News & Politics

Webb’s War

The former Marine likes a good fight. But will combat boots get him to the Senate?

From the balcony of his Rosslyn condo, Jim Webb can see the landmarks of his Washington life: the Capitol, where he battled Jimmy Carter’s Vietnam amnesty plan as a Republican Hill staffer; the Pentagon, his base for a contentious stint as Ronald Reagan’s Navy secretary; Arlington National Cemetery, where his father, a military man, lies buried not far from the grave of a squad leader who died under Webb’s command in Vietnam; and the Iwo Jima monument, right below his apartment, sacred ground for the former Marine infantry leader.

Webb bought the condo, which he uses primarily as an office, after he stormed away from the Reagan administration in 1988.

Since leaving the Pentagon, he’s mainly worked as a writer and dismissed pleas for him to run for office. In 1988 and 1994, it was the Republicans who wanted him to run. In 1996, the head of the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee, Bob Kerrey—like Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran with an independent streak—tried to interest him in taking on Senator John Warner.

Each time Webb said no.

Last summer, Kerrey, no longer in the Senate but still a friend, was egging him on again. Webb, who had counseled against invading Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, was increasingly angry over what he saw as Washington’s failed leadership.

Kerrey phoned a political strategist, Steve Jarding, who had helped him win his first Senate race. Jarding, who was teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School, had managed Mark Warner’s successful 2001 run for Virginia governor.

“Kerrey does not gush praise easily,” Jarding says. “He said, ‘I want you to go talk to this guy, Jim Webb. Guys like this come along once in a generation, and for my generation, this is the one who I believe could change the world.’ ”

The more they talked, the more Jarding thought Webb might be able to pull it off—as a former Republican with a war-hero halo, he could open up doors, bring voters back to the Democrats, give incumbent George Allen a run for his money. As an outdoorsman who embraced the pro-gun cause, Webb could reach out to the NASCAR dads, with whom Jarding had connected during Mark Warner’s campaign.

Webb also had a reputation for fearlessness. No way he’d be intimidated by Allen.

At one point during several months of conversations, Jarding recalls, Webb asked about the chances of beating Allen. “Is it 50 percent?”

“No, it’s not,” said Jarding; it might be only a one-in-six shot.

“Okay,” Webb said, “I’ll take those odds.”

Webb didn’t jump into the Senate race until the end of February, late for a newcomer. By then, it was clear that his movie script, Whiskey River, which would have earned him $1.25 million for a film Rob Reiner had agreed to direct, was going nowhere.

Webb denies that his delayed Hollywood deal was behind the late decision to run for the Senate, as one of his campaign advisers indicated. Webb says the film project could have continued and he could have run a campaign at the same time. In any case, Whiskey River ran dry about the time he signed candidate papers in February, and Democratic leaders have been heavily promoting his candidacy ever since.

For the past 18 years, Webb has made a good living writing and talking. A financial-disclosure statement filed this spring put his net worth at more than $2 million. He says he’s “busted my ass”—writing novels and a screenplay. A 1999 bestseller, The Emperor’s General, brought in a reported $2.5 million in book and film rights. Last year his book royalties, speaking fees, and screenwriting helped earn him more than $225,000. Still, he says, “I’m not a wealthy guy,” and he laughs at George Allen calling him “a rich Hollywood producer.”

He’s smart and tough, and he can write and talk. But is he cut out for politics? One school of thought says he’s been waiting for this opportunity all his life. But he’s no natural pol. He’s not good at gladhanding. Beyond his passion for national security, he’s been slow to learn the issues. Fundraising remains his biggest problem.

Allen, meantime, is running two campaigns, for reelection to the Senate and for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Toppling Allen not only would bring Democrats closer to their goal of a Senate majority; it would wipe one of the GOP’s top conservative prospects off the board.

