By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006
RICHMOND, Sept. 27 -- Democratic Senate candidate James Webb on Wednesday sought to explain remarks he had made a day earlier, in which he refused to say whether he had used the "N-word," but he insisted he has never used it as a racial epithet aimed at anyone.
"I don't think that there's anyone who grew up around the South that hasn't had the word pass through their lips at one time in their life," he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Tuesday. "If you read 'Fields of Fire,' that word and a lot of other words are in the book." "Fields of Fire" is a novel Webb wrote about the Vietnam War.
Spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd said Webb, an author and former Marine, "did not want to make any blanket statements that he has never, ever uttered the word. Jim has not used the word directed at another person. He's never used it himself as a racial slur."
Allegations about race continued to roil Virginia's Senate race this week, as Webb and his opponent, George Allen (R-Va.), confronted fresh accusations and their campaigns struggled to shift the conversation to other subjects.
Political scientists who specialize in the history of the South said Webb's careful comments about the N-word, and the controversy over its alleged use by Allen, reflect the word's transformation from a common political term to the third-rail of electioneering.
"The Voting Rights Act transformed that word. It eradicated it," said Jack Bass, a professor of humanities and social science at the College of Charleston. "The crowd that [used it in the 1970s] either quit using it or they were gone. Blacks were voters by then."
Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, said that "in much of the South, there was this tremendous transformation from a time when it was a term widely used by politicians making successful appeals to now where it is something that no politician would dare utter."
Webb's comments to the Times-Dispatch prompted Allen campaign officials to direct a reporter to Dan Cragg, a former acquaintance of Webb's, who said Webb used the word while describing his own behavior during his freshman year at the University of Southern California in the early 1960s. Webb later transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy.
Cragg, 67, who lives in Fairfax County, said on Wednesday that Webb described taking drives through the black neighborhood of Watts, where he and members of his ROTC unit used racial epithets and pointed fake guns at blacks to scare them.
"They would hop into their cars, and would go down to Watts with these buddies of his," Cragg said Webb told him. "They would take the rifles down there. They would call then [epithets], point the rifles at them, pull the triggers and then drive off laughing. One night, some guys caught them and beat . . . them. And that was the end of that."
Cragg said Webb told him the Watts story during a 1983 interview for a Vietnam veterans magazine. Cragg, who described himself as a Republican who would vote for Allen, did not include the story in his article. He provided a transcript of the interview, but the transcript does not contain the ROTC story. He said he still remembers the exchange vividly more than 20 years later.
Webb, who is in Texas for fundraising events, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Todd said Webb denied the allegations in a conversation with her.
"He said it's not true. It's not even close to being true," Todd said. She quoted Webb as saying: "In 1963, you couldn't go to Watts and do that kind of thing. You'd get killed. So of course I didn't do it. I would never do that. I would never want to do that."
Todd condemned the allegations as politically motivated by the Allen campaign.
"They are pathetic individuals. They are beneath it. They are slime," she said. "Here we are trying to talk about the issues. They are completely and totally desperate."
Cragg, a former Army sergeant major, described himself as a longtime friend of Webb's who worked for him when he was assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan. Cragg said he approached the Allen campaign through a friend after hearing Webb's answer to the Times-Dispatch reporter's question about using the N-word.
"The fact is he has. He used it in my presence," Cragg said. "I don't think he's a racist any more than George Allen is. But he's not frank in admitting that he grew up in a culture where that was common and he used it."
Allen campaign officials declined to comment on Cragg's story. But political adviser Chris LaCivita responded to Todd's criticism. "They wouldn't know an issue if it hit them square in the face," he said.
Cragg's accusations come as Allen continued to battle charges he used the same racial epithet during college and was racially insensitive.
On Monday, a college football teammate, Ken Shelton, said Allen used the N-word referring to black people. He also said that he, Allen and Billy Lanahan, another teammate, once cut the head off of a deer and, at Allen's urging, stuffed the head into a black person's mailbox.
Lanahan is dead. But his former roommate came forward Wednesday to say that he recalls Lanahan telling him the story without mentioning that the mailbox was a black person's.
"He told me they went hunting," said George Beam, 53, who lives in Charlottesville. "All he said was we cut the deer head off and stuck it in somebody's mailbox."
And late Wednesday, Allen's campaign launched a multimedia barrage against Webb that included testimonials from former female midshipmen at the Naval Academy. The women, who came forward several weeks ago, said an article Webb wrote in 1979 created a hostile environment for academy women.
"It was demoralizing from a perspective that only a woman could understand," one of the women says in the ad.
Todd called the ad "completely erroneous" because Webb created opportunities for women as secretary of the Navy.