Webb believes the party is making progress. He admired how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stepped up on Webb's signature piece of legislation, a new GI bill of rights for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Webb was working on a draft even before he was sworn in, drawing on experience as a House staffer. The bill, which offers substantial education and other benefits for vets who've served at least one enlistment term, gained momentum steadily despite criticism from Senator John McCain and veto threats from President Bush.
This spring Reid rounded up 75 votes, including 24 Republicans, to make the bill veto-proof. McCain remained opposed, arguing it would discourage people from staying in the service; Webb responded by calling the Republican nominee for president "full of it," insisting the new GI bill would have the opposite effect. "Look," he told me, "in the army and Marine Corps, troops are being sent back to Iraq and Afghanistan with too little time between deployments, so they're getting out; 70 to 75 percent are leaving at the end of their first enlistment. We can't sustain a combat-ready force with that kind of turnover. This bill will greatly broaden our recruiting base."
For Webb the strain on U.S. fighting units is just one disastrous consequence of the president's judgment to go to war in Iraq. Webb opposed the decision from the beginning; in September 2002 he wrote an op-ed for the 'Washington Post' called "Heading for Trouble: Do We Really Want to Occupy Iraq for the Next Thirty Years?"
Nonetheless, Webb's son, Jimmy, dropped out of Penn State and, following family tradition, enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was in Iraq as Webb was waging his unconventional and unlikely but successful campaign against incumbent George Allen.
Dad wore his son's combat boots and drove from appearance to appearance accompanied by marine buddies from Vietnam. In a now well-known incident after he won his Senate seat, Webb had a verbal chest-bumping encounter with President Bush at the White House. Bush asked, "How's your boy?" Webb responded by saying that it was time to bring the troops home. When the president repeated his question, Webb said, "That's between me and my boy." After Jimmy returned home safely – "Marine back safely inside the wire," he had e-mailed me – Webb quietly arranged a private Oval Office meeting with Bush.
"I didn't want any press," he said. "I just wanted to bury the hatchet. I told the White House staff, ‘Let's just say we both had a bad day,' and the president was very gracious." As for Iraq, Webb remains a critic. The decision to go to war, he believes, was more than a bad day. In 'A Time to Fight' he offers a scathing review of the administration's blunders on Iraq in a chapter called "How Not to Fight a War," and ticks off the consequences – from the cost in blood, to the strain on the military, to the absence of a coherent grand strategy for dealing with a world in which China is an ever larger political and economic threat and Iran is the real rogue.
Friends think that range of thinking, along with his style, makes him a natural running mate for Obama. Former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, another Vietnam hero, says simply, "Webb would be great in southeast Ohio, Pennsylvania, upper Michigan: a vet and a gun guy."