INQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON - On Feb. 6, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy stood in the Senate television gallery amid the glare of bright lights and the whir of digital cameras with Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) to introduce legislation that would redeploy U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Attention was focused on Obama, but the event was far more significant for Murphy, a Bucks County Democrat barely a month into his congressional career who, as an Iraq veteran, would become a go-to spokesman for his party.
Fresh-faced, apple cheeks gleaming in the lights, a thin film of sweat on his forehead, Murphy looked every bit the acolyte. Though Obama's junior by 13 years, Murphy seemed far younger and the gap in political experience wide. Twice Obama visited Bucks to campaign for Murphy, and now the younger man followed his lead, tracking the tall, regal senator with his eyes as Obama spoke.
After the news conference, Murphy read to reporters from a letter he had received from a Morrisville man whose son had been killed in Iraq in August 2005. The man, Glenn DeTample, urged Murphy to act on principle, even if it was unpopular.
"It does take a special person to have the courage to make their decisions from the heart . . .," Murphy read, his eyes welling as he recounted calling DeTample to tell him about his legislation.
For Murphy, a former captain in the Army's 82d Airborne Division and the only Iraq veteran in Congress, it was a memorable debut.
Within a remarkably few months, he emerged as the face and the voice on Iraq policy among Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) repeatedly turned to the photogenic 33-year-old freshman as a closer in floor debates. Despite a tendency to swallow words when he speaks rapidly, the boyish Murphy devoured the role.
With Iraq status reports due this week, Murphy and his fellow Democrats must seize the initiative or risk losing the support of antiwar voters who propelled them into the majority. For the party aiming to win the White House, legislative action on Iraq is imperative.
Murphy, whose voice cracks when he speaks of the loss of 19 soldiers from his Iraq brigade, has built his nascent career and febrile ambition on a war gone wrong.
He recalls leading a two-vehicle convey up "Ambush Alley" to the Baghdad airport four summers ago. A private spotted what he thought was an improvised explosive device and, with snipers all around, Murphy ordered traffic stopped. He could see Iraqis sweat in the heat and "scowl through their windshields as they blamed us." The device, which was disabled, turned out to contain two artillery shells. "We were lucky that day."
The seemingly aimless carnage in Iraq convinced Murphy that President Bush's policy was wrong, the U.S. mission there "unclear," and withdrawal was the correct option. He told people that "political leaders of America have failed our troops," and put himself forward as a soldier for change.
His seven-month rocket-ride to prominence has paid dividends. After defeating incumbent Republican Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, Murphy raised nearly $800,000 in the second fiscal quarter this year, the third-biggest haul among House members.
To quote rocker Tom Petty, the future was wide open.
But his national profile as an antiwar leader has not come without costs. Though he did not see furious combat in Iraq, Murphy has taken substantial incoming at home, including friendly fire.
Some fellow Democrats resent the attention he has gotten and wonder if he has been too opportunistic. No congressman or staff member would speak for the record, but their private views reflect animosity at Murphy's rise.
He expressed surprise at the comments. "I have a great relationship with the Pennsylvania delegation and especially with Democrats," he said. "I'm not going to get into a Washington soap opera with people saying things off the record."
At the same time, a lucrative memoir deal has raised questions about the timing of Murphy's advance payment.
Murphy beat Fitzpatrick by only 1,500 votes in a Republican district, the Bush administration's conduct of the war being the decisive issue.
One of the campaign's toughest moments was a news conference a month before the election at the American Legion post in Newtown, Bucks County. Two Iraq veterans supporting Fitzpatrick accused Murphy of misrepresenting his Iraq service.
In an angry retort, Murphy stated that Fitzpatrick, who said he only questioned Murphy's withdrawal plan, must be held accountable for the statements of his supporters.
Murphy's military records show that he served seven months as a paratrooper and a regimental judge advocate, advising on the legality of combat operations, overseeing Iraqi courts and police stations and prosecuting U.S. soldiers for drug use and abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
But the military record doesn't show how Iraq changed him. Once so uninterested in politics that he rarely voted, Murphy in 2004 changed his registration from unaffiliated to Democrat and in 2005 began an uphill battle to win the Democratic nomination for the seat in the Eighth District.
