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The Jim Webb Story

Jim Webb, the junior senator from Virginia, who defeated the incumbent Republican George Allen in 2006, is or has been: a best-selling author; a screenwriter (Rules of Engagement, and another in the works); an Emmy-winning documentary producer; the author of a large number of articles and book reviews; an Annapolis graduate; a boxer (he lost a legendary and controversial championship match at Annapolis against Oliver North1 ); an autodidact who grew up a military man’s son and indifferent student but on his own became a passionate reader of history; a first lieutenant and Marine rifle platoon commander with Delta Company in Vietnam, where he won the Navy Cross for heroism (the second-highest award in the Navy and the Marines), the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts; a graduate of Georgetown Law School who then worked on the staff of the House Veterans Affairs Committee; a teacher of English literature at the Naval Academy; and an assistant secretary of defense and then secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. Webb resigned from that position after losing a long battle to block a reduction in the size of the Navy at a time when the Pentagon was under orders to cut its budget. In The Reagan Diaries, the former president wrote, “I don’t think Navy was sorry to see him go.”

Webb is a serious writer, not a politician who writes books on the side. His first book, Fields of Fire, published in 1978, when Webb was thirty-two, is a sweeping, unflinching novel about Vietnam featuring two of life’s losers who signed up for lack of anything else to do. It conveys with stark vividness, and also a touch of farce, the stench, the filth, the fear, and the bewildering unexpectedness of fighting an elusive enemy in a jungle. Fields of Fire has often been called the best book about Vietnam and likened to the war writing of Norman Mailer and Stephen Crane.

Webb’s identity as a writer is as important to him as his military record, if not more so. He writes about military subjects not just because he knows them (though his books can take him many years and numerous drafts) but also because he has something he wants to say. Fields of Fire, he told me recently, was “a revisionist novel,” written at a time when the American troops who fought in Vietnam had become targets for the anger against the war. Webb said that in his Vietnam novel, “people didn’t have to apologize for being there.” He added, “I had a forum and I had an obligation to people who served there to make their service understood.” In his new book, A Time to Fight, a collection of essays, part autobiographical and part about his thoughts on politics, he describes how, after John Kerry in 1971, upon his return from Vietnam, gave testimony before Congress that condemned American soldiers for acts of cruelty during the war, Webb refused to shake his hand for twenty years. To Webb, this was a matter of principle. (But he came around, and voted for Kerry for president in 2004.)

The outrage stirred in him by derision of the men who had served in Vietnam contributed to his reputation as an angry man, but other events led him to set his anger aside. “Then came 9/11 and I said, OK, we have to let it go and fix where the country is.” “In the Democratic caucus, people’s views on Vietnam are way to the left of me, but it doesn’t matter in how I approach other things anymore.”

The warrior in Webb came naturally; it was in his heritage. He shows this in his one book of nonfiction (before the current one), Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,2 which traces the history of this large but largely overlooked ethnic group who emigrated from Scotland to Northern Ireland and then

directly to the wilderness of the Appalachian Mountains, bypassing even the rudiments of colonial civilization…while also bringing a cultural regression in terms of education and social refinements.

These rural and blue-collar people, Webb writes in Born Fighting, have become “the greatest arbiters of American politics.” The “original Jacksonians” and strong backers of Franklin Roosevelt, they became “Reagan Democrats” when traditional Democrats ignored them and “the core culture around which Red State America has gathered and thrived.”

Webb’s fierce pride in his own people tells us a great deal about him. Though he grew up in different parts of the country, he identifies most closely with the people who live in the mountains and hollows of southwest Virginia, among whom he has countless relatives. His father came from there and he has a brother living there. Webb proudly describes his brother as “a real mountain man.” The Scots-Irish, he wrote, produced the nation’s warriors and its country music, and “the building blocks of America’s working classes.” Yet, he said, “no other group has been so denigrated, attacked, and even feared by America’s ever more interconnected ruling elites.”

Fighting for their country, Webb writes, gave the often poor and poorly educated Scots-Irish a measure of respect (just as the military academies offered them an otherwise unavailable decent education). They fought in every war in our history and Webb’s ancestors fought in each of them as well. One of his forebears crossed the Delaware with George Washington. Country music, sometimes known as “the white man’s blues,” he writes, grew out of a meld of the “Celtic lyrical and instrumental traditions” with the backcountry people’s isolation and deep Protestant religiosity, and was “a way for an increasingly illiterate population to share the teachings of a Bible that many could not read.” Other songs, he writes,

reflected life’s hard lessons, or the playful and even sly humor of a people who were on the one hand intensely religious but on the other unapologetically wild.

