Maybe All It Takes Is One Tough Democrat
I was in Youngstown not long ago, collecting oral histories for an historical project about the Mahoning Valley. And the most absorbing subject of all was a tough old guy named Don, a former steelworker who later became a politically well-connected lawyer and judge. I drove him around town a bit, and he would occasionally ask me to stop the car, so that he could talk to this person or that. He nodded to all the cops, whom he obviously knew. Later, as we slowly climbed the back stairs to his office (he now walks with the aid of a cane) I noticed he didn't lock the door. "They always bug me about locking the door," he said of his young partners and his daughter, also an attorney, "but who the hell's gonna rob us? We already represent most of the crooks in town."
His workplace was a museum, a testament to his decades at the intersection of local and national politics and the law. The pictures covered every available inch of his large office (where a sign on the wall said: Crime pays, but politics pays better) and the even larger conference room. The war stories, prompted by my questions about particular photos, unfolded over several hours. My favorite? He recalled once picking up Truman when he came to Youngstown as an ex-pres, and how the tough old Kansas City haberdasher demanded his mid-day drink. When he poured Truman a drink of bourbon in the hotel suite, the ex-pres didn't mince words. "What kinda fuckin' drink is that?" he asked of his young gopher, who quickly filled the glass to the top.
Eventually the talk got around to present-day politics, as I knew it would, and Don began shaking his head about how weak, how seemingly scared of their own shadows the national Democrats were these days in the face of the Republican onslaught over the war in Iraq. Jesus, he said, these guys never served, and a guy who was a military hero, Kerry, couldn't make the point that he'd be better on defense? If only he were 20 years older, he seemed to be suggesting, he'd get up out of that chair and show those sissies how to play the old smash-mouth brand of politics.
I immediately thought of him when Congressman Jack Murtha uncorked his righteous protest about the war this week. His timing was exquisite: according to the polls, about two-thirds of the country now, finally, understands that the Bush-Cheney imperium has no clothes, and can't be trusted any longer with protecting American lives. Some adults in the Congress will have to step up and see to it that that's taken care of. And who better than Murtha, a legendary strong-defense Dem of the sort that mostly no longer roams the halls of Congress. The jowly Pennsylvanian, a former Marine drill sergeant, knows he'll get the full attention of the Republican wind machine, and he sounds ready for it. As I watched him blow through the cuddly centrism of PBS's Newshour and knock down the tired Rove-Cheney evasions like so many toy soldiers, for a moment, he almost reminded me of Sam Ervin, the crafty country lawyer who slowly worked his way through the layers of Nixonian smoke screens, educating his countrymen about democracy's checks and balances as he went. God seems to place these characters from central casting in the middle of our democratic drama when they're needed most.
I think Murtha's natural charm has much to do with the part of the world he comes from. The Cleveland-Youngstown-Pittsburgh corridor was once called America's Ruhr Valley, for obvious reasons. And these areas were once ruled by tough old ethnic working-class politicians like Don. Murtha is squarely in that tradition, a no-bullshit Democrat who doesn't bother catering to the sillier whims of the national party, and who thus isn't saddled with any of its prissy baggage. In the current New Yorker, Peter Boyer wonderfully describes how a guy named Casey, the son of the former governor, is running strongly for a Pennsylvania Senate seat against the right-winger Rick Santorum by sticking to simple platform that mostly mirrors his constituency. Like his constituents, he's squarely for the right to bear arms and against abortion.
Murtha's opposition to the war may or may not prove to be the tipping point in finally bringing some sanity to this invertebrate Congress. But he is certainly a timely reminder about what authentic leadership looks like. The old Marine taught us a lesson this week about intestinal fortitude and how to stand up to bullies, including those with five draft deferments. We'll soon find out if the country is paying attention.