From Dennis B. Roddy in Johnstown, Pa.
EVEN THE DEAD must have their suburbs and John Murtha’s lies at the outer fringes of Grandview Cemetery, a section called Westview 10. It is a rolling spit of green filled with sweety-pie tombstones with etchings and interlocked wedding bands, hearts and all manner of neo-Victorian sentimentality. A startling number of the stones have the names of couples, their dates of birth and no date of death. The earth around them is as undisturbed as the sleep of these baby boomers who may now die safe in the knowledge that they are pre-remembered.
Murtha, once the most powerful man in this half of Pennsylvania, is remembered by a stretch of brown soil that must soon be seeded, a small American flag, a lone cloth flower and a small, plastic spike surmounted with his name, a small photo and his relevant dates of arrival on earth and his departure for Democrat Valhalla.
It is astonishing to think of Murtha in the clay of this hillside, if only because it is so reminiscent of an engine seizing up never to start again. He survived Vietnam, the warfare of small business, a special election that he won by an angstrom unit if that, the Abscam investigation, the anger of the political right when he turned on the Iraq war and a persistent and metastasizing fixation on his prowess in secreting federal dollars into projects for a town that, without his largesse, would long ago have been a collection of welfare offices and plywood storefronts. Instead, he died of a botched gallbladder operation. It is as if All the King’s Men had ended with Willie Starke falling on a banana peel.
THIS CITY BURIED Murtha in February and will do so again today. The first funeral featured Marine musicians, a Presbyterian minister and a contingent of Democrats and defense businessmen who surely must have waited three days before leaving town, just in case.
Everybody outside the 12th Congressional District of Pennsylvania has wanted to make the special election for the remnants of Murtha’s term some sort of grand metaphor for the future of the Obama administration, the genuineness of the Tea Party Movement, perhaps even the psychic health of the citizenry. This has happened before and it has happened right here. Murtha’s predecessor, John Phillips Saylor, is horizontal not a quarter mile from him in a swankier section of this cemetery. When Saylor died in October 1973, a special election was called and Murtha, the small businessman and state legislator, was pitted against Saylor’s administrative aide, Harry Fox.
The Murtha-Fox contest was the first congressional election after Richard Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Outside money, outside activists and outdoor advertisers descended from all corners of the republic declaring this a referendum on Nixon’s future. Fools that we are here, everybody assumed it was a contest to see who would fill in for a congressman that had been all but invisible on the national radar. At the time, Bethlehem Steel, the valley’s core employer, had threatened to close its plant here. The vote, to most in the district, turned on which of the two men would find some way to hold on to Bethlehem and steer some federal money into a place that knew it had to diversify or die.
People in western Pennsylvania do not send a man to congress to be statesmen. They send him to be a looter. Murtha figured this out quickly and, as he rose in the backrooms of the House of Representatives, rarely giving a speech, always cutting a deal, he poured billions of dollars into the district. He never got rich doing this and, if there was a scandal attendant to how business is done in Washington, it was over what he was able to take legally. Thirty years ago a group of FBI agents posing as representatives of a fictional Arab sheik pulled out a drawer full of cash and offered it to Murtha.
“Not interested,” he told them. He wanted the sheik to invest in businesses in Johnstown.
If the special election in the 12th district is some kind of referendum I would venture to say it’s a referendum on which of the two guys now hurling mud and watching the brickbats fly over their heads will figure out how to dip into the federal treasury. Some of the voters, yes, will say the system is rotten, corrupt, even. And they want to know where their cut has been stashed.
Photo: Dennis Roddy