Moreover, he says, country music “has been almost alone in directly capturing the military experience.”

He has written a screenplay called “Whiskey River,” to be produced and directed by Rob Reiner and set in that region, about two generations of service members in which the son, returned from Iraq with PTSD, is called back to active duty before he has recovered; his father, determined to keep his son from risking his life in Iraq again, kidnaps him. Webb sought to find a way of writing about the soldiers in Iraq that wasn’t bathetic, and to make a movie about the war that people would want to watch. And he makes his people the good guys. Webb is disturbed by Hollywood’s lampooning of poor Southern whites, one of the few ethnic groups, he observes, that it’s still safe to make fun of. Though he has an aversion to the word “redneck,” in 2006, referring to his screenplay, Webb told a Washington Post reporter that too often the villains of movies had been “towelheads and rednecks—of which I am one.” He worriedly emphasized to the reporter that he was employing other people’s stereotypes.

Webb was a warrior-intellectual, interested, he writes in A Time to Fight, in “all the aspects of war”—as a defense analyst “consumed by the notions of military strategy” and “as a novelist and journalist covering the military and writing about wars and their societal impact.” After he was forced by serious injuries to leave Vietnam, he continued what he calls his “self-induced professional education,” concerning himself with the longer-term consequences of wars, as well as how to prevent them. “I began to think harder, in a different way, and I began to write,” Webb says in his new book. “The former boxer and infantry officer had learned how to fight with his brain.”

Webb didn’t shy from inviting controversy. In an article titled “Women Can’t Fight,” in The Washingtonian magazine in November 1979, he argued against the policy of allowing women into combat. He maintained that sexual tensions in such an intimate, twenty-four-hour environment could cause problems of discipline and morale, and put women at risk of mistreatment. Annapolis’s Bancroft Hall, a dormitory housing four thousand males and three hundred females, Webb wrote, characteristically, “is a horny woman’s dream.” He argued that women weren’t fit to lead men in battle. (Under pressure to expand the role of women in the navy, Webb, as naval secretary, opened thousands of new naval assignments to women, and his Senate campaign produced several servicewomen who came to his defense.) Webb also weighed in against the jury-selected design by American artist Maya Lin for the Vietnam Memorial. He felt that the proposed black marble slab incised with the names of Americans who died in Vietnam was “defeatist” and “too morose”—he called it “the black ditch of shame.” At his insistence, statues of three soldiers (also at his insistence one of them black) were placed beside the slab, marring, for many, the striking austerity of the monument.

Never fearing to be an iconoclast, Webb defends the Vietnam War as strategically necessary. His attachment to Vietnam remained strong: in 1991, he returned there and, he says, “tried to build bridges between the two countries.” He brought some Vietnamese to America, “largely those who suffered at the hands of the North Vietnamese after 1975.” (Webb thinks Americans haven’t paid enough attention to the suffering of South Vietnamese after the war: the thousands marched off to “re-education” camps, or the more than a million who fled by boat.) He started a small consulting business to advise American companies that were interested in doing business in Vietnam, and took them on trips there. When I jokingly asked Webb if this made him an international wheeler-dealer, à la Henry Kissinger, he laughed and replied, “It wasn’t very lucrative; we were a little early.” During his postwar dealings in Vietnam he met and years later married his current and third wife, Hong Le, now a lawyer in Washington. Webb speaks fluent Vietnamese.

Jim Webb’s route to becoming a Democratic senator from Virginia was circuitous, and his party affiliation has taken a meandering path. Like much of his family, he had been a Democrat. But he quit the party over Jimmy Carter’s grant of amnesty for those who had avoided the draft, and he supported Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush (and George Allen) in 2000. But as he was doing research for his book about the Scots-Irish, he developed an admiration for Andrew Jackson and realized that at heart he himself was a Jacksonian populist. Jackson’s working-class people were his own people as well. He also found himself becoming alienated from the Republican Party over the Iraq war and over the party’s rigid positions on social issues. (Webb supports abortion rights and civil unions, but he’s not a down-the-line liberal. Like his people in southern Virginia, he opposes gun control laws.)

