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A new face for GOP support of the war

As Congress debates Iraq strategy, Rep. Sam Johnson, a veteran and former POW, assumes a prominent role.

February 23, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When House Republicans needed a John McCain-like war hero to lead their fight against Democratic assaults on President Bush's Iraq strategy, they turned to another former POW, a Texas Republican named Sam Johnson.

Though less known than Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.), his onetime cellmate in Vietnam, Johnson spent nearly seven years in a prisoner of war camp, about half of it in solitary confinement. When he took to the House floor during last week's emotional debate on the Iraq war, the 76-year-old former fighter pilot drew heavily on Vietnam experiences.

He spoke about his 2,494 days of "hell on Earth" in captivity and his "rat-infested 3-by-8 dark and filthy cell," while displaying the effects of injuries he sustained 34 years ago: a mangled right hand, stooped posture and slow gait.

Johnson has emerged as the House GOP's point man in an escalating fight in Congress over Bush's execution of the war -- a position that puts him opposite another decorated Vietnam veteran, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.). GOP leaders see Johnson as the Republican best suited to counter Murtha, an ex-Marine and defense hawk who has become a influential war critic. "I respect John Murtha as a Marine," Johnson said. "However, serviceman to serviceman, I think his efforts are misguided."

Johnson is preparing for the next phase of challenges to Bush's war strategy. Murtha, who heads the House defense appropriations subcommittee, is moving to attach strings to Bush's war-funding request that could thwart his plan to add 21,500 troops to the 135,000-plus already in Iraq.

Both parties have featured military veterans prominently to make their case in the debate over the 4-year-old war.

Johnson led a parade of congressional military veterans in the GOP's losing fight last week against a symbolic resolution, sponsored by the House's Democratic majority, that put the chamber on record against a buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq.

He marked the 34th anniversary of his first full day of freedom from POW camp during the debate.

And he gave the closing speech -- one of the most impassioned during four days of debate -- opposing the resolution.

"Let my body serve as a brutal reminder that we must not repeat the mistakes of the past," Johnson said. "We must not cut funding for our troops. We must stick by them. We must support them all the way."

He delivered a salute and returned to his seat as members of both parties applauded.

A Johnson staffer said the response to Johnson's stand had been overwhelmingly positive. "We've received phone calls from across America of grown men crying," said communications director McCall Avery.

But, said Texas state Rep. Lon Burnam, a Democrat who is director of the Dallas Peace Center, Johnson is going against public opinion on the war. "Sam Johnson is never going to pay attention to that because he is a hard-right, ideologically driven hawk," he said. "We don't bother to go to talk to him."

Liberal bloggers have also taken Johnson to task, posting remarks he made in 1995 in support of withholding funds from President Clinton's plan to send 20,000 American peacekeeping troops to Bosnia.

"I wholeheartedly support withholding funds from President Clinton's Bosnia mission," Johnson said then. "Although it is a drastic step and ties the president's hands, I do not feel like we have any other choice. The president has tied our hands, gone against the wishes of the American people, and this is the last best way I know how to show my respect for our American servicemen and -women."

Johnson defended his earlier comments Thursday, noting that in 1995 he opposed the deployment of troops to Bosnia "in the first place."

"In 2002, I supported sending our guys to Iraq, and I stand by that decision today," he said. "The Democrats who voted to go to war in Iraq in 2002 and just voted against our troops are the ones who are changing their tune."

Johnson made headlines in 2005 for suggesting that the weapons of mass destruction that U.S. troops failed to find in Iraq were in Syria and offering to drop a nuclear bomb on the country.

He later said he was joking.

Johnson was elected to the House in 1991 after serving six years in the Texas Legislature. Before that, he served in the Air Force for 29 years, once flying with the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's precision demonstration team.

He flew 62 combat missions in the Korean War in a plane named Shirley's Texas Tornado after his then-wife. On his 25th Vietnam mission, he was shot down in 1966 and captured.

"While in solitary confinement, my captors kept me in leg stocks, like the pilgrims, ... for 72 days," he recalled during the debate. Next, he said, "they put me in leg irons ... for 2 1/2 years."

Last week was not the first time Bush's allies called on Johnson because of his military background. In the 2000 presidential campaign, Johnson went to South Carolina to campaign for Bush against McCain. And during the 2004 campaign, Johnson called Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, "Hanoi John" -- a comparison to actress Jane Fonda, who is still reviled by many for her trip to North Vietnam during the war.

But Johnson, a conservative, also has broken with Bush. He recently opposed a Vietnam trade agreement that was a presidential priority, and Bush's call to include a guest-worker program in an immigration overhaul.

richard.simon@latimes.com

Times staff writer Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.

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