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.
The man who seems to have accomplished everything he has put his mind to -- officer, writer, Emmy-winning journalist -- sometimes seems to be going through the motions as a candidate.
"My natural personality is not to intrude on people's space. That's just the way I am. And I don't like people to intrude on mine," Webb said, explaining his awkwardness. "I just have to accept that I don't have the persona of a lot of people in [politics]. But, believe me, I wouldn't go through this if I didn't know I had the right answer at the end of this."
Webb says he's driven to run to help reshape national security policies, of which those about Iraq are just a part, by relying more on international diplomacy.
Although Webb received some of the country's most prestigious medals for valor in Vietnam, he often falters while campaigning, standing stiffly in a crowd and pinching the hem of his sports coat until his fingertips turn white. He seldom cracks a smile in public but giggles during an interview as he recalls his delight at seeing his first mango when he was a kid.
Webb entered his first campaign for elective office in February -- remarkably late for a statewide race -- but he had toyed with the idea for years. In 1988, the Republicans approached him to run for the same office. Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska asked Webb several times to run in the 1990s. "It's not really what I wanted to do," Webb said. "I really love the independence of being a writer."
As war loomed in Iraq, however, Webb became frustrated that few in power spoke against it. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and Webb had seen enough.
"Katrina was the last straw for me," Webb said. "For some reason, I felt personally insulted for the slurs that were being made against the people who were trapped in New Orleans. . . . Where is the government in this?"
His clumsiness as a candidate remains a frustration for many Democrats, who hope Virginia can tip control of the Senate to their party.
"It's been a campaign that really has been plagued by missed opportunities and a candidate that seems to resent having to campaign," said one Democratic consultant in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity so he would not anger Webb.
Webb acknowledges his image as the reluctant candidate but dismisses the criticism. He thinks that his firsthand taste of battle has given him a perspective that too many politicians in his generation lack. Webb also says Iraq is not the only reason he is challenging Allen, preferring to promote populist themes such as the "three Americas" divided among rich, poor and a struggling middle class. Yet his campaign highlights his military résumé, and supporters see his candidacy as a referendum on the war.
Webb also won't talk about his son Jimmy's deployment to Iraq, saying the Marine, 24, should not be used for political gain. But Webb works the campaign trail in his son's combat boots, the Marine emblem on their heels.'A Rough Experience'
James Henry Webb Jr. was born Feb. 9, 1946, in St. Joseph, Mo., one of four children. His father, an Air Force colonel, enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor. Webb's mother, Vera, the daughter of a sharecropper, is 81.
James Sr. never pushed the armed forces on his children, but Webb's sister Patricia married into the Air Force. Another sister, Tama, married Webb's Naval Academy roommate. His younger brother, Gary L. Webb, became a Marine helicopter pilot.
Their father, who died in 1997 at age 79, also taught his children not to run from trouble. Forever new kids on another new base, they learned to scrap when they were young.
"That