Between 9/11 and Katrina I became so frustrated,” Webb told me. To him, the government’s mishandling of Katrina was another example of the poor being treated badly. As early as September 2002, Webb began speaking out, forcefully and presciently, against invading Iraq. In a September 4, 2002, Op-Ed in The Washington Post, he wrote, “Is there an absolutely vital national interest that should lead us from containment to unilateral war and a long-term occupation of Iraq?” (At that point, few people were envisioning an occupation.) He also asked: “Would such a war and its aftermath actually increase our ability to win the war against international terrorism?”

Webb had not expected to get involved in electoral politics. He prized his freedom and privacy as a writer. Further, he says, “When I left the Navy in 1988 I decided I didn’t want to do any more government.” So that year he turned down a Republican offer of support if he would run for the Senate against former Democratic governor Chuck Robb, and in 1994 he turned down another offer to run against Robb, then an incumbent senator, and instead supported Robb against Oliver North. Starting in the later 1990s, he also turned down several entreaties by Democrats to make a Senate run. When Webb entered the Senate race in February 2006—nine months before the election—it was described as a Quixotic adventure: he was late and he had virtually no money or staff. He was given little chance against Allen, who despite his limited intellect was considered a serious contender for the Republican presidential campaign in 2008.

Webb ran an unconventional campaign, going more with his intuition than with the advice of Democratic Party professionals, who at times despaired over him. He chose his own pacing and for a stretch in the summer evinced little interest in campaigning at all. He is not one to be guided by focus groups; he doesn’t play the angles. Like a boxer or a military man, Webb decides on his targets and charges straight at them. “We picked our themes and stuck with them,” he says. His three campaign themes were the war, the growing chasm between the wealthy and the working class, and the exceptionally high rate of incarceration in the US. Close victories (in this case by less than ten thousand votes) can be attributed to many factors, but the consensus was that Allen’s notorious “macaca moment”—his derisive references to an American-born young man of Indian descent in the crowd—made the key difference in the Virginia race. (As it happened, Allen made the comment in the rural mountain area of southwest Virginia—land teeming with Webb’s relatives—which Webb carried.) The result, which wasn’t known for two days after the election, gave the Democrats a one-vote margin in the Senate. Webb writes, “It’s pretty safe to say that I am the only person in the history of Virginia to be elected to statewide office with a union card, two Purple Hearts, and three tattoos.”

So Jim Webb arrived to the Senate with a reputation for being unpredictable, even a little weird, a little bit out of control, a little hotheaded. The sense in Washington that he was—well—different was enhanced by his famous first encounter with President Bush after the election, when at a November White House reception for newly elected members of Congress, Webb refused to shake Bush’s hand. Bush then sought Webb out and asked him about his son, who was serving in Iraq, “How’s your boy?” and Webb replied, “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President.” “That isn’t what I asked,” Bush snapped. “How’s your boy?” Webb responded, “That’s between me and my son, Mr. President.”

In A Time to Fight, he explains that what some criticized as impertinence was a result of his disgust over the nasty Republican campaign against him, which, he said, “fell into the predictable hog trough of Karl Rovian negativity.” Webb was particularly outraged by the Allen campaign’s attacks on his writing as “pornographic” and the work of a “pedophile.” As in the case with John Kerry, in not shaking Bush’s hand Webb was following his own code of honor. When Webb’s son returned from Iraq, he asked for a meeting of the two of them with Bush, and the matter was smoothed over. Webb was learning to soften his edges.

Webb early on showed in other ways as well that he was going to be a different kind of senator. When at the beginning of the new Congress, Majority Leader Harry Reid, having spent hours and hours on the intricate process of assigning committee seats, called Webb to tell him that he was being put on the Armed Services and Banking Committees—good assignments for a freshman—Webb replied that he wanted to serve on the Foreign Relations Committee instead of Banking. This just isn’t done; but though it scrambled Reid’s delicate arrangements, the leader went along. In fact, Reid considered Webb such a valuable new asset to the Democrats—a moderate with military credentials from a swing state—that he also took the unusual step of inviting the freshman to give the Democrats’ response to the President’s State of the Union address.

Webb tore up the draft supplied to him by the Democratic leadership staff and wrote his own speech. He gave the staff members fits by refusing to show them his version until shortly before the speech was to be given. In his speech, Webb went straight at Bush over the war in emotional and somewhat personal tones, pointing out that his father, he, his brother, and his son as well as other Americans had joined the military “because we love our country.” “We trusted the judgment of our national leaders”; “we owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it; but they owed us— sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare”; “the President took us into this war recklessly.” Webb omitted the usual laundry list of programs that makes these speeches so tedious (and that were in the staff’s draft). The speech was a huge success and affirmed Webb’s position as the new star on Capitol Hill.

