I hope that we will remember John Murtha for his strengths. It is a good way to encourage others in Congress to show strength. Murtha did something very important on Iraq -- he showed leadership when there was a lack of it. He took a risk when others were hiding. And he admitted a mistake (his vote for the Iraq war) but then more importantly he worked to try to figure out how to correct for it rather than fade into the background after a soundbite.
I got to know Congressman Murtha briefly back when he spoke out on the war in November of 2005. At the time I was leading MoveOn.org's campaign to end the war in Iraq. What struck me the most about John Murtha was that he really knew how to throw a punch and fight for what he cared about. He would give speeches, travel, go on TV, record videos and sign his name to anything important that advanced his cause. He was tireless.
Even though he wasn't from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Murtha had no fear of working with progressives on the Left -- he enjoyed it. He called me once and said, "Tommy, they're saying I shouldn't work with you anti-war folks. Too Left. But I just told them, I like these guys and look what working with pro-war Republicans got us into." He later would talk about how his position wasn't liberal or conservative -- it was just the right thing to do.
Despite John Murtha's actually bipartisan nature, Republicans in Congress and around the country were mean and vicious to him. They would cut into him and he would just roar back at them in a way that showed people he wasn't afraid -- it often humbled critics (see video below). What he showed us all is the importance and power of strength and outrage in our political system -- not in a personal or vitriolic way, but when fact-based.
Most important John Murtha showed Democrats in Congress how to be strong. We need more Murthas on other issues like health care, the economy and climate change. Democrats need to be a party that projects strength not through the belligerence of our policies but through the strength of our advocacy.
Murtha was flawed like all of us and he was surely a conservative Democrat (somebody once jokingly reminded me that Murtha probably would've kept us in Vietnam). But I think progressives could learn a lot from John Murtha... if only how to fight for what we care about. I will miss him.
VIDEO: Sample of Republican attacks on John Murtha and how he responded.
VIDEO: John Murtha on joking about Iraq.