The Swift-boating of John Murtha?

PITTSBURGH — One thing Congressman John Murtha (D-Pa.) has learned from 32 years in the House of Representatives and 37 years in the Marine Corps is how to fight.

Facing a challenge from well-funded Republican Diana Irey and the GOP mobile goon squad Vietnam Veterans for Truth (VVT), which helped sink John Kerry’s campaign in 2004, Murtha didn’t retreat or waffle. He stood up for withdrawal from Iraq and prosecution of war criminals, including fellow Marines accused of massacring civilians in Haditha, Iraq.

Things came to head over the Sept. 30 weekend with two rallies here: one supporting the outspoken hawk turned anti-Iraq-war spokesperson and the other, held the next day, trashing him.

Of the more than 2,000 who turned out to support Murtha, the only out-of-towners were some of the speakers, according to police.

Former senator from Georgia Max Cleland, himself a disabled Vietnam veteran and victim of similar political tactics in the 2002 election, opened the rally. “We’re tired of Swift-boating in America,” he said. “And it stops right here today, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.”

Murtha, long the voice of the military on Capitol Hill, stepped into the national limelight when in November 2005 he offered a plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. Murtha had originally supported the war. Then, when the murders, allegedly by U.S. Marines, at Haditha were exposed, Murtha again stepped up to the plate, calling for a full military investigation of the crimes. Murtha has not backed down since.

“You know what this war’s doing?” Murtha said. “It’s tearing families apart. I don’t appreciate those people sitting on their fat backsides in the White House, sending our young people to war, when they don’t understand the circumstances.”

The next day, by contrast, the only Pennsylvanians in the anti-Murtha crowd of nearly 1,000 were on the stage.

“It was a rough looking bunch,” Ted Baldwin told the World. Baldwin, 82, a Johnstown resident, is a World War II Navy veteran and retired union operating engineer and has won national acclaim for his wood-carved ducks and birds. Baldwin was one of a group of about 25 on the scene to support Murtha at the VVT rally. “We just showed up on our own,” he told the Johnstown Tribune Democrat newspaper.

“Why are veterans fighting veterans, I wanted to know. Why would these people talk against Murtha after all he has done for veterans?” Baldwin asked this reporter. “I had on a Murtha shirt and decided to go into the [Cambria County War Memorial] arena. So I crossed the street with a security guard jabbering on one arm and a Johnstown policeman on the other. The police apologized to me.

“Going through the turnstile, I was warned,” Baldwin continued. “I went up to Section 4 and sat down. From what I heard of the people talking around me, I knew they were from out of town. Then two people come up and stood behind me. Come on. Next thing, four guys come up and escorted me out. Imagine — that’s what kind of people these are. They are not from around here.”

When told that VVT is based in North Carolina, Baldwin said, “Could they have been a bunch of Klansmen?”

Perhaps, so, observers speculate.