Murphy grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, the youngest of three children of a former Philadelphia cop and a legal secretary. He attended Bucks County Community College and then Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, where he won his first election as student body president.
His military career began in Kings' Army ROTC program. After law school, Murphy taught constitutional law at West Point and served as a lawyer in the Army's judge advocate general corps. Promoted to captain, he was deployed to Bosnia in 2002 and to Baghdad a year later.
By the end of his tour, he had gone from nonvoter to candidate. In fact, he was the only candidate among Iraq veterans to win election.
Like the six-footer in middle school, Murphy stood out in the freshman class: handsome in a suit, shoes spit-shined, all dark pompadour and shining eyes, often accompanied by his wife, Jenny, and newborn daughter, Maggie. Among the eager-to-please, he practically panted.
Fast-forward 11 months to the same American Legion post in Newtown, where Murphy appeared on an evening in August to answer questions about military benefits. The freshman steered away from party politics and spoke about his legislative agenda.
One veteran said, "You seem like a decent guy. If I wasn't a Republican, I'd think about being a Democrat." Murphy actually blushed.
Post commander Jim Casey was courteous to Murphy, offering sandwiches and beer, despite disagreeing with the congressman's advocacy for withdrawal.
"Me personally, I'm not in favor of it," he said. "I know he means well, and he says he was there and all that."
Maybe that phrase - "he says he was there" - was intentional, a remnant from Fitzpatrick's supporters. Any slight rankles Murphy, who wears his Army lapel pin on all his suit coats.
Murphy wears his earnestness the same way, out front, which strikes admirers as genuine and humble, while others find him scripted, a by-the-numbers Kennedy knockoff. He often quotes the martyred brothers.
The Democratic leadership may have visions of JFK dancing in their heads.
"They view him as one of the five most impressive freshman," said David Wasserman, of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "His ability to raise money tends to discourage political challengers and allows him to speak more frankly on the House floor."
Christopher Borick, a pollster and political scientist at Muhlenberg College, said Murphy presents a "complicated" political profile.
"On one hand, you see him as someone who clearly is ambitious and who seems to have his sights on a career that has him rising in the ranks," said Borick. "On the other, he comes across as genuine when it comes to his concerns about the war and troops in the field."
Though a novice, Murphy has the moves of an experienced pol. The smile is always TV-ready, and he engages with everyone he meets. His eyes grow dark and somber and unashamedly fill with tears when he speaks about "leaving 19 friends behind" in Iraq.
Murphy speaks rapidly, words gushing like water from a hydrant. Though not particularly articulate, he connects in a common language, plainspeak tinged with the Northeast.
During an August-recess town meeting in Tullytown, at the new but bland Borough Hall, Murphy sat with a small group of constituents, most bearing letters or documents attesting to their woes. When Iraq was discussed, not everyone was ready to beat swords into plowshares.
"We don't belong in Iraq; I'd pull our men out now," said Janice Horrocks. "But on 9/12 - if I'd been in charge? - I'd have leveled them."
Mike Russo, president of United Steelworkers Local 4889, said Murphy's position reflected reality in Iraq.
"It has to be a phased withdrawal. . . . The boys need to come home. The voices of people who served like Murphy, Murtha and Hagel are being ignored by people who never served. It's shocking to us."
Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.), both Vietnam veterans, have called for an Iraq pullout.
In Bristol one morning, Murphy greeted sleepy commuters catching the 6:48 to Center City. He chirped a greeting and handed out flyers.
"I'm not running for anything, but I told you I would come back after I was elected," Murphy said with a grin.
Levittown resident and Vietnam veteran Jim Barnshaw thanked Murphy for his service. When the congressman moved on, Barnshaw confided that he thought more patience in Iraq was needed.
"We have to set things up for those people so they can have a democracy," Barnshaw said. "We can't do what we did in Vietnam, leave those people to be massacred. ... Once we feel they have it under control, even if we have to leave a U.N. force to assist them, then we can pull out."
