "overall point" at the time as "more troops and equipment should be sent to Iraq."

It was not the first time Murtha had spoken out about the war. From The New York Times, Sept. 16, 2003:

The Democrat, Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said that he had been misled into voting for the war by incorrect information from top administration officials and that the president had also been misled.
Later that year, he accused the Bush administration of purposly waiting until after the presidential election for a new military call up.

I asked CBS "Evening News" anchor Bob Schieffer why Murtha's latest salvo was newsworthy, in light of his past statements.

He noted that while Murtha had been critical of the administration and its handling of the war in the past, he had never unequivically called for withdrawal. And coming from Murtha, a well-respected hawk and veteran, that was a big deal. "I don't know how much you know about dairy farms, but you put the bell on the lead cow, and all the other cows follow her," he said. "When John Murtha says something on defense, people listen. He has always been a hawk, he's not a garden variety liberal, nor a Bush hater."

"The fact that he said pull out – and said it so strongly – has got to send a message to the White House that they're losing support in the war," Schieffer added. And the fact that Murtha's speech came in the same week as a Senate resolution calling for more accountibility from the White House made it particularly significant, he said, since it provided more evidence of the increasing pressure faced by the White House.

"Our job is to point it out when we think something significant and different happens," Schieffer said. "Politicians make speeches all the time. Some matter and some don't. It was our opinion that this one mattered."

The CBS News report also included quotes from Bush and Cheney critical of Democrats, as well as a quote from Democrat Joe Biden criticizing the administration. After Cheney was shown saying, "[t]he president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory or their backbone. But we are not going to sit by and let them rewrite history," Schieffer noted Murtha's response:

"…I like guys who got five deferments and never been there…then send people to war and don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done."
Why include the nasty back and forth in the report? "We're seeing one of the nastiest battles we've seen in a long time," said Schieffer. He feels it's important that news audiences understand as much.

Cheney is far from alone in the criticizing Murtha: House Speaker Dennis Hastert accused him of delivering "the highest insult" to the troops, and Majority Leader Roy Blunt said Murtha's views "only embolden our enemies." Rep. John Carter said those like Murtha want to take "the cowardly way out and say we're going to surrender." Democrat John Kerry, meanwhile, called the attacks "lowest form of smear and fear politics," and said he "won't stand for the 'swift boating' of Jack Murtha."