I'm on the road this week and don't have my full arsenal of Almanacs of American Politics at my disposal, so I'm going pretty much on memory here, but I wanted to make a quick note of two members of Congress--one current and one former--who've died in the past few days. Both members were in many ways throwbacks. Not only were they pro-defense and pro-defense spending Democrats from rural areas, but they were proud (some critics might say shameless) of promoting government largesse on behalf of their districts and beliefs.
John Murtha, who represented southwestern Pennsylvania's 12th District passed away on Monday. An ex-Marine and Vietnam combat veteran, Murtha was first elected in 1974. As an advocate for his economically ravaged district, Murtha was known for his skill in steering millions of defense dollars to his corner of the Keystone State. As Chairman of the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Murtha was perfectly positioned to use the levers of power on his district's behalf. Murtha received much attention when he came out against the Iraq War in 2005 as his unblemished military credentials and track record gave cover to more liberal members, including Nancy Pelosi (who pushed for his elevation to Majority Leader following the 2006 Democratic takeover), to become more outspoken in challenging the Bush administration. A special election is expected to take place in May and this contest, once the candidates emerge, should prove to be a real barnburner. An interesting bit of trivia that has been noted in some of the coverage of Murtha's death is that his district was the only one in the country that voted for John Kerry in 2004 but also John McCain in 2008. Back during the 2008 primary season I wrote up a short profile of the district that we might revisit given the news of Murtha's death.
Then today comes word of the passing of former Texas congressman Charlie Wilson. "Good Time Charlie" is perhaps best known as the subject of the book and film "Charlie Wilson's War" which chronicles not only his colorful personal exploits but also his support for the Afghan Mujihadeen during the 1980's. For a great profile of Wilson's exploits, see here. Wilson represented the 2nd district of east Texas from 1973 until 1996. Aside from Wilson's penchant for covert ops in support of the Afghan resistance, Wilson's domestic policy positions were actually quite liberal, especially given where he was from. He was a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, was pro-choice, and took a number of anti-corporate positions. While the 2nd District has been substantially redrawn since his tenure, one can get a flavor of it here.
While there is certainly a lot that one can find in both of these members' backgrounds that opens them to criticism (as well as ethics inquiries)--and their obituaries no doubt run through them--both Murtha and Wilson were refreshing in that they represent a type of politician that we seem to find fewer and fewer of. More "earthy" than today's breed of blow-dried, overly scripted, and rigidly ideological politicians, Murtha and Wilson's style of representation and legislating seem almost anachronistic, more suited to the LBJ and Sam Rayburn era Congresses. Both members were pure horse-traders, more interested in getting something done and possessing the political skills to do so--than staking out positions of purity. They also added a lot of color to an increasingly bland Congress. One can only imagine, for example, what type of fodder Good Time Charlie would have provided for the blogosphere.