02.10.11

Jim Webb: The Reluctant Senator

Jim Webb rocketed to national stardom four years ago as the bold new face of the Democratic Party—but his moment was short-lived. Peter J. Boyer on the real reason Webb is leaving the Senate.

Jim Webb rocketed to national stardom four years ago as the bold new face of the Democratic Party—but his moment was short lived. Peter J. Boyer on the real reason Webb is leaving the Senate.

The end of Jim Webb’s senatorial career, with his announcement that he would not seek re-election in 2012, was far less surprising than the fact that Webb even had a senatorial career to end. He’d arrived in the Senate seeming ready to leave, having declared, in a 2006 debate with his Republican foe, George Allen, “When I go to my grave, whether I was a United States Senator or not is not gonna be high on my agenda.”

And that was when he was trying to convince Virginia voters to put him into the Senate. That 2006 Webb campaign had the feel of a forced march, a mood that very much reflected the candidate himself. His public appearances had all the spontaneous joy of a line inspection at Camp Lejeune. Webb spoke with a flat, matter-of-fact voice, always in earnest tones. He possessed none of the innate muscle memory of a natural pol—the ready banter, the easy saunter, the reflexive hand-to-shoulder intimacy. His campaign smile usually seemed the product of considerable exertion.

Webb politicked like someone with a chip on his shoulder, which, in fact, was very much the case. He saw himself as heir of an aggrieved people, an identity he awakened to after returning from Vietnam, where he served as a twice-wounded, much-decorated Marine combat officer. While attending classes on the G.I. Bill at Georgetown Law in the 1970s, Webb realized that most of his classmates had not only not served, but harbored a self-congratulatory disdain for those who had. Webb channeled his anger into a book, Fields of Fire (“the finest of the Vietnam novels,” as Tom Wolfe declared it), and a brief career in government (he was Reagan’s Navy Secretary before quitting in frustration over a policy dispute with Congress).

In his subsequent writing, both in fiction and opinion journalism, Webb developed an underlying theme of his Vietnam novel into a sort of grand thesis. He came to see people – the Scots-Irish descendants of the Ulster warrior clans that migrated to North America in the 17th Century – as a put-upon subculture, which fought America’s wars and mined America’s coal, but was increasingly marginalized by political and cultural elites.

He loathed the elemental chore of incumbency—the endless fundraising loop—and was temperamentally ill-suited to the pace and grind of Senate work.

He proved himself an able polemicist, quite willing to employ lacerating prose in defense of the people he alternately referred to as the Scots-Irish, “Joe Sixpack,” or the “American Redneck.” He derided affirmative action as “state-sponsored racism”; in response to the campaign to allow women in combat roles, Webb wrote an essay called “Women Can’t Fight,” declaring he’d never met a woman he’d trust in a leadership position in combat. To Webb, such culture-divide issues weren’t ideological; they reflected an elitist impulse to re-engineer society, seemingly always at the expense of Webb’s people. (This thesis found its ultimate expression in Webb’s 2004 semi-autobiographical history of the Scots-Irish in America, “Born Fighting.”)

Reared a nominal Democrat, Webb had become a Republican under Reagan, but became even more repulsed by the George W. Bush-era G.O.P. than he had been by the McGovernite Democrats of the ‘70s. He loathed the neocons who ran the Pentagon, and fiercely opposed the Iraq War as an unforgivable misuse of the American military.

All of this made him, in 2006, a man ideally suited to the political moment. Democrats hoping to hedge the party’s anti-war posture had developed an almost fetishistic regard for military candidates (as evidenced by Wesley Clark’s recruitment as a presidential contender); Webb, an anti-war gun-lover with a license to carry, who campaigned in combat boots and rode through Virginia in a camouflage-painted Jeep, was immune to the vulnerabilities that had plagued Democrats in Red State America for a generation. So alluring was Webb’s profile that, upon his election, he instantly became a national figure. Days after taking office, he was chosen to give the Democratic response to Bush’s State of the Union Address, and he became one of the names mentioned as a possible running mate for Barack Obama in 2008.

Webb’s moment was short-lived. The heart of his Senate term, the middle two years, came at a time when Democrats, heady with electoral triumph (owing at least partly to the recruitment of such centrist figures as Webb), were governing insistently from the left. Webb personally warned President Obama that the all-out push for health-care reform would be “ a disaster” for the party. Webb’s sort of Democrat fell from favor within the party during the course of one senatorial cycle, and became a vanishing breed by last November.

When Webb declared himself out of a re-election run, it was widely supposed that he had little chance of winning anyway. This is probably true. His likely opponent in 2012 would have been George Allen, who only narrowly lost to Webb in 2006 even after running a campaign that was a classic of self-immolation. But Webb’s closest friends believe that it wasn’t the fight Webb dreaded, it was the prospect of another victory—and having to spend another term in the Senate.

He loathed the elemental chore of incumbency—the endless fundraising loop—and was temperamentally ill-suited to the pace and grind of Senate work. In his announcement yesterday, he proudly noted his shepherding of a new G.I. bill, which was a significant achievement for a junior senator, but in most regards he seemed a creature apart in that elite club. While his colleagues had a homing instinct for the nearest red light of a television camera, Webb was the one looking for the side door, to slip the press. His closest pals weren’t Beltway pundits, or his political peers, but the remaining band of Vietnam buddies that still rally to his side when summoned (as he has always rallied to theirs).

One of them, Dale Wilson, who served under Webb in Vietnam (and who left three of his limbs there), supposes that Webb will resume writing, and his business interests in Southeast Asia when he leaves the Senate. He hasn’t yet spoken to Webb about his decision, but Wilson says he is certain that fear of defeat was not his motivation.

“I don’t know of any time that Jim ever run from a fight,” Wilson told me. “Jim, he’s always been a highly intelligent man. I think sometimes when he sees too much stupidity around him, he just don’t wanna be part of it, maybe.”

Peter J. Boyer joined Newsweek/Daily Beast after spending 18 years as a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he wrote on a wide range of subjects, including politics, the military, religion, and sports. Before joining The New Yorker, Boyer was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and a television critic for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” As a correspondent on the documentary series, Frontline, he won a George Foster Peabody Award, an Emmy, and consecutive Writers Guild Awards for his reporting. Boyer’s New Yorker articles have been included in the anthologies The Best American Political Writing, Best American Science Writing, Best American Spiritual Writing and Best American Crime Writing. He is at work on a book about American evangelism.