Academy critic returns

Former Navy secretary back for book-signing

May 25, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

The Blue Angels flying team had just finished its aerobatics performance above the Naval Academy when James H. Webb Jr. walked into the school's bookstore to find a long line of midshipmen, naval officers and others waiting for him.

Most of those in line wanted a chance to shake the hand of a well-known author and have him sign a copy of his latest book, "The Emperor's General."

Others sensed something bigger in Webb's return to Annapolis. To the school where he lost a three-round boxing match with classmate Oliver L. North. To the school that had prepared him for the Marines and the combat he saw in Vietnam. To the school that, over the years -- including one as Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan -- has frustrated and been frustrated by him.

He is not a frequent visitor to his alma mater. He was once informally barred from campus. On the day he was sworn in as secretary of the Navy, on the steps of the academy dormitory, the panties of female midshipmen dangled from the trees in the courtyard, a symbol of defiance of Webb's opposition to the admission of women to the academy in 1976.

Webb has also maintained a grudge, well-known among academy insiders, against Vice Adm. William Lawrence, a former superintendent.

Lawrence says the feud stemmed from an article Webb wrote in 1979 for Washingtonian magazine. Called "Women Can't Fight," it argued that letting women into the academy was poisoning men's preparation for combat. According to Webb, Lawrence tried to ban the sale of one of his books at the academy.

Some midshipmen, however, weren't sure who he was.

Many said they know Webb from reading "The Nightingale's Song," a book by academy graduate Robert Timberg, now a Sun editor, about the lives of five academy graduates, including Webb, North and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

Charles Good of Missouri, who retired from the Navy and whose sons, Everett and Daniel, attend the academy, said Webb defends something others are afraid to stand up for: harsh treatment of military subordinates -- such as freshmen at the Naval Academy -- as a way to weed out the weak and form strong military leaders.

"The military is not for everybody," he said. "But there's a difference between spanking a child and beating a child."

Pub Date: 5/25/99

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