In a rare move, the Democratic senatorial committee abandoned its neutrality and backed Webb over a longtime party activist in the June primary. “If you had to construct a candidate who would be a great opponent to Allen, it would be Jim Webb,” said Senator Charles Schumer, the committee chair. “He’s genuine.”

Virginia promises to be one of the nation’s most closely watched Senate contests next month. Playing out in Virginia are the overarching themes of the midterm election: Iraq and President Bush’s impact on his party’s candidates.

Allen voted for the war resolution and has loyally echoed the administration line. Leaving Iraq anytime soon, he says, would hand a victory to “the terrorists.”

Webb was among the war’s first critics. “Heading for Trouble,” his Washington Post op-ed warned in September 2002. Were Bush to invade, American soldiers “would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets.”

From the antiwar side, Webb has been right much longer than most. “President Bush,” he once argued, has “embarked on his own voyage into the Persian Gulf, that Bermuda Triangle of presidencies.” An offensive strike, he wrote, would “open up a Pandora’s box.”

The year was 1990, and the president was George W. Bush’s father.

After he agreed to run against Allen, his antiwar views were all the online activists and antiwar liberals needed. But Webb is an unlikely action hero for Democrats. If rising antiwar sentiment is a sign that Democrats are reverting to their McGovernite past, he doesn’t fit the trend. “I wouldn’t have voted for him if you put a gun to my head,” Webb said six years ago.

Actually, Webb isn’t really an antiwar candidate. He is opposed to setting a date for a US withdrawal from Iraq. In many ways, he is a peacenik’s worst nightmare. His writings, and his activism, celebrate militarism and the warrior culture. When he quit in protest as Navy secretary, after 11 months in the job, the immediate cause was the refusal of his superiors in the Reagan administration to spend more on military hardware.

As a senator, Webb would easily fall in with his friends, Republican senators John McCain and Chuck Hagel, though they wouldn’t march in lockstep. All three are prominent Vietnam veterans with maverick styles.

For more than three decades, he has been a warrior in the culture conflicts growing out of the ’60s. His targets have included feminists, Hollywood, academic elites, the news media, and countless politicians, mostly Democrats.

His Web site,, showcases many of his longstanding concerns, from the China threat to political correctness, as well as tributes to the heroes of the Confederacy and his Scottish-Irish ancestry.

“Secret GOP Weapon,” his 2004 Wall Street Journal opinion-page article, contains the seeds of his populist campaign message. Webb argued that “the greatest realignment in modern politics would take place rather quickly if the right national leader found a way to bring the Scots-Irish and African Americans to the same table.”

Asked in an interview if he was the person to do that, he replies, “I think if people will relax and listen to me, I think I am.”

Combativeness is in Webb’s DNA. He traces his aggressiveness to heritage, a theory spun at length in his quasi-autobiographical 2004 book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America.

“Born Fighting” is also his campaign slogan, to the unease of some Democrats who think the last thing voters want is more fighting. Webb promises to “raise hell” if Virginia sends him to the Senate.

He paints the Scots-Irish as America’s samurai, the men who have borne the brunt of fighting the nation’s wars. Webb traces his own warrior bloodline to the Revolutionary War, and during a recent campaign visit to southwest Virginia took time out to show his wife and her daughter the grave of his great-great-grandfather, whose Confederate headstone Webb obtained from the Veterans Administration.

Tales of his forebears, once told by his grandmother, are being passed through Webb to his nine-year-old stepdaughter, Emily. “She loves the stories,” says Hong Le Webb, his third wife, who is expecting the couple’s first child in December. A corporate lawyer in the DC office of a Detroit firm, she was seven when her family fled Vietnam as boat people in 1975, right after Saigon fell. Fished from the water by a US Navy ship and eventually sent to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, she grew up in New Orleans and got to know Webb in the mid-1990s.

Webb has been active in humanitarian ventures involving former US allies in South Vietnam. He speaks Vietnamese and often travels to Asia. His wife praises his efforts to help veterans from South Vietnam’s army who fought alongside US forces get veterans benefits in this country. “He’s adopted the Vietnamese community over the years, and they love him,” she says.

