In just a few short weeks, eighteen-term Democratic congressman John Murtha has gone from shoo-in incumbent to a man on the brink. Calling your own district a “racist area”--and then “clarifying” that what he really meant was that the people of southwestern Pennsylvania were “rednecks”--can do that. Now he’s been mocked on “SNL,” pilloried by commentators, and his neophyte GOP opponent, a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel named William Russell, has found himself in a virtual tie with the powerful House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee chairman.
But the recent criticism of Murtha masks a larger, more intense phenomenon. The congressman, a Vietnam veteran who famously turned against the Iraq War in 2005, has been the focus of an obsessive campaign against him by right-wing activists, many of them also veterans, for more than two years. They thought their campaign had faltered, but Murtha’s recent gaffe may give them the victory they’ve long been seeking.
Two years ago, Captain Larry Bailey, a retired Navy Seal who lives in Chocowinity, North Carolina, started a grassroots movement to defeat Murtha. “Operation Boot Murtha,” as Bailey called it, was a sometimes haphazard, sometimes suspiciously well-orchestrated campaign (they were constantly accused of conspiring with the White House, although Bailey denies it) that has come to be known as the “Swift-Boating of Jack Murtha,” since so many of its participants, Bailey among them, were involved, albeit tangentially, with the Swift Boat campaign against Senator John Kerry, back in 2004. And it almost worked.
What got Bailey and his likeminded activists started was another comment by Murtha. In May of 2006, while discussing the killing of civilians in Haditha, Iraq, by a platoon of marines, Murtha told a reporter that the troops had “overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” The latter part of this assessment turned out to be far from certain--seven of the eight marines have been exonerated or had the charges against them dropped--and two of them have since sued Murtha for slander. (Those suits are still pending.) Michelle Malkin jumped on the quote, featuring Murtha on her blog as one of a cabal of “Haditha smear merchants.” Among conservative military veterans, the comment caused an immediate uproar.
Bailey was one of them. “When he starts badmouthing the frontline troops, for his own political purposes, that’s just more than I can stand,” Bailey said the other day, by phone from his home. Bailey once met Murtha in the 1980s, when the congressman toured the Seal school in Coronado, California, where Bailey was commander; he has a strong sense of personal outrage, particularly when it comes to the question of integrity. (“I hate phonies,” he says.) Through the 1990s, he wrote essays for Soldier of Fortune magazine decrying “phony frogs”--imposters who claim to be former Seals. In 2004, he ran a small anti-Kerry operation with Swift-Boat aspirations (and mild affiliations) called Vietnam Veterans for the Truth, predicated on the notion that Kerry had lied when he accepted his Bronze Star. Upon hearing about Murtha;s comment, Bailey says, “I called a friend of mine down in Florida, and said, ‘What can we do about this?’”
That friend was Mike Bradley, a conservative Vietnam veteran Bailey knew from the anti-Kerry effort. (“He’s a consummate political genius,” Bailey said. “He’s not educated, he’s a cracker--I call him my favorite Florida cracker.”) And there were others to call on, too: “A third guy who has a few more shekels than I have, we contacted him, and he said he would fund my airplane ticket” up to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the seat of Murtha’s district, he said. The idea was to look into running some sort of independent anti-Murtha effort, or perhaps staging some sort of protest. A fourth ally--Roger Hughes, a self-described “political hack” who runs the right-wing Iowa Presidential Watch, another vestige of the anti-Kerry campaign, in Webster City, Iowa--gave Bailey and Bradley more money and helped them set up a vociferous website, BootMurtha.com.
In Pennsylvania, Bailey found a receptive audience, particularly among the conservative military veterans set. Leo Pusateri, a local school counselor and the parent of a soldier in Iraq had started a popular blog called Murtha Must Go!. Two local veterans, Harry Beam, who had served in the Army in Vietnam, and Craig Minnick, who had recently returned from a tour in the Judge Advocate General’s office in Iraq, were already starting to agitate against Murtha. Minnick and Beam became the public face of the anti-Murtha campaign, but, Minnick said recently, they were largely dependent on Bailey’s and Hughes’s resources and know-how. “I don’t think we could have done it without them. We were the boots on the ground, but they allowed us to do what we did here.”
Over the course of several months in the summer and fall of 2006, Bailey made repeated trips to Johnstown. In August, he held a press conference, where he declared, “I will do my best to Swift Boat John Murtha.” He bought up roadside advertising, with money from Hughes, depicting a cartoon boot kicking a caricature of Murtha, drawn by Hughes’s wife, Linda Eddy. And he organized an anti-Murtha rally, which drew a thousand attendees from across the country, with speakers including World Trade Center survivor Earl Johnson and David Beamer, father of Flight 93 hero Todd Beamer.
The big score for Operation Boot Murtha came in the early fall, when Bailey and Hughes unearthed a videotape of a twenty-six year old FBI sting in which Murtha could be seen apparently considering a bribe in a public corruption scandal that would become known as ABSCAM. (Murtha was cleared of any wrongdoing in that case.) “I was working with a guy down in Corpus Christi, Texas, who knew were the tape was in Florida, and we arranged for him to go to Florida, pick it up, and ship it to us,” Bailey said. “We produced a few thousand copies and distributed them.” The video also made its way to the website of the American Spectator a month before the election. (Bailey was not the source of the Spectator's copy.)* In the end, Murtha held on, strongly defeating his Republican opponent.
Until recently, 2008 did not seem as promising a year for Operation Boot Murtha, and many of the out of state players chose not to reenlist in the fight. Still the Boot Murtha website continues to be updated, as do the local anti-Murtha blogs. And Murtha’s opponent, Bill Russell, has not hesitated to use the groundwork from 2006 to bolster his campaign. He has repeatedly called for Murtha to apologize for the Haditha comments and, over the summer, produced a video advertisement featuring the father of one of those marines. This week, the National Republican Congressional Committee, thrilled at the chance to pick up a Democratic seat, is airing an ad quoting Murtha’s Haditha statement along with his more recent gaffes. In a recent e-mail plea, Murtha begged contributors for $1 million in donations, blaming “Swift Boaters” for the “brutal reelection campaign.”
Meanwhile, Larry Bailey is contentedly watching Murtha struggle from his home in Chocowinity. “I’m feeling really good about it,” he says. Roger Hughes and his wife, out in Iowa, are in talks to produce an anti-Murtha book, in case Murtha goes on to win. And though they wish the congressman no luck on November 4th, a defeat at the polls may not fully satisfy them. “Being voted out of office wouldn’t be enough,” Hughes said. “This guy really deserves to go to jail.”
Joshua Hersh is a writer in New York.
* Clarification: This article was changed to make clear that Larry Bailey was not the American Spectator's source of the FBI Murtha videotape.
By Joshua Hersh