James Webb: Born Fighting

Mj 618_348_sen james webb born fighting
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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.

Until he became a Senator, Webb was best known as a warrior, a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who went to Vietnam a year later as a Marine lieutenant. For nine months he faced combat almost daily in the killing fields of the An Hoa Valley, before injuries forced him from the front lines. He has studied law, become an acclaimed author, even won an Emmy for his reporting from Beirut for PBS in 1983, but it’s the Vietnam experience that informs Webb to this day. A fierce defender of those who fought in that war, he believes the cause was just, if horribly mismanaged. As for his own life, he says, “You never really leave the battlefield; I was older at 24 than I am today.”

Rare for a man who expected to be a military lifer, Webb has published eight books, fiction and non-. His literary career is so important to him that he maintains a separate writing office across the river from Capitol Hill. His latest book, ‘A Time to Fight,’ is a challenge to his fellow Democrats to return to (or at least honor) the working class, to focus on fairness, and to correct economic injustice. The book grew out of his frustration during his first year in the Senate. “[Liberals] leave the room if a fight breaks out,” he e-mailed me in the early going.

To his friends, Webb has always been a complex man with many interests, with a formidable intellect that’s always locked and loaded. One of his closest friends in the Senate, Jon Tester, the organic farmer with the flat-top haircut and a waistline to match the Big Sky of his home state of Montana, says with a chuckle that Webb is always prepared with facts and figures. “We were in Kuwait together,” Tester remembers, “and an embassy officer was giving us a standard briefing on the area when Webb cut him off and proceeded to lecture him on the real facts of the Middle East and Iraq.”

If he did wind up on the Democratic ticket as Obama’s running mate, Webb could claim many constituencies. As military offspring he attended nine schools between fifth and 10th grades, living in Alabama, Missouri, Texas, California, and Nebraska. His neighborhoods and classmates comprised a melting pot of ethnicities in one big blue state and a mix of red states, a natural complement to his hardscrabble family roots.

As a boy Webb became fascinated with Asia after he got hooked on James Michener. He still remembers spending his grocery delivery tips on a mango so he could taste the exotica he knew only from books.

Yet his days and nights in Vietnam were not starry-eyed versions of some enchanted evening. On that January 2006 trip there, we made our way to an abandoned airstrip that was once the resupply artery for a sprawling marine base. Webb looked to the now peaceful hills thick with jungle canopy and said, “I love this place. I also hate it.”

We talked about the day his radioman, Mike “Mac” McGarvey, a close friend, lost an arm to a land mine. As Webb rushed to his side, tears in his eyes, Mac said to him, “Knock that shit off, lieutenant. It’s just an arm.”

No Swift Boater could challenge Webb’s own heroics in Vietnam. He won the Silver Star for rescuing wounded marines in a clearing directly in the line of enemy fire. Less than three months later he was leading a patrol deep in enemy territory when they discovered a camouflaged bunker. In a fury of grenades and gunshots, Webb captured three enemy soldiers, wounded two others, shielded one of his men from an explosion, and, though wounded, crawled into one of the bunkers to recover valuable intelligence documents. He was awarded the Navy Cross.

Our trip was his 15th visit to the country, part of a continuing journey of personal discovery and determination to heal old wounds opened by a primal fight between the country he loves and the one in which he fought. “I just like the people and the culture of Southeast Asia,” he told me. “And I think we should be paying much more attention to them in our foreign policy. People forget that the largest Muslim populations in the world are in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia.”

Webb’s wife Hong accompanied us on our tour. She was the seven-year-old daughter of a South Vietnamese fisherman when her family fled ahead of the communist takeover. They landed in New Orleans, where Hong grew up working in fish processing plants and starring in the classroom. She went to the University of Michigan and then to Cornell Law School. Now a prominent securities lawyer in the D.C. area, she’s a striking beauty with a quick sense of humor. Hong lingered behind in one village on our trip, while Webb and I chatted up some local workers a few hundred yards away. When we returned for her, we found her laughing; she told us the village women warned her that we were Americans and would try to kidnap her.

Fights have always mattered in Jim Webb’s life. In a way, combativeness is genetic for the red-haired, pug-nosed, literary-minded senator. Under another chest-thumping title, ‘Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,’ he wrote about famous and obscure American immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, including family members. As he has with most of his books, Webb drew heavily on his own family’s history in ‘Born Fighting,’ and he does again in ‘A Time to Fight.’

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.

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.”

For now, Webb is happier than he expected to be in the Senate, because he believes the Democrats are finally getting a backbone. He sits with other like-minded freshmen – Tester, McCaskill, Sherrod Brown of Ohio – in what Webb calls “the redneck caucus, people who want to change things from the bottom up.”

For the bad days, he has other companions he counts on: family members who, Webb says, have always been there, sitting on his shoulder. He calls them the truth tellers. One is his father, the Santini figure who had an air force officer’s career without a college education but who never stopped trying to get a degree. After 26 years of night school and part-time courses squeezed into the demanding schedule of long military deployments, Colonel Webb graduated from the University of Omaha in 1962. When he stepped off the stage at the graduation ceremony, Webb remembers, the old pilot walked over to his son, pushed the diploma in his face, and said, “You can get anything you want in this country, and don’t you forget it.”

Then there’s Uncle Tommy. The toughest of his father’s brothers, a man Webb describes as a born leader who always stood on his own two feet, Tommy was complicated, largely uneducated, but a whiz at all things electrical and mechanical. Webb pays him what he calls “his ultimate compliment”: “He would have made a hell of a marine.”

To this day, when confronted by what he calls a crisis of honor, Webb is guided by a talk he had with Uncle Tommy as a teenager.

“I had a chance to ask him what he was proudest of in all the things he had done in his life,” Webb writes in  ’A Time to Fight.’ Tommy didn’t hesitate: “I’ve never kissed the ass of any man.”

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