Brought up as an Air Force brat, Webb has settled in Northern Virginia. He lives in a comfortable house on Lake Barcroft in Falls Church, about a mile from the home of his second wife, the mother of their three grown children, ages 21 to 24.

Webb’s father shuttled the family from base to base at least a dozen times before Jim left for college, first to the University of Southern California and a year later the Naval Academy. And his adjustment to new surroundings was often violent. In an unpublished chapter of his book, Webb biographer Robert Timberg tells the story of Jimmy, then eight, on his first day of school at an air base in England. After being taunted and hit with sticks by British kids, Webb grabbed a long cooking fork from his mother’s kitchen and stuck it in the back of one of his new schoolmates.

From an early age, Webb channeled his aggressiveness into boxing. A 1967 Naval Academy championship match with classmate Ollie North—which North won on points—became the stuff of legend after both went on to different sorts of fame.

Sent into combat as a second lieutenant in March 1969, Webb returned a year later, having commanded 170 men as a first lieutenant, earning the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, and other decorations, including two Purple Hearts. Webb still carries shrapnel in his body and walks with a limp as a result of wounds that forced him to retire from active duty.

He entered Georgetown law school in 1972 and was quickly alienated by his antiwar classmates. He turned to writing and discovered that putting his wartime experiences into words was cathartic. The result was a searing rendition of what he’d gone through in the An Hoa basin west of Da Nang. The book, Fields of Fire, won instant critical acclaim. Almost a quarter century after it was published in 1978, author Tom Wolfe praised it as “the finest of the Vietnam novels.”

“I’m a combative person, I know I am, and the greatest thing about law school was I learned to fight with my brain,” Webb told Timberg. “I clarified something to myself. No matter how much you want to live in the white man’s world, you either live by what you believe in or you die.”

Ever since, webb has cast himself as a defender of traditional values. In the 2000 Senate race, he endorsed former Republican governor George Allen’s challenge to incumbent Democrat Chuck Robb. Six years earlier, Webb had backed Robb over Republican Ollie North.

Why did he abandon Robb in 2000? With a shot at Bill Clinton for running “the most corrupt administration in modern history,” Webb said that Robb had failed to exercise his constitutional responsibility to act as a check on the executive and instead had “become part of the problem” in Washington.

Six years later, he explains his challenge to Allen in similar terms. “We really need to get back to a time when the members of Congress will stand up to an administration that is abusing its constitutional privileges,” he has said.

Webb also has explained this year that his criticism of Clinton—a ’60s draft avoider whose differences with the military were well known—was “more personal, because of a lot of anger that’s related to the Vietnam War.” That anger, he added, “really fell to the wayside when we look at what happened in this country after 9/11.”

That morning, Webb was having breakfast at the Pentagon with General Jim Jones, commandant of the Marine Corps, in Jones’s private dining room and getting ready to sign copies of his new thriller, Lost Soldiers, at the Pentagon bookstore. An aide interrupted with word that the World Trade Center had been attacked.

Webb declined the general’s offer to watch the developments on CNN and was driving back to his Rossyln condo when he heard a loud bang as the American Airlines Boeing 757 crashed into the Pentagon. For the next week, from his balcony, he watched the building burn.

“Go after the people who are doing this and eliminate them,” Webb told a Virginia Beach naval symposium the following month. “Kill them on your terms, not theirs.” Recalling the Vietcong’s successful use of assassination squads in South Vietnam, he said that anyone conducting or supporting Islamic terrorism should be “fair game” for the United States.

But he also said the US military lacked the resources to occupy large pieces of territory overseas. Raising a warning—the same one, he says, that caused him trouble a decade earlier when he came out against the first Gulf War—Webb declared: “I do not think we had, nor have, the resources to occupy Iraq. If you think we have problems in Israel, try putting a Judeo-Christian military system in the cradle of Muslim culture. . . . That is not a winnable situation.”

