When Dick Cheney, a Wyoming congressman who had never served in the military and who had failed during his political career to gain much respect from those who wore the uniform he had worked so hard to avoid putting on during the Vietnam War, was selected in 1989 by former President George Herbert Walker Bush to serve as Secretary of Defense, he had a credibility problem. Lacking in the experience and the connections required to effectively take charge of the Pentagon in turbulent times, he turned to a House colleague, Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, a decorated combat veteran whose hawkish stances on military matters had made him a favorite of the armed services. "I'm going to need a lot of help," Cheney told Murtha. "I don't know a blankety-blank thing about defense."
Murtha, a retired Marine colonel who earned a chest full of medals during the Vietnam fight and who has often broken with fellow Democrats to back U.S. military interventions abroad -- most notably in Latin America, where Murtha often supported former President Ronald Reagan's controversial policies regarding El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s -- gave that assistance.
During both the first and second Bush administrations he emerged as a key ally -- often, the most important Democratic ally -- of the Republican presidents. Cheney frequently acknowledged their long working relationship, describing Murtha in public statements as a Democrat he could "work with."
In the 2004 vice presidential debate, Cheney noted that, "One of my strongest allies in Congress when I was Secretary of Defense was Jack Murtha, a Democrat who is chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee." The vice president was particularly complimentary over the years of the Pennsylvania representatives decision to provide high-profile backing of the administration's 2002 request for authorization to use force against Iraq.
But the cross-party relationship has soured as Murtha, whose concern has always been first and foremost for the men and women who serve in the military, has reached the conclusion that the Iraq intervention has steered U.S. troops into a quagmire from which they must be extracted. Typically blunt, Murtha said this week: "The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring (the troops) home."
Cheney's response to the man he begged to help him understand military affairs during the first Bush administration was to rip into Murtha and other Democrats who had tried to work with the administration. "Some of the most irresponsible comments have, of course, come from politicians who actually voted in favor of authorising force against Saddam Hussein," the vice president growled in a speech to the conservative Frontiers of Freedom Institute. In another clear reference to Murtha, Cheney said, "The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone -- but we're not going to sit by and let them rewrite history."
Of course, it is not Murtha but Cheney who is rewriting history -- or, at least, attempting to obscure it.
As Murtha noted, he's the one who put on a Marine uniform, took his shots in Vietnam and went on to a long career of working with and defending the military, while Cheney is the one who did everything in his power to avoid serving in southeast Asia and has never been seen as a friend of the men and women who actually fight the wars the vice president so shamelessly -- and disingenuously -- promotes. "I like guys who got five deferments and (have) never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done," said Murtha, referencing the vice president's long record of draft avoidance in the 1960s.
The clearest evidence that Cheney still does not "get it" when it comes to defense policy is his decision to take on Jack Murtha.The draft dodger who not all that many years ago admitted that he "(didn't) know a blankety-blank thing about defense" will come to regret picking a fight with the Marine he called in to help him understand military matters.
An expanded paperback edition of John Nichols' biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press: 2005), is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. The book features an exclusive interview with Joe Wilson and a chapter on the vice president's use and misuse of intelligence. Publisher's Weekly describes the book as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."