When I was about to meet with Webb for the first time, in 2007, I expected to find someone who would be difficult to talk to, a little bit strange—someone with whom I had to be very careful not to put a foot wrong, lest I set off some land mine. What I found was completely surprising. Webb turned out to be an easy conversationalist with a low, gentle voice, a ready smile, and a sometimes very full laugh. During an hour-and-a-half-long conversation over sandwiches in his office, I kept waiting for him to be weird, but that never happened. Even Webb’s looks are surprising: on television his large, flat face, with its broad forehead, looks like a potato—pale and pasty. In person his complexion is ruddy—with piercing blue eyes that suggest a man who might in fact have a wild side, a man whom one doesn’t want to cross. Yet there is an air of almost preternatural calm about Webb, of a man who knows who he is. He is reserved; one gets the sense that he’s seen things he just doesn’t want to talk about. (This is a characteristic shared by other Vietnam veterans.)

From talks with his colleagues and others in and around the Senate, it became clear that his reputation belied the actual Webb. A senior Senate Democratic aide said, “He’s proven all that wrong.” Others described Webb in unusual terms, as applied to elected politicians: “polite” (I heard this several times), “shy,” “modest,” “a very nice person.” His close friend Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, also a Democratic freshman senator, told me, “The fact that Jim is so grounded separates him and makes him seem more complicated than he is. He’s not a complicated person.”

This different kind of senator doesn’t much share in the folk habits of the body he serves in. He’s not a back-slapper; he doesn’t engage in the touchy-feely behavior of most of his colleagues on the Senate floor, and, as McCaskill put it, he’s “not much of a schmoozer.” He knows that a certain amount of collegiality is necessary to being effective in the Senate, but he doesn’t go overboard. Webb is as plainspoken on the Senate floor as he is elsewhere; he observes the required courtesies, but his speech is unadorned with the flummery of much senatorial oratory.

Webb has dutifully behaved in the ways expected of a freshman: he attends his committee’s hearings and studies his briefing books; he is careful about picking his moments. As a student of history and an unaffected man, Webb has a sense of awe about the Senate itself; A Time to Fight opens with a lyrical description of the prosaic act of traveling from his office to the Senate floor.

Webb’s efforts at collegiality don’t prevent him from responding strongly to something he finds repugnant, such as when politicians, for political purposes, presume to speak for the soldiers fighting the war. So when on Meet the Press on July 15, 2007, Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, argued that when soldiers are reenlisting at high rates “they’re speaking…,” Webb jumped.

WEBB: You know, this is one thing I really—this is one thing I really take objection to…

GRAHAM: …the soldiers are speaking, my friend. Let them win.

WEBB: …is politicians who—at the…

GRAHAM: Let them win.

WEBB: Politicians who—may I speak?

GRAHAM: They want to win, let them win.

WEBB: Is politicians who try to put their political views into the mouths of the soldiers. You can look at poll after poll, and the political views of the United States military are no different than the country at large.

The two men went around and around about this for what seemed like a television eternity.

Webb has been unusually effective for a freshman senator. Part of his effectiveness, I’ve been told by other senators, is that he is one of the very few whom the others really listen to— because of both his credibility on military issues and his powerful intellect. Republican Chuck Hagel, who isn’t spendthrift with his praise of colleagues, says, “I think Jim Webb is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known. He has an ability to think through issues; not many here do.” Hagel and Webb have known each other for almost thirty years; along with John McCain they formed the first cohort of Vietnam veterans to serve as aides on Capitol Hill. Hagel continued:

He questions, he probes, he thinks through the consequences—we almost never do. We take an action—like going to war—without thinking. He listens. He’s not a blowhard; he’ll hang back and he’ll listen. He’s actually kind of shy, kind of quiet.

And then Hagel added, “He has courage. That’s a rare commodity in the business of politics.”

Recognizing the futility of Congress’s efforts to directly rein in the administration’s conduct of the Iraq war, Webb has concentrated on issues that indirectly affect it, and ones designed to actually help the troops—issues that he is sincere about but that also have great political appeal for the Democrats, whom Bush and other Republicans charge with failing “to support the troops.” On his first day in the Senate, Webb introduced a new GI Bill of Rights, to update a more than twenty-year-old version of the policy of providing educational benefits for veterans, and the bill gained strong broad bipartisan support. Hagel, who had served in the Veterans Administration, says, “There’s no one in the Senate who understands these veterans issues better than Jim. He goes deep down in—he can go toe-to-toe with anyone on it.”