That was October 2001. Webb visited Senator Allen’s office the following fall and urged him, without success, to oppose Bush’s push for war. The next time the senator heard from Webb, three years had passed, and his former supporter was calling to let him know he was taking him on.

“I left the Democratic Party basically on issues of national security during the end of the Vietnam War,” Webb says. He says that after 9/11 “an extremist fringe took over the Republican Party on issues of foreign policy,” causing him to go back to being a Democrat.

Former adversaries have welcomed him. Senator John Kerry, the party’s 2004 presidential nominee, whose hand Webb had refused to shake for two decades because of Kerry’s leadership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, politicked with him in Northern Virginia during the primary. And former president Clinton has agreed to be the draw at a potential Webb fundraising event this month at the McLean home of former senator Chuck Robb.

Webb guards his privacy, doesn’t make friends easily, and says one of his favorite ways to unwind is to spend two hours walking the hills of Arlington National Cemetery. Thickly muscled, with curly, reddish-brown hair cropped short, he’s a youthful-looking 60. He no longer runs much because of the war injury to his leg, but he works out with weights and still hits the heavy bag from time to time.

He can be oddly formal, as Timberg found during more than 50 book interviews over two-plus years, when he always addressed his fellow Marine veteran and Naval Academy alumnus as “Mr. Secretary.” Webb never said, “Call me Jim.”

Those who knew him at the Pentagon remember him as a stickler for detail. Webb says when he became Navy secretary, he began noticing something strange in the photographs of admirals he routinely received as part of the military promotion process: About a quarter of them were wearing their ribbons in the wrong order. Using a felt-tip pen, he’d circle the ribbons and send the photo back to the miscreant. Should an admiral walk into his Pentagon office with ribbons out of order, Webb would tell him.

The day after he quit as Navy secretary, Webb summed himself up this way: “It’s no secret that I’m not a person who wears a bridle well.”

In his commentaries, Webb sometimes displays a fondness for historical name-calling. Condemning the administration’s national-security policy, he assails Bush for buying the neoconservative line and trying to “export our ideology at the point of a gun,” which he calls an “essentially Trotskyite notion.”

His broadside six years ago against government diversity programs on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page blames “Jacobins” for turning affirmative action into “state-sponsored racism” against whites.

A number of black state legislators attacked him over the issue in the primary, accusing him of racial insensitivity. How the issue will play out in the November election is less clear, especially after Allen raised questions about his own attitudes when he used a racial slur, “macaca,” to taunt an Indian-American volunteer for Webb.

Democratic state senator Benjamin Lambert III of Richmond, one of those who opposed Webb in the primary, said “Webb doesn’t have the very best reputation” among blacks because of his Reagan-administration service and views on affirmative action. In mid-September, Lambert decided to endorse Allen.

Webb has also drawn campaign flak because of his hostility toward women in the military. In 1979, he wrote “Women Can’t Fight” for The Washingtonian, questioning the role of women at the Naval Academy, which had admitted its first female midshipmen three years earlier.

The article aired themes that Webb has returned to over the years—that the “military has become a politician’s toy.”

Bancroft Hall, “which houses 4,000 males and 300 females, is a horny woman’s dream,” wrote Webb, who had been a writer in residence at the academy and interviewed dozens of female middies for the piece. “I have never met a woman,” he concluded, “whom I would trust to provide those men with combat leadership.”

The resulting firestorm, followed by Webb’s informal banishment from the academy campus for several years, has never completely died out.

“ ‘Women Can’t Fight’ has been the single greatest purveyor of degradation and humiliation on the basis of gender that academy women have had to endure,” Paul E. Roush, a retired Marine colonel, wrote in 1997. One of Webb’s sharpest critics and, at the time, a professor at the Naval Academy, Roush said that Webb’s appeals to the “politics of resentment” had fostered cynicism toward the military.