Also at the Bristol station, a woman from New Jersey asked Murphy, "What's it like there? Is it as bad as everyone thinks?"
She was talking about Washington, not Iraq.
A recent Gallup Poll showed public approval of Congress at a historic low of 18 percent. But in Washington, life for Murphy in the Democratic caucus is good.
Risking the annoyance of the other 40 freshman Democrats, Speaker Pelosi rightly recognized that Murphy's singularity as an Iraq vet gave him war cred.
In the space of less than a month during March and April this year, Murphy essentially gave the closing argument for Democrats during debates on three important Iraq votes. The only Democrats who spoke after him were Pelosi or high-profile leaders David Obey of Wisconsin and Murtha, who famously broke ranks with the administration last year.
Following a war-budget vote that included withdrawal timelines, Murphy spoke bluntly about his commanders-in-chief in the White House.
"President Bush and Vice President Cheney have called me and my colleagues unpatriotic for that vote," he said. "With all due respect to Mr. Cheney who had - what was it? - 'better things to do' during Vietnam and got four deferments, I don't think he's in a position to question my patriotism."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, head of the Democratic caucus, said that Murphy's willingness to fight back made promoting him an obvious choice.
"He happens to have a military background," Emanuel said, "and happens to have been involved in a theater that's been a major subject. It's a natural.
"Has his experience and his voice been more important than the average? Darn right!"
Apparently Murphy's experience was so much more important than the average that it earned the new congressman a $100,000 advance for a memoir tentatively entitled Taking the Hill, to be published early next year by Henry Holt & Co.
Both the advance's timing and size were attacked by Republicans, who said the amount was unusually high for a first-time author. Literary agents contacted by The Inquirer said this was not so.
The advance was paid in December, a month before Murphy was sworn in under House rules forbidding the acceptance of advance royalties.
The trade newsletter Publisher's Weekly announced the deal in May 2007, five months into Murphy's term. Murphy had the services of prominent literary agent Esther Newberg at International Creative Talent.
Asked about the charges, Murphy said he called the House Ethics Committee last year "just to make sure. I walked them through it. They gave me the green light."
A spokesman for the committee said it is their policy not to comment on informal advice given to members.
As for Murphy's ability to attract so eminent an agent, Murphy said he was introduced to her by Democratic fund-raiser and publicist Robert Zimmerman, who shares a close friend with Murphy.
Murphy said the book would be based on journals he kept in Iraq.
"The reality is, I'm no James Michener - I'm not going to sell a million books," Murphy said. "If one person reads my book and joins the military or goes into public service, it will be a success."
Newberg used to work at ICM with Ari Emanuel, Rahm's younger brother, who later founded the Endeavor Agency in Los Angeles. (Ari Emanuel is said to be the model for the agent Ari Gold in the television show Entourage.)
Reached by telephone during the August congressional recess, Ari Emanuel downplayed the fee for Murphy's memoir.
"To me it's not a big deal," Ari Emanuel said. "The real judgment is whether it's worth reading."
During the congressional recess, Murphy was active. In the early part of the month, he visited Israel with 17 other Congress members. After his return, he announced that he was endorsing Obama for president, saying the congressman represented the "best chance to change the direction of the country." Although some senior Democrats questioned the endorsement - "It won't help Obama and it could hurt Murphy if Hillary [Clinton] wins," said one, requesting anonymity - it seemed to bring Murphy full circle from February.
Murphy said Obama's view of Iraq and the ongoing war on terror mirrored his own.
This week's reports will produce few surprises, Murphy predicted.
"The report will say that some good things have happened in Iraq and here are the challenges that remain," he said. "They are the same challenges we've had for the past four years. Everyone agrees there needs to be a political solution."
For someone whose congressional career has been so closely tied to one issue, Murphy is keenly aware that his political future may be in the hands of others.
"I can only tell you that I hope and pray that the Republicans look into their conscience and do what's best for our soldiers on the ground. . . .
"I think the time for public posturing will conclude in September," Murphy said. "Actions will speak louder than words."