John Murtha was Nancy Pelosi's friend and mentor, and his backing her for leader over Steny Hoyer, a longtime insider player in the Democratic caucus, gave her the street cred she needed to win as the first woman to hold that high a position in what was an old boys' club. A gruff former combat Marine officer, Murtha provided political cover for Pelosi and other left-wing Democrats in their opposition to the Iraq War. After having initially supported the war, Murtha became an outspoken opponent, calling for immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2005. As a once-reliable Bush administration ally, his defection signaled the growing disaffection with Bush's war policies. Murtha's long history of pro-military votes and close alliance with the military helped rebuff Republican charges that Pelosi and other antiwar Democrats were endangering national security.
The two were an unlikely pair─the hawkish Murtha and the liberal Pelosi─but they had such a close bond that Pelosi has been accused of dragging her feet in looking into ethics violations leveled at Murtha for sweetheart deals that benefited his district. As chairman or ranking member of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee for 20 years, Murtha earmarked millions in congressional spending for defense projects, a practice that beginning in 2007 came under unwelcome scrutiny after almost two decades of business-as-usual. Murtha was proud of the wheeling and dealing he did, and he would exchange Democratic votes for Republican support for his pet projects. He said, "dealmaking is what Congress is all about." He was unapologetic about the money he steered to the folks back home in blue-collar western Pennsylvania, saying─correctly─that it created jobs in local industries and health care. He was as solid and old-style in his cultural values as his district, which saw its heyday back in the days when coal mines and steel mills were the heart of American industry.
When the Democrats took control of the House in the 2006 election, Pelosi wanted Murtha, her loyal lieutenant, to serve as majority leader, the No. 2 position. But Democrats, wary of his authoritarian style and cavalier attitude toward the new ethics environment, chose Hoyer instead. Some thought Pelosi's endorsement was a pro-forma show of loyalty, that she understood the risk in elevating Murtha's profile after his earlier brush with ethics. In 1980, Murtha was caught in an FBI sting operation saying on tape when offered a $50,000 bribe, "We do business for a while. Maybe I'll be interested and maybe I won't." While he wasn't charged in the case, instead of scarring him the incident seemed to leave him with a sense that he could still play by the old rules, even as they were changing all around him. A larger-than-life personality in a Congress where few people stand out above the crowd, Murtha will be missed by the military he championed, the constituents he served sometimes too well, and the woman whose leadership skills he recognized and legitimized, and whose loyalty he never had reason to question.