Webb has tried to put the controversy behind him and said last fall that the integration of women into the armed services seems to be working well. He says that he opened up more jobs to women than any other Navy secretary and ordered a crackdown on sexual harassment in the service.

But critics have countered that he returned to many of the same topics after leaving the Pentagon. In the Democratic primary, retired lieutenant general Claudia Kennedy, the Army’s first female three-star general, endorsed Webb’s opponent, telecommunications lobbyist Harris Miller, and criticized Webb’s “troubling record” of opposing women in the military.

“Cowboy boots versus combat boots” is journalistic shorthand for the Allen-Webb matchup. The 54-year-old senator has sported cowboy boots ever since winning his first race for the Virginia House of Delegates in 1982. Webb wears desert-sand-colored combat boots on the campaign trail, even when he puts on a business suit. They’re hand-me-downs from his only son, Jim, a 24-year-old enlisted Marine who deployed to Iraq last month.

Webb tells a story about the time he saw a prototype for those boots. “It’s kind of funny, because the first model of these were not that good,” he says, recalling another breakfast with General Jones and a group of Marine generals. “It was heavier, and it didn’t have any drain holes in it. And of course, I’m standing there going, ‘Hey, guys, there’s no drain holes in that,’ ” to aerate a soldier’s feet. The generals laughed at Webb once again being Webb: “ ‘Ho, ho, ho, his mind’s still back in Vietnam,’ ” he says. But later models, Webb adds with satisfaction, included air holes.

In The Nightingale’s Song, his 1995 classic study of the Vietnam War’s enduring impact on America, Timberg paints an admiring portrait of Webb as a natural leader who feels a lifelong duty to protect the men who served with him, individually and figuratively. But he quotes an unnamed Marine who worked with Webb at the Pentagon as saying that Webb “was frozen in time as a Marine in Vietnam and he saw the whole world through those glasses.”

On the battlefield of politics, dollars—rather than bullets—are the ammunition, and Webb’s campaign is weakly armed. He won the primary despite being outspent three-to-one, but voter turnout was a pathetic 3.5 percent, a clue that his candidacy didn’t blow anybody away.

Webb figures to be outspent better than two-to-one by Allen. “It’s very hard in my culture to ask people for money for yourself,” explains Webb, who makes the startling confession that despite having written about the corrosive impact of money in government, “the biggest surprise to me running for office is how much money dominates the American political process.”

In vietnam, he bravely led a unit in combat. But Webb has never tried to rally hundreds of thousands of strangers, many of whom have never heard his name, to come out for him at the polls.

Webb is a hunter and a fisherman, but he’s no good ol’ boy. He seems ill at ease as a campaigner and can be an uninspiring speaker. When he showed up for a luncheon speech at a Kiwanis Club recently, he didn’t bother to work the room, taking his place at the head table instead of mingling with members of the audience. He also seems incapable of “sound-biting-it,” in the words of Ross Perot, another Naval Academy grad who made his way into politics. Webb’s response to questions he’d rather not answer is often a terse “no comment.”

Northern Virginia, which casts one-third of the statewide vote, will be crucial. Tim Kaine’s strong showing in the Washington suburbs keyed his victory last year, thanks in no small part to the newcomers who are increasingly turning the area Democratic blue. Aware that some 300,000 new residents have moved into Northern Virginia over the past six years, Allen’s campaign has run TV ads to acquaint voters with his record as governor. “If we can’t win a majority in Northern Virginia,” says Webb pollster Pete Brodnitz, who also advised Kaine, “then we’ve got a real problem.”

Mo Elleithee, who ran the primary campaign against Webb and is now working to elect him, thinks snappy sound bites and a smooth stump performance may not matter, even against a seasoned rival like Allen.

“If there’s ever a year to be a nonpolitician, this is the year,” says Elleithee. “People want someone who is going to get the job done. They are tired of screwups in Washington.”

Paul West is Washington bureau chief for the Baltimore Sun.