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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

The Democrats get a face

Rep. John Murtha's experience as a veteran has made his comments resonate on Capitol Hill.



WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- No journalist, no human being is truly objective. Most do try to be fair. Let me be upfront: I like and respect Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania. And not only for what he has done -- forsaking the safe harbor of his college student deferment at 19 during the Korean War to enlist in the Marine Corps, then after becoming a husband and the father of three, volunteering at the age of 33 for combat in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded and received the Bronze Star with Combat "V," two Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

I like him, because he has never forgotten where he came from. Long before he retired as a colonel, he had been an enlisted man. He knows that the most important people in the U.S. military are not the generals with their drivers and their fawning attaches, but the sergeants and the junior officers to whom he has always talked directly and whose cause, and their families', he has made his own.

I like him because, having been with him, I know he goes every week to Walter Reed Army Hospital and Bethesda Navy Hospital to encourage the young Americans who have lost their limbs, their eyesight, and their youth in the occupation of Iraq. And because, unlike so many of the Washington Warriors sporting their Old Glory pins on their lapels, Jack Murtha goes to the wakes and the funerals of the fallen, whose names he knows and whose families he seeks to console.

I like him because he is very good in his chosen profession, because he fights resourcefully for every available buck, public and private, for his untrendy, lunch-bucket hometown of Johnstown and his district. Don't get me wrong: Jack Murtha is no plaster saint. He has his faults and character defects -- but he is authentic.

My record on predictions is worse than the car-crashing Billy Joel's on driving. Who else guaranteed that a.) the 1998 TV show " Sports Night " would run longer than "Cheers" and b.) President John Kerry would not seek a second term? But I recently got one right, two days before Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., single-handedly transformed the national debate about the wisdom and duration of the commitment of U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq.

In a personal interview before his public statement, Murtha spoke passionately about the plight of Marines and soldiers in Iraq "who cannot speak for themselves," of how immediately after U.S. abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, attacks on Americans multiplied and American casualties doubled.

On his most recent trip, he found that U.S. "commanders are truly discouraged" and clearly angry. He reported U.S. "generals are living in the palaces" that had been the property of Saddam Hussein's regime. He quoted a poll indicating that 82 percent of Iraqis want the United States out of their country and 45 percent believe that attacks on U.S. troops are justified. It came back always to the Americans in uniform having "become the target of the insurgency."

I predicted that the speech he was about give to would have the same impact on the debate over Iraq that former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite had on February 27, 1968, when he spoke of the near-certainty that "the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." President Lyndon Johnson said: "That's it. If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." Murtha did not believe me.

What made it all true was the venality and stupidity of the Republicans. From the personality-challenged White House press secretary accusing him of "surrender" to the clueless, but venomous, Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, unaware of his combat record, accusing Murtha of being a " coward," Republicans made Jack Murtha the most prominent Democrat in town.

As one astute Senate Republican aide observed to David Rogers of The Wall Street Journal, "If the House Republicans want to make Jack Murtha the face of the Democratic Party, then Republicans will really be trounced next year."

Congressional Democrats, a large majority of whom need vertebrae transplants and are terrified of taking any position on Iraq, mostly kept their distance from Murtha until they realized that public reaction had swung his way. They then embraced him. The gentleman from Pennsylvania has changed the terms of the national debate, and Democrats should be so lucky as to have Jack Murtha as their party's 2006 face.

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