Rep. Jean Schmidt flung the word "coward" at a decorated war veteran from Pennsylvania last week, but the Ohio Republican's comments landed with a splat in her own Cincinnati district, where some supporters are backing away as she scrambles to explain what she meant.
Judging by her words yesterday -- the first after avoiding the public for three days -- Schmidt doesn't understand what the fuss is about, and sees herself more as victim than villain. "I am amazed at what a national story this has become," she said in a statement. "I have been attacked very personally, continuously since Friday evening."
Many people are unsympathetic. NBC's "Saturday Night Live" lampooned her, the Cincinnati Enquirer's editorial page -- which endorsed her congressional bid -- said she was "way out of line," and the friend she claimed to be quoting on the House floor last week declared yesterday that he had said no such thing.
Schmidt, Congress's newest member, vaulted from obscurity with inflammatory comments during a House debate over whether to promptly withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, as has been proposed by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.). Murtha is a 31-year House veteran and longtime military hawk who fought in Vietnam and Korea as a Marine.
Schmidt said in her brief speech: "A few minutes ago, I received a call from Colonel Danny Bubp. He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, Marines never do."
The chamber exploded in boos and catcalls from Democrats, and within minutes Schmidt had withdrawn her words and sent a note of apology to Murtha. But waters were still roiling when she went home Saturday to start a two-week congressional recess.
Schmidt stayed largely out of sight until yesterday, when she issued her statement and spoke with reporters. "There's no way that I remotely tried to impugn his character," she said in a telephone interview. She said she was simply trying to register her strong belief that U.S. troops must stay in Iraq until their mission is completed.
Noting that criticism has poured in via phone calls, e-mails and TV reports, she said in her statement: "I am quite willing to suffer those attacks if in the end that policy I so strongly oppose is exposed as unsound. First and foremost, I support the troops. They dodge bullets and bombs while I duck only hateful words."
Bubp, a GOP state legislator and Marine Corps Reserve officer, had campaigned for Schmidt. He put out his own statement yesterday: "The comments and concerns I shared with Congresswoman Schmidt were never meant as a personal reference to Mr. Murtha. . . . We never discussed anyone by name and there was no intent to ever disparage the congressman or his distinguished record of service for our nation." Bubp, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview request.
Schmidt recalls their Friday phone conversation somewhat differently. "I wrote down what he was saying," she said in the interview. "He did ask me to send a message to Congress, and he also said send a message to 'that congressman.' He did not know that congressman's name, but I did. Neither one of us knew he was a Marine."
Schmidt said she had not noticed the numerous references to Murtha's military background in the newspaper, radio and TV accounts of his troop-withdrawal proposal, made Thursday. "They keep us pretty busy," she said.
Paul Hackett, a veteran of the Iraq war who lost the August special election to Schmidt, said her comments on the House floor "were at best irresponsible and at worst grossly unpatriotic." Hackett, who has sharply criticized President Bush's Iraq war policy, is running for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, but some Democrats are trying to talk him into a rematch against Schmidt.
Opponents had dubbed her "Mean Jean" for the sharp tongue she wielded in the August campaign to replace Rob Portman (R), the new U.S. trade representative. Bubp campaigned for her in his Marine dress uniform, rebuking Hackett for criticizing "their commander in chief."
Yesterday, Schmidt said she hoped the hubbub will have faded by the time Congress reconvenes next month. Asked if she would change anything if she could do it over again, she replied: "I wouldn't have used Congressman Murtha's name."