Between two public servants, Purple Heart-felt admiration

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SAN FRANCISCO — This is a story of two politicians who share private horrors, a special bond and, now, a rare honor.

Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey, the former eight-term Bay Area congressman, led six bayonet charges as the head of his platoon while in Korea. The holder of two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and the Navy Cross, he returned home to dedicate his public life to fighting for peace and the environment.

Now 84, with a square face and shock of white hair, McCloskey prefers not to recount the battles that twice left him wounded, telling a documentarian not long ago that recounting his experience would be “unseemly” braggadocio. Instead, the longtime Republican-turned-Democrat recounted a dream he can’t seem to shake: Teenage faces of enemy soldiers in a trench gaze up at him before he fires.

Jackie Speier was a 28-year-old staffer who accompanied then-Rep. Leo Ryan to Guyana in 1978 to investigate Jim Jones and his People’s Temple for alleged human rights abuses. Their entourage was ambushed as they shuttled defectors onto an airplane, and Speier was shot five times as she lay on the jungle tarmac in a polka-dot dress. She waited 22 hours for help. Ryan was killed.

Now 62 and a Democratic lawmaker from Hillsborough, Rep. Speier rarely speaks of her experience. The terror she endured that day, she noted recently, is one that the military men and women fighting America’s wars face constantly.

For years, McCloskey bridled over the fact that Speier — who still has two bullets lodged in her body, one near her heart — was never publicly recognized for her sacrifice. So he did something about it.

One of his Purple Hearts now is displayed in Speier’s Washington, D.C., office. An inscription notes “the perils of civil life often require more courage” than those of the battlefield.

“She earned it,” McCloskey said recently from his farm in Northern California, where he tends citrus and olive trees. “She got hurt worse than I did.”

McCloskey, a Stanford Law School graduate and former Marine Corps colonel, was elected to Congress in 1967. But his politics were far from party-line. He was the first Republican to oppose the Vietnam War and the first congressman to call for President Nixon’s impeachment. Known as a “Teddy Roosevelt progressive,” he helped write the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

After losing a 1982 Senate bid, McCloskey and his wife, Helen, moved to the remote farm in Yolo County; he continued to practice law part time with a firm in Redwood City.

Outraged by what he saw as corruption within the GOP, McCloskey came out of political retirement in 2006 to launch the “Revolt of the Elders.” He took on Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, losing the primary race but contributing to Pombo’s defeat in the general election. In 2007, McCloskey switched his party affiliation.

Speier was a teenager when she met McCloskey, whom she called a “rock star” politician, at his first election-night celebration. In a gesture to honor him two years ago, she read a statement into the Congressional Record, calling him “a true American maverick” who “pursues the truth no matter where it leads him.”

The daughter of working-class San Francisco parents, Speier had volunteered for Ryan while in high school. She went on to become an intern and ultimately his legal aide. Two years after the Jonestown massacre, she won a seat on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. A career in state government followed — six terms in the Assembly and two in the state Senate. Elected to Congress in 2008, Speier is known as an advocate for veterans, the environment and abortion rights.

“She is pure,” McCloskey said of Speier. “She’s a true public servant inside and out.”

The decorated war hero long had pondered the sacrifice Speier and her boss had made in the line of public duty. Then last fall, when he and law partner Joe Cotchett were chatting about his medals, “Jackie’s name came up,” Cotchett said. “And out of Pete’s mouth came the words: ‘You know, she should get a medal.’”

McCloskey formulated a plan to give Speier one of his — a Purple Heart that he modestly described having received for being “nicked by a bayonet” in hand-to-hand combat on a North Korean hillside.

The two men crafted an inscription to Speier from their firm, Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, describing the Revolutionary War roots of the order of the Purple Heart. While it “has yet to be authorized for wounds received in the nation’s service in civil life,” they wrote, “we believe that our Congresswoman, Jackie Speier, has demonstrated incredible valor.”

Speier was in the dark when she took the duo up on their insistent invitation to attend the law firm’s Christmas party. When McCloskey presented her with the medal, Cotchett said, “she was so transfixed. She had tears in her eyes.”

“I was totally blown away,” Speier said in a recent interview, “as close to speechless as I’ve ever been.”

The story had not received public attention until late last month, after Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), a Vietnam veteran, saw the Purple Heart in Speier’s office and learned the details of McCloskey’s gesture. Without her knowledge, he called a reporter with Capitol Hill’s Roll Call.

Robert Caughlan, a longtime environmentalist and political operative who had worked for Ryan, made the 2008 documentary about McCloskey’s life. Passing along the Purple Heart, he said, was “something Pete would do.”

“If you go through life-threatening experiences, it gives you a humility,” Caughlan said. “That’s what happened with both of them.”