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Born Fighter in Another Battle

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006; B05

James Webb estimates that he has published more than 2 million words in his prolific life as a journalist, essayist and author, but there are two that he wrote that may best describe the man himself:

Born fighting.

Not fighting for you , as politicians always like to describe themselves. Just plain fighting.

"Born Fighting" is the title that Webb gave his somewhat romantic history of his fellow Scots-Irish and how they have fought in the United States' wars and defined its populist form of democracy. It is the slogan he has appropriated -- to the chagrin of some Democrats who don't think it sets the right tone -- for his unorthodox Democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate from Virginia.

He is asking primary voters on Tuesday to overlook his Republican past and some policy positions that put him at odds with the catechism of his new party. He presents himself not as the man who best represents the Virginia Democratic Party but as the man most likely to change it.

He promises to bring in rural voters, the military community and independent moderates who don't trust Democrats with the big issues debated in Washington. He says his military background, his populist message and his affinity for blue-collar workers make him the best candidate to take on Republican incumbent George Allen.

His presence, along with Allen's presidential ambitions, has brought the race national attention, and party leaders have overwhelmingly agreed with Webb's appeal.

That was reinforced yesterday when Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, joined Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid, 2004 presidential nominee John F. Kerry and a pack of current and former senators who have tossed aside traditional neutrality and pledged their support for Webb over his Democratic opponent, longtime party activist Harris Miller.

Webb warns lobbyists and special interests -- and maybe everyone else: "If you elect me to the Senate, I guarantee you we will raise hell."

Fighting and raising hell -- that pretty much sums up his life.

When Webb was 6 years old, his daddy gave him boxing gloves and told him that, if ever drawn into a street fight, he should always leave a mark on the other guy.

As a 23-year-old Marine lieutenant, he commanded more than 150 men during one of the most brutal phases of the Vietnam War. He came home with the Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, a slight limp and some shrapnel that's still in his head.

He wrote enough inflammatory things about his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, to get himself barred for a time. He lasted only 11 months as President Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy. He battled the budget-cutters and quit.

He has nothing good to say about his party's most recent presidents. Jimmy Carter's pardon of the Vietnam War draft evaders turned him from a Democrat into a Republican. He could never abide Bill Clinton's avoidance of military service.

But these days, Webb's ire is reserved for President Bush, the war in Iraq and a compliant Republican-controlled Congress. They have turned him back into a Democrat.

"They're sending other people's kids to war," Webb says. "They're allowing other people's kids to suffer from bad schools, outsourced jobs, crime-ridden neighborhoods, deflated futures, no health insurance. They've lost sight of why they should be in government in the first place."

Angry? Webb says no. His friend and supporter Bob Kerrey, a former senator and Democratic presidential candidate, qualifies that answer.

"He's got a healthy anger," Kerrey said. "He's angry about the right things."

Antiwar Candidate

The main source of Webb's anger is the war in Iraq. On the campaign trail, he rarely fails to mention an op-ed piece he wrote for The Washington Post in September 2002, warning that an invasion would be a mistake.

"Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay," Webb wrote.

When Webb mentioned to some Democrats and reporters that he was considering politics, the combination of his sparkling military résumé and antiwar message ignited a movement on the Internet to draft Webb to run. Webb's supporters fill the liberal blogosphere each day with testimonials on his behalf and attacks on Miller.

Webb offers voters a lofty view of the principles he would follow as a senator -- words such as creed, honor, duty and leadership mark his speeches.

In campaign shorthand, he says he is a realist on foreign policy, a populist on economic policy and a moderate on social issues. He scolds big corporations for excessive profits and outsourcing jobs. He laments the dwindling number of veterans in Congress and the administration. He says he is "pro-choice, pro-gay rights but also pro-Second Amendment," meaning he opposes additional gun control.

He thinks the GOP-controlled Congress "rubber-stamps" whatever the Bush administration does, and as a result "we are on the verge of a constitutional crisis in this country . . . far more serious and far more widespread than anything we saw during the Watergate era."

He believes the upper class is "living in luxury never before imagined," while the middle class stagnates and those at the bottom are "in danger of becoming a permanent underclass."

"I could see him playing an important role in the Democratic caucus," Kerrey said. "And I could see him teaming up with Republicans on some issues as well."

As Miller and others point out, Webb is less impassioned when talking about solutions.

There are some important federal issues -- education, immigration, health care -- that he barely mentions. When a questioner in Fredericksburg asked one day whether Webb could give a two-word prescription for overhauling the health-care system, Webb thought for a moment and replied, "Help everyone." He declined to elaborate. The questioner said later that he was hoping to hear "single payer."

