tom brokaw james webb interview
Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images

His mother grew up in hard times in rural Arkansas, picking cotton and strawberries and cutting firewood, eating feed-corn gruel, and sleeping on corn-shuck mattresses. His father, the first in his family to finish high school, came from a long line of laborers who made their home in Appalachia. James Henry Webb joined the U.S. Air Force and served in World War II. He retired as Vietnam was heating up and shared with his son his reservations about that war after witnessing firsthand the arrogance of civilian planners in Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's Pentagon.

Webb calls his father his greatest hero, allowing for the excesses that came with what the senator refers to as his "Great Santini" ways.

"My father was rough, loud, self-made, frequently drinking too much, and always full of impossible challenges," he says.

Webb was taught to box by his dad at the age of six by pummeling his old man's outstretched hand, instilling in him an instinct to fight that went much deeper than trying to answer a father's taunt to hit a little harder. A passage in 'A Time to Fight' suggests little slack in the Webb household: "On Saturday mornings he would inspect our rooms, making us stand…at parade rest, coming to attention when he walked into the room."

Webb remembers saying quietly, with exasperation, "Dad."

His father would respond, "Shut up. You're a corporal."

Little Jimmy Webb is no longer a corporal; instead he is arguably the most intriguing freshman to enter the Senate chamber since his role model, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, did in 1976. Another close friend in the Senate, freshman Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, says, "Jim is a unique and weird combination of street brawler and professor. He's probably as smart or smarter than most folks around here.… He knows when to go for the kill."

Webb wants to reshape the Democratic Party according to the Moynihan mold, and to raise again the legacy of Andrew Jackson and other party populists. He is especially unhappy that Democrats let the Karl Rove Republicans hijack faith and traditional values without a fight. Metaphorically, at least, he's still ready to rumble. In his new book Webb describes walking into the Senate chamber: "This is the ring. The American people can see us here, and listen to our arguments. This is where the fights matter."

For Webb, the fights that matter the most are those for the values and concerns of the rural working class and Main Street America. In  A Time to Fight he writes bluntly that "an uncaring amorality has seized much of America's business community." He calls it "class warfare from the top down to pretend that inequities don't matter," pointing out that 40 years ago the average CEO made 20 times the salary of the average worker.

"Today," he writes, "that multiple is more than four hundred," adding, in a note to the executive suites of America: "Folks, you're good, but you're not that good."

Here's another Webb observation you haven't heard from a prominent Democrat in a long time: "If a minister can lead the Senate in prayer every day…what is so wrong with beginning every day of school with an ecumenical prayer?"

Webb argues that affirmative action was designed as a partial remedy for the terrible penalties of slavery and the government-imposed restrictions on African-Americans that followed. But since it has been extended to all ethnic minorities, shouldn't poor white students from disadvantaged homes get equal opportunity as well?

He bristles at any suggestion that he's simply pro-white. In 'A Time to Fight' he describes how his experiences in a racially integrated military made the racism of the outside world all the more glaring to him. When the statue of a squad of fighting men was added to the Vietnam memorial, Webb insisted that one of the soldiers be African-American. It bothers him that the Democratic Party has never fully recovered from the hostile attitude of the counterculture toward armed services in the 1960s. "It will take measurable, affirmative leadership for the Democratic Party to fully regain the respect of those who have worn the uniform," he writes, challenging himself in the process.