By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
About a year ago, before he was running for the Senate, James Webb took a colleague to the mountains of southwest Virginia to do some research for a movie they were working on.
Rob Reiner , meet my cousin Jewel and her husband, Buck. Jewel made a home-cooked meal for Webb and his producer-director friend. She pointed across the way to a nearby hollow and said:
"Ah wuz bawn rat ovah theyah." That's Reiner on the phone from Los Angeles, doing a mountain accent.
At night, Webb took Reiner to a rustic auditorium. There was bluegrass and flatfoot dancing.
"Incredible experience," Reiner says.
There may be few places in the country more foreign to Hollywood than Gate City, Va., and much of Webb's livelihood has been to translate one culture for another. His dad's family came out of these hollows, though Webb grew up on military bases all over the country. Over the course of his career, in books and more recently in screenplays, Webb, 60, has been writing about the dignity of his people -- the gun-loving, country-music-singing, working-class whites of Scotch-Irish descent who fight in wars, staff the nation's factories and shop its Wal-Marts.
"This people gave our country great things, including its most definitive culture," Webb writes in his most recent book.
He knows that some folks might call his people rednecks. We pity those folks if Jim Webb is around when they say that.
* * *
Webb has moved in and out of public life, but the near-constant over the years has been writing, ever since he read a short story by Hemingway at Georgetown Law School and thought to himself, "That looks easy."
It wasn't, of course.
He is best known for the novel he started shortly after that, "Fields of Fire," a book he sweated over and struggled with, writing and rewriting it "seven times, cover to cover," as he likes to say. Drawing on his experience as a Marine company commander in Vietnam, it was published to much acclaim in 1978, when Webb was already serving as counsel to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
He went on to become assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan and then secretary of the Navy. When he quit that post in a protest over budget cuts, he added screenwriting and producing to his résumé and spent 2 1/2 years trying to bring American businesses into Vietnam. And he kept writing books. In all, he has written six novels and, most recently, a book of nonfiction about Scotch-Irish culture. (That's not counting an academic book he wrote in law school, about U.S. military strategy in the Pacific.)
Campaign officials for Webb's opponent, Republican Sen. George Allen, have repeatedly referenced Webb's careers in writing and in movies, hoping these labels might imply he is out of touch, untrustworthy or -- perhaps worst of all in Virginia -- liberal. In a debate, Allen said Webb was more aligned with the "values of Hollywood" than the "values of Virginia." "Hollywood," of course, is itself a dirty word in the popular political lexicon, a kind of shorthand for things that are lefty, elitist and vaguely debauched.
The funny thing is, Webb -- a Democrat who became a Republican in the '70s and a Democrat again in recent years -- has been a largely conservative force both in movies and on the printed page. At various times he has eviscerated liberals, feminists, elites, academics and those who protested the Vietnam War. He has criticized Hollywood for its treatment of his people. By all rights, he should have alienated someone like Rob Reiner. Instead, Reiner has been giving money to his Senate bid. ("I've maxed out," Reiner says.) Much of what they share is a deep opposition to the Iraq war.
The project that took Webb and Reiner to the hills of southwestern Virginia is a script they'd been working on for a movie about this very subject. "Whiskey River" centers on an Iraq war soldier who hails from a world much like Gate City, Va., and what Reiner calls the "culture of service" this soldier comes from. It is also, Reiner says, about the fundamental unfairness of a war in which "only certain people have to sacrifice."
The notion of his people's sacrifice in wartime is a theme Webb has returned to again and again in his writing. In his 2004 book, "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America," Webb writes that the Scotch-Irish "have fed dedicated soldiers to this nation far beyond their numbers in every war." In interviews, he recalls starting law school in 1972 and discovering that others were in "ethnocentric retreat." Everyone else knew who they were and where they came from, everyone else had ethnic pride, but the identity of Webb's own culture had been lost. He says his peers labeled him a white man of privilege, a WASP.
In the decades since, Webb has studied the migrations of his people, exulting in their fighting history and puzzling over their entrenched poverty. He is himself the product of a long line of military men, and his son Jimmy is a Marine in Iraq. Webb's dad was an Air Force officer who used to make 4-year-old Webb hit him, fist to fist, to prove he was tough. Webb once told an interviewer he used to have to stand "at attention" when his dad inspected his room:
"I'd say, 'Hey, Dad,' and he'd say, 'Shut up, you're a corporal.' "Everybody's Villains
Webb can be grim and stiff in public. In a recent appearance to generate support among Hispanic voters for his Virginia Senate run, Webb looked off into the distance as speakers took the podium, his body rigid, looking about as relaxed as, well, a corporal standing at attention. When the crowd whooped and clapped for him, he didn't even smile.
But one-on-one, Webb can really talk. He breaks into spontaneous, growling recitation of a manly poem called "Do You Fear the Wind?" that he learned from his father, and launches into a disquisition on country music. He critiques the prose of Winston Churchill ("marvelous") and Teddy Roosevelt ("a little over the top"). His manner is relaxed, bordering on incautious. Regarding his early drafts of a particular book, he says (unsenatorially) that "they all sucked."
He recalls a magazine article he wrote in 1984: "We had the second-highest volume of mail of anything that Parade's ever published."
He talks about his love of poetry. Yeats. Pound. Dylan Thomas. He talks about his books. "In a lot of my writing, the narrative is in meter," Webb says. "I don't know if you've ever noticed that."
We hadn't. He pulls out a copy of "Fields of Fire" and reads aloud to demonstrate.
