Jim Webb: an iconoclastic senator's early departure

February 14, 2011|By Jules Witcover

The cliche view of the high-level public officeholder who would auction off his grandmother to keep his job has taken a severe setback with the announcement by Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia that he won't seek reelection next year.

What makes the decision so noteworthy is that Mr. Webb is a first-termer, elected in 2006 in one of the most widely publicized upsets of that year, when he beat incumbent and then-Republican presidential hopeful George Allen. It is one thing when veteran senators such as Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut announce they are throwing in the towel. Bowing out after one term — especially given Mr. Webb's impressive start as a thoughtful and independent voice in the Senate — is another.

The decision gives the Democrats and the man in the White House cause for additional concern about their party's hopes of holding onto control of the Senate, now down to a six-seat voting majority. The Democrats already are faced with having to defend 23 Senate seats in 2012 (compared with only 10 up for re-election on the Republican side).

While Mr. Webb would not have been a shoo-in for reelection in a Virginia that swung decidedly to GOP candidates for governor in 2009 and for House seats in 2010, his rematch with Mr. Allen would have spotlighted Mr. Allen's self-destruction in 2006.

It was in the closing days of that campaign when the cocky former governor and namesake son of a famous former Washington Redskins coach called out a young man of Indian descent in a campaign crowd as a "macaca," a term regarded as a racial slur in some societies. "Let's give a welcome to macaca here," he added. "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."

Mr. Allen's target was a 20-year-old Virginia native videotaping the event for the Webb campaign. Mr. Allen said he didn't know what the word meant but apologized "if he's offended by that." The youth responded that he was "the only person of color there" and was "annoyed he'd use my race in a political context."

Five years later, Mr. Allen is seeking his seat back and another former Virginia governor, Tim Kaine, is already being urged to run against him. Mr. Kaine was popular in Richmond and added to his reputation nationally as the first governor to endorse Barack Obama. He currently serves as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

In Mr. Webb's four years in the Senate, he has established a reputation as somewhat of a loner not given easily either to courting campaign money or votes. But his history as a Marine Corps veteran and strong supporter of members of the military, their families and veterans has assured him a special constituency.

As a Senate candidate in 2006 and in the Senate thereafter, Mr. Webb has been an outspoken critic of the conduct of the war in Iraq, where his son served as a Marine enlisted man. He won notoriety during the George W. Bush administration for a run-in with the president, who inquired about Mr. Webb's son then serving in Iraq. Mr. Webb replied curtly: "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President."

Mr. Webb is also somewhat of an everyman who has established a resume as best-selling author of a book about the Vietnam War and eight others, fiction and non-fiction. He is also a lawyer and filmmaker who worked as a congressional staffer, and in 1987 was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration.

On Mr. Webb's Senate website, he sums up his true identity: "Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to write something that I believe is really good. Writing is what I will always do, no matter what. My mind always writes. You never stop writing if you're a writer."

On the same site, he tells of a friend asking him concerning his decision to run for the Senate: "What are you doing? You know what it means to dance with the bear? You start dancing with the bear, you can't stop dancing till the bear wants to stop dancing." This time, however, the bear that is service in the Senate isn't stopping, but Jim Webb has had enough.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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