Schmidt backpedals from Murtha slur

Four days after she nearly caused a brawl on the House floor, a freshman Republican lawmaker said Tuesday she never meant to personally attack a Democratic colleague, who is a decorated former Marine, or suggest he was a coward.

In her first public comments since the controversy exploded, Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio said her criticism was aimed at a Democratic proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and was not directed personally at its sponsor, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania.

Murtha, a decorated veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, is among the lawmakers who have said it is time to bring American troops home.

“I will be eternally grateful for what he did to secure our freedom,” Schmidt said of Murtha. “But having said that, I do not agree with his policy.”

Schmidt touched off an angry burst of name-calling and finger-pointing on the House floor last Friday after she made remarks that many interpreted as a direct attack on Murtha.

In her speech, Schmidt said she had gotten a call from a Marine Corps colonel in Ohio who had asked her to tell Congress to “stay the course” in Iraq.

“He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt’s remarks infuriated Democrats, who booed her off the floor. A few minutes later, Schmidt asked that her words be removed from the official record.

On Monday, the colonel whom Schmidt said had asked her to deliver the message said she misrepresented his comments.

Dan Bubp, an Ohio state representative and a Marine Corps Reserves colonel, acknowledged discussing Iraq war policy with Schmidt. But Bubp, a Republican, said he never mentioned Murtha by name and that he would never call a fellow Marine a coward.

“Obviously, Danny and I have two different opinions of the same conversation,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt, who has been in Congress for just two months, said she didn’t know that Murtha was a veteran. If she had it to do over again, she said, she would never have mentioned him by name during her speech.

But, “I did not name-call, and I never impugned Congressman Murtha’s character,” Schmidt insisted. “You have to listen to the words as they were said. The media has chosen to interpret the words, but read what was said.”

Schmidt sent a personal note of apology to Murtha and withdrew her words from the official legislative record “because I wanted the debate to be about the policy, about this war,” she said. “The press should be focusing on that.”

Since her speech, Schmidt has become the object of much scorn throughout the blogosphere and was even lampooned on “Saturday Night Live.”

But in her conservative Cincinnati-area district, the response has been mostly positive, Schmidt said.

“Strangers have walked up to me and congratulated me and thanked me for being so strong on this,” she said.

One man even offered to marry her. Schmidt, who has been married for nearly 30 years, said she politely declined the offer.

As for the criticism, “better people than me have been ridiculed on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and that’s why people watch it,” she said.

Schmidt said she hasn’t seen the spoof, but will probably watch it eventually.