Webb said on Meet the Press recently that he wanted veterans treated as “affirmative figures” rather than as “victims,” and that his GI Bill is one way to treat veterans affirmatively. One senator who, strangely, didn’t sign on to the bill was John McCain. Webb says that he approached McCain on the Senate floor three times to try to enlist his support. When a reporter relayed to Webb a statement by McCain that Webb’s staff had refused to discuss the proposal with his, Webb responded, “He’s so full of it,” and pointed out that he himself had phoned McCain’s top aide, Mark Salter, about it. When I asked him about this incident, Webb, not looking for fights with his colleagues, tried to downplay it. And then with no notice to Webb, McCain introduced a competing bill that was more modest and had administration support.

The Democratic leadership scheduled Senate debate on Webb’s GI Bill for late May as part of the supplemental appropriations bill for the Iraq war; having lost roughly forty votes to force a change in Iraq policy, to them this offered an opportunity to highlight a difference with Bush as well as to “do something for the troops.” Republicans in mid-May suddenly brought up McCain’s bill, in order to preempt Webb’s, but Webb and his allies were able to beat it back. The Senate passed Webb’s proposal on May 22 by a vote of 75–22. (McCain was not present.) Bush had threatened to veto it.

In 2007, Webb tried twice to force a change in the administration’s policy of sending troops on repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan (sometimes as many as five of them) with little time in between to retrain and to upgrade their equipment. Webb’s proposal would have required that troops spend the same amount of time at home as they do in battle, but both times his effort fell slightly short of the sixty votes needed to break a filibuster. Webb worries about the fact that young men and women are now frequently thrown into battle without proper training. “You can’t use people like this; we have an obligation to use our troops properly,” he says.

Bush, as usual, complained that Congress was trying to “micromanage,” to meddle with the president’s prerogatives as commander in chief. (In fact, there had been a precedent for requiring a certain amount of training during the Korean War.) After being on the defensive by opposing Webb’s bill, the administration, with a big fuss, announced irrelevantly that it would reduce the length of deployment from fifteen months to twelve—with the rather large exception that this would not be applied to the soldiers already in the field.

In their first year in the Senate, Webb and McCaskill won Senate approval for a Wartime Contracting Commission—along the lines of the Truman Commission set up to investigate corruption during World War II —to look into the contracting scandals of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was an unusual achievement for two freshman senators. Passed by the House, it is about to be set up.

Webb’s name often comes up in the speculation about whom Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama will pick as his running mate. Webb follows form in saying he is reluctant to talk about such a thing. But he appears to be not without interest. The timing and subject matter of his latest book do not seem to be happenstance. And to a number of people the idea of an Obama-Webb ticket makes a lot of sense: an African-American (actually of mixed race) and a man of Scots-Irish working-class descent; a war hero who can stand up to anyone on military expertise and patriotism. In fact, in his writings, as well as in his new book, Webb has argued that a combination of blacks and the Scots-Irish working class could form an electoral majority. He argues that they have similar grievances: lack of adequate education and health care, job training and job opportunities; and that both have been put upon or neglected by the elites. To him, the basic issue is more one of class than of race.

Webb’s roots lie in exactly the area in which Obama has shown his greatest weakness so far—in the Appalachian region. Though both are freshman senators, Webb combines substantial government service with close knowledge of the military and the world. One drawback is Webb’s inexperienced staff, which may not be up to the challenges he faces. (Politicians are in part judged by the press and others on the quality of their staffs; word gets around, and the effects usually show.)

Like Obama, Webb offers a fresh approach to politics and stirs an excitement that would provide the ticket with more pizzazz than would some of the more conventional figures whose names are in play. (The thinking of some of Obama’s advisers and members of the press reflects the old politics of selecting a running mate by geography, or to appease a particular group—which is not the politics Obama has represented in his campaign.) Anyway, picking a male “surrogate” of Clinton, as some suggest, won’t appease the women who are insisting that she be on the ticket. For all the recent talk about selecting Clinton herself, this wouldn’t be consistent with Obama’s concept of change, and could present all sorts of complications, especially when it comes to governing. Obama hasn’t tipped his hand, but it’s quite possible that even if Jim Webb isn’t chosen for the Democratic ticket this time around, the country will be hearing more of him in the future.

—May 28, 2008

  1. 1

    North and Webb were rivals at Annapolis. See Robert Timberg, The Nightingale’s Song (Touchstone, 1996), pp. 73–76.

  2. 2

    Broadway Books, 2004.

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