"Fields of Fire" -- about Marines serving in Vietnam even as America has begun to turn its back on them -- is filled with the ugliness of combat, beautifully rendered. Tom Wolfe called it "the finest of the Vietnam novels," and it remains a strong seller to this day. Webb started it when he was surrounded by antiwar and anti-vet fervor. He was shocked that so many of his law school peers had avoided the draft; this seemed a gross inequity. He wanted those who hadn't served to experience the war as he had, to respect the soldiers who put their lives on the line no matter the cause.
In brutal language, peppered with obscenities and ethnic slurs, "Fields of Fire" demonstrates the horrors and murky morality of war. A man is blown open and his torso becomes "a dripping ooze." A Vietnamese translator who works for the Marines bribes a starving villager into having sex with him in exchange for food. Even when Webb's characters do gruesome things, he does not make it easy to condemn them.
As journalist Robert Timberg wrote, "Webb challenges the reader to engage in the actions of his characters, dusting each scene with ambiguity, offering no pat answers."
One of the main characters is a man much like Webb, a soldier of Scotch-Irish descent who comes from a tradition of fighters. Before going into combat, this character meets the battalion executive officer, who warns him about the ways the war will wreck his soul.
"You spend a month in the bush and you're not a Marine anymore. Hell. You're not even a goddamn person. There's no tents, no barbed wire, no hot food . . . You roll around in your own filth. You forget how bad you smell. Dead people, guts in the goddamn dirt, miserable civilians, it all gets sort of boring."
A paper trail is a dangerous thing for any politician to leave behind, and Webb's paper trail -- thousands of pages written over the course of 30 years -- is a very long one indeed. The Allen campaign's researchers have read all of Webb's books and compiled an exhaustive list of everything one might find offensive, with racial slurs in bold, along with such categories as "Women as Sex Objects (See also 'Sex Scenes')" and "Mutilation of the Dead."
"He makes his literary and movie works part of the debate in this campaign," says Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams. "It'll be up to Virginia to decide if that helps him or hurts him."
"I'm of the realist school of writing," Webb says. "You have a duty to portray things as they really are."
But there is less room for this sort of realism on the campaign trail than in fiction. Less room for ambiguity, too. These are lessons Webb appears still to be learning.
In a recent interview in the back of his campaign RV, Webb talks about how Hollywood has lampooned the Scotch-Irish. He says he is sick of this story line. For too long, he says, poor Southern whites have been one of the few groups it's still safe to make fun of.
"Every movie needs a villain," Webb says. He could let the statement end there, but instead, he does a strange thing. In the midst of a Senate race marked by accusations of racial insensitivity on both sides, he says this:
"Towel-heads and rednecks -- of which I am one. If you write that word, please say that. I mean, I don't use that pejoratively, I use it defensively. Towel-heads and rednecks became the easy villains in so many movies out there."
Later, Webb's press secretary learns of this quote, and the next day Webb is calling a reporter from a fundraiser in Atlanta:
"I used the words that are used to stereotype them," he says, adding that he was using both terms "defensively." "I'm really upset if this is going to end up being the guppy that eats the whale here."Speaking of Stereotypes . . .
Webb knows another Hollywood story line very well. It's the one in which his potential movies languish for years. His most visible success was writing the original story for the 2000 movie "Rules of Engagement," starring Samuel L. Jackson. He has also sold or optioned several of his books to studios, but none has been made into a movie. Yet. There are timing issues, says his literary manager, Pete Donaldson. Or there are competing projects. Or there's a problem with the studio.
Most recently, "Whiskey River," optioned last year by Warner Bros. for $150,000, has moved into a holding pattern. Perhaps typical of Hollywood, Reiner, Webb and Donaldson each give different reasons why.
Webb has had other deals. In the early 1990s, he had a screenwriting contract with Universal that included working on other writers' screenplays. A few years back he wrote a pilot for a television series, but the show never made it to production. He's never lived in Hollywood, though he has visited the West Coast regularly for business.
Webb's books have continued to be popular. Webb says he receives "well into the six figures" on book advances, and according to a financial disclosure report filed in May in connection with his campaign, he is now worth between $2.2 million and $6.4 million. (The Senate disclosure form requires that candidates list their assets within broad ranges.) He lives in Falls Church with his third wife, Hong Le Webb, a lawyer who was born in Vietnam and escaped with her family after the fall of Saigon.
The novels are all military-themed and their titles pulse with warrior bravado -- "A Sense of Honor," "Something to Die For," "Lost Soldiers." Several have briefly made it onto major bestseller lists, and some have been translated into other languages. Critics have praised his scene-setting and far-ranging, action-packed plots. They've noted that, as one reviewer put it, he is "not just a writer of war thrillers; he is a genuine novelist of ideas," tackling such issues as when it's appropriate (or not) to put soldiers in harm's way.
When he falls down, it is because he fails to convey the moral ambiguity he achieved in "Fields of Fire." His portrayals can "border on caricatures," as a reviewer of Webb's 2001 novel "Lost Soldiers" put it. "Webb continues his literary M.O. of spicing his narrative with unsubtle conservative political gibes," another wrote. His bad men, his conniving politicians and a whole host of characters who might be lumped together as vaguely "liberal" garner flat, unsympathetic treatment.
In his 1983 book "A Country Such as This," Webb writes of a power-hungry feminist named Dorothy Dingenfelder who "had given up on trying to be pretty" and who enjoys a swanky hotel despite her "publicly egalitarian views." ("She ignored the paradox as irrelevant," Webb writes.) Dorothy organizes a protest against the Vietnam War in which the protesters begin to attack the soldiers.
"Dorothy watched it, uneasy with the ugliness. It was the soldiers, the Army that was supposed to be hateful and brutal."
And who are the soldiers? "The blue collar kids, the red-necks, " -- standing silently, misunderstood.
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.