The honorable gentleman from Virginia wants me to know that he is not an angry man. Intense, yes, but not angry.
"I believe anger is a wasted emotion," Senator James Webb tells me, "and I don't like to waste emotions."
Webb, 62, is determined to set the record straight after I described him as angry in an otherwise flattering portrait of him in 'Boom!,' my recent book about the '60s. I wasn't the first. In almost every press account of his upset election to the U.S. Senate in 2006, he's portrayed in some form as the angry man, shorthand for his pugnacious style and strong opinions about politics as usual. He also has the physique of a recently retired drill sergeant.
Okay. I concede the point. He is intense – very, very intense.
Webb has intrigued me since our first meeting 30 years ago, when he was promoting his novel 'Fields of Fire,' widely regarded as a classic of combat and the culture of the Vietnam War. We reunited in early 2006, when I spent a week with him and his third wife, Hong Le, in Vietnam, gathering material for 'Boom!.' We walked his battle sites, rode pedicabs through Ho Chi Minh City, drank lethal sake margaritas, and toured the notorious Hanoi Hilton, where John McCain began his five and a half miserable years as a POW. At the time, Webb was deciding whether to take on George Allen, the popular Republican senator from Virginia, who supported the war in Iraq that Webb opposed. It seemed a quixotic venture, and the conventional wisdom held that Webb would lose, big. I returned from our week together convinced he could win.
He did win, of course, if barely, and he wasn't in the Senate a month when he was tapped to give the Democratic response to President Bush's 2007 State of the Union address. That was the night old-line Capitol Hill Democrats – Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi – realized they had a new star in their midst. Webb wrote the speech himself, showed pictures of his father, a career air force officer, and described his family's long history of military service, including his son's 2006–2007 tour in Iraq as a marine. Webb looked sternly into the camera and delivered his most devastating line about the politicians who sent his family into harm's way. "We owed them our loyalty," he said. "They owed us sound judgment."
The political blogosphere lit up instantly, touting Webb as a candidate for vice president. Here was just what the Democrats needed: a man with a first-rate mind, three tattoos, a handgun license, a pouch of chewing tobacco in his pocket, and a chest full of medals, including two Purple Hearts. His veep prospects have only improved, but when I raised the issue this spring over lunch in his crowded office in the Russell Senate building, Webb, who likes Barack Obama, dismissed the inquiry with a metaphorical wave of the hand. "I can do more good where I am," he said. But is he interested? I expected a flat "No," but instead Webb offered the closest thing to a hedge he'd ever given me: "Not particularly," he said.