I mentioned Jim Webb briefly in my column about Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability” this week as a potential presidential candidate. He deserves more than that. Webb is a terrific writer, a great war novelist. He is an Annapolis graduate, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam. He has worked as a Congressional staffer, Secretary of the Navy (under Reagan) and, most recently, Democratic Senator from Virginia.
Webb is a classic, passionate Scots-Irishman, a heritage he celebrated in a book called Born Fighting, a title that he might have saved for his most recent book, I Heard My Country Calling, which is a partial memoir, focusing on his youth, his time at Annapolis and Vietnam. It’s a compelling book, not just for the story that it tells, but for the simmering anger that is never far from the surface with Webb. He’s pissed-off, like many veterans, at the slovenliness of civilian society–the lack of honor and discipline, the lassitude that has allowed a national slide toward plutocracy.
For many civilians, his politics seems rather exotic and unpredictable–as expected, he was a strong advocate for veterans when he served as Senator (His son is also a Marine, who served in Iraq). But he was also a strong advocate for normalizing relationships with Burma and for more equitable prison sentencing standards. And he is a stone populist, with a platoon leader’s obsession with the welfare of all his Marines, and the importance of a national sense of community that isn’t shaped by the power of money.
He ends I Heard my Country Calling with a story about his Aunt Lena, who lived her life in an Arkansas shack. He writes about visiting her in 1976, after having gone to work for a Republican Congressman. She wouldn’t let him insider her house. “How can you do this?” she asks. “Getting involved in Congress up there with that bunch. And then working for a Republican?” (Aunt Lena was, apparently, the last of the Yellow Dog Democrats.)
“You’ll forget us anyway,” she said. This was her real point. “They all do. Wear a pretty tie, get a big head, get a nice salary, make all those promises and then lie through your teeth so that you can stay up there.”
Hence Jim Webb’s Aunt Lena Test: Would she let me in the house today?
No doubt, Webb–like all of us–has some days when he wouldn’t even knock on Lena’s door. But I also believe that her spirit lives in his head, which is a rare thing for a politician. He really tries to tell the truth as he sees it. I’m not sure he’ll be an effective national candidate, or even that he’ll run, but I respect him as a man of honor (and as a writer, obviously)–and Lord knows, we could certainly use some honor in this race to come.