'Women Can't Fight'

But beyond issues, the question for many Democrats will be whether the potential that Webb brings for broadening the party and providing a formidable match for Allen outweighs his past political affiliations.

Working for Reagan, for instance, fits well in a general election strategy, but the announcer in Miller's radio ads, aimed at Democrats, recalls Webb's service with a sneer. Webb voted for Bush in 2000 and endorsed Allen that year over incumbent Democrat Charles S. Robb.

Webb says he has apologized to Robb for that and points out that many former Robb staff members have endorsed his campaign. Similarly, Webb says it is invaluable to have the full-throated support of prominent Northern Virginia liberal Democrats such as former representative Leslie L. Byrne and current Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette.

Another problem: some of those 2 million words.

A staple in the campaign against Webb is a 1979 article about the Naval Academy he wrote for the Washingtonian, "Women Can't Fight." It was a no-holds-barred attack on the decision to admit women to the academy, saying it "poisoned" the mission of developing combat leaders.

One of many passages recited by opponents: "I have never met a woman, including the dozens of female midshipmen I encountered during my recent semester as a professor at the Naval Academy, whom I would trust to provide those men with combat leadership."

"I thought it was pathetic, an attack on women," says retired Army Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, who has endorsed Miller. The article was particularly influential, she adds, because it was written at a time "when it was being actively debated whether women in the military could be leaders of men. It is something that today sounds archaic."

And retired Navy Cmdr. Kelly Henry, following Webb's candidacy from her Tennessee home, remembers the impact the article still had when she graduated five years after its publication. "The Naval Academy is hard enough for a woman without a war hero saying you don't belong," she said.

Webb says that the article was published a long time ago and that as secretary of the Navy, he tripled the number of jobs that were open to women and ordered a crackdown on sexual harassment.

A strongly worded 2000 article in which Webb compared affirmative action to "state-sponsored racism" also has caused consternation among the Democratic activists likely to vote in next week's primary. Webb says he supports affirmative action programs for blacks but thinks diversity programs should recognize other disadvantaged groups, such as poor Appalachian whites.

Careers in War and Peace

"In my mind, I'm a writer. In my heart, I'm a soldier," Webb says.

The soldier part ended after several years of surgeries and rehab following a grenade attack in July 1969. But it opened a new life for him. Webb laughs when he talks about "my career, as if I had one." He has had several; his résumé rivals the life of the fictitious Forrest Gump.

Webb got a law degree from Georgetown. He worked on the Hill as a committee counsel.

He wrote "Fields of Fire," the first of six novels, which was turned down by nine publishers and then widely hailed by reviewers as one of the best books written about the Vietnam War. He became active in the Vietnam veterans movement; criticism from him and others led to a furious fight over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial design and the addition of the soldiers' sculptures.

Four years as an assistant secretary of defense under Reagan led to his appointment as the first graduate of the Naval Academy to serve in the military and to become secretary of the Navy.

When he saw something he wanted to do, he did it. He has traveled the world writing for Parade magazine. The "MacNeil/Lehrer Report" had the idea to send him to Beirut, and the documentary he brought back won an Emmy. He has been a screenwriter for Hollywood studios and a producer on the movie "Rules of Engagement."

His books and writings deal with class, service, sacrifice, privilege. "Born Fighting" especially carries an edge: "Had I not been wounded, I would never have gone to law school. And had I not gone to law school, I would never have fully comprehended the disdain that many of the advantaged in my generation felt for those who had fought in Vietnam, or the ingrained condescension of the nation's elites toward my culture."

"I'm not a politician, no," Webb says. But he is a candidate, 60 years old, though he looks much younger. He's trim, compactly built, with a full head of reddish-brown hair and blue eyes. His face is smooth, and his mouth doesn't open much, either when he speaks or smiles.

He has been married three times. Barbara Samorajczyk is an Anne Arundel County Council member who sends word that she doesn't care to be interviewed. His second wife, health-care lobbyist Jo Ann Kruker Webb, is an active supporter of the campaign. She lives in the same Falls Church neighborhood where Webb shares a lakefront home with wife Hong Le Webb, a securities and corporate lawyer, and his stepdaughter.

He has three daughters; a son, James Robert, a Marine who expects to be deployed to Iraq by September; and grandchildren.

Jimmy Webb will carry on a family tradition, his father says, of fighting in every conflict since the American Revolution.

Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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