Va. Senate Candidates: James Webb

Defiant Iraq War Foe Defined by Vietnam

Democrat James Webb is a writer and retired Marine officer.
Democrat James Webb is a writer and retired Marine officer. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

James Webb will tell you that he is first a writer, with several best-selling novels to his name. He is also the descendant of brave-hearted Scots-Irish who stood up to English kings. He is a husband and father of four.

But above all, Webb is still in his heart a combat Marine. His defining moment came in Vietnam, and he remains loyal to the men he led and the memories he formed there. Once a year or so he reunites with former comrades. At Arlington National Cemetery, he visits the graves of others, often leaving Marlboro cigarettes for his buddy, Snake.

Now, Webb, a Naval Academy graduate who once dreamed of wearing a Marine Corps general's stars, has become a face of the movement against the Iraq war. The man who admired President Ronald Reagan and served his Republican administration as a cocky secretary of the Navy is one of the Democrats' best hopes to wrest control of the Senate from the GOP as he challenges incumbent George Allen.

That this warrior rails against the war is only one of the contradictions in Webb's life, just a hint of the complexities and ironies that make him an uneasy candidate. He has switched from Democrat to Republican and back to Democrat -- first in anger because of President Jimmy Carter's pardon of people who avoided the draft, and now because of the Iraq war.

At 60, Webb, who says he loves writing because of the independence -- "You can sit on a park bench, and no one knows who the hell you are" -- is running for a chamber where there is no anonymity, and people can't switch parties when things don't go their way. Even his good friends question whether he has the temperament to serve in Congress.

"It's no secret that I'm not a person who wears a bridle well," he once said after clashes with his bosses at the Defense Department.

His friends also wonder whether it was Webb's temperament that led at least partially to his writing a Washingtonian magazine article in 1979 about women in combat called "Women Can't Fight" that some female midshipmen say encouraged hostility and sexual harassment.

The inflammatory article has become one of the turning points of the Senate campaign and a key reason why Webb is not enjoying the success among female voters that other Virginia Democrats have, according to a recent Washington Post poll.

The article still resonates. "Now you've got a bona fide war hero -- and I'll never take that away from Jim Webb, because he was a war hero -- and he just lined up every woman there and publicly executed us," said retired Navy Cmdr. Kathleen Murray, a 1984 Annapolis graduate who lives in Norfolk.

Paul E. Roush, a retired Marine colonel, wrote in a 1997 naval journal that Webb's article was "the single greatest purveyor of degradation and humiliation on the basis of one's gender that academy women have had to endure." And several Navy women said Webb's views later resurfaced in his writings, speeches and actions as Navy secretary.

Dogged by the issue during the campaign, Webb has dismissed the article as old news and apologized for its excesses, especially a crack in which he called a dormitory at the school a "horny woman's dream."

An Uneasy Campaigner

Webb isn't comfortable talking about the Washingtonian article. He acknowledges that he's not at ease at fundraisers or pressing the flesh in a large crowd, either. That, perhaps, is the most curious contradiction of all.


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