By Aaron Blake - 03/06/08 04:19 PM EST
Samuel Goldwyn once said a man shouldn’t write his autobiography until after he’s dead. Perhaps out of necessity, 34-year-old Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) insists his new book, Taking The Hill, is not about him, but about war.
Forgive the man for having the audacity to write a memoir before his 35th birthday, but if that stage in life were right for anyone, it would be the freshman congressman and Iraq war veteran.
From becoming the youngest professor at West Point to fighting in the Iraq war to running for and winning a seat in a battleground House district, the story of an underachieving brawler from Philly who quickly makes good on his lot in life is a tribute to the ideals of America. Murphy does his best to convey that story.
The book does often reach into the soapy melodramatic — “never underestimate the will of a paratrooper,” or “their response disappointed, but did not discourage, me.” — but Murphy’s initial effort at his own story bears plenty of genuine Hollywood-style drama and even some Seinfeldian comedy.
He loses a friend to a foolish accident involving jumping on moving cars. He begs his superiors to dispatch him to the front lines after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He falls in love during an ill-advised but ultimately successful bid for Congress. And he is mistakenly hailed as the winner of the Greater Hartford Marathon after he gets lost during a coinciding half-marathon.
Murphy casts himself as a kid without much direction who, at least initially, couldn’t get into college or the 82nd Airborne. Eventually, he garners the praise of President Bill Clinton for his work battling floods in his hometown. Therein lies the turning point.
He becomes a hard-working attorney who finds his way to West Point in the judge advocate’s office and then a law faculty position there at 27.
Within days after Sept. 11, 2001, he pens a column professing full faith in President Bush. But it wouldn’t take long for that faith to be shaken, pushing Murphy into politics and a run against Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) after serving in Iraq.
Murphy travels a long journey during the campaign, from reading a tutorial on running in local elections to stumbling badly over whether he would have voted for the Iraq war on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” Yet he eventually pulls off an improbable victory in the Philadelphia suburbs.
A Discovery Channel documentary bearing the same name as the book provides a more astute and gripping picture of his campaign and is time better spent for the political junkie. But Murphy addresses the major points and gives the reader a feel for just how tough it was for him to get on the political map — or more specifically, Democratic campaign guru Rep. Rahm Emanuel’s (Ill.) map.
“Don’t come back until you’ve raised $250,000,” Emanuel tells him during a meeting in Washington that lasts less than five minutes.
But mostly the book is about Murphy’s experiences at war and, whether he deems it an autobiography or not, his life story. Today, Murphy is one of the youngest members of Congress, its only Iraq veteran, and a powerful voice for the Democratic opposition to the war (even though that opposition has yet to force Bush’s hand).
If anything, an end to the war is what’s missing from the book. Republicans have attacked Murphy for accepting a $100,000 book advance before being sworn into Congress (ethics rules would have prevented him from getting such a deal while serving), and a little patience on his end might have helped fill out the story.
Even a few years’ worth of Murphy’s battles once he’s “taken the Hill” would have given the book more finality.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Taking the Hill: From Philly to Baghdad to the United States Congress
By Patrick J. Murphy, with Adam Frankel
Henry Holt, 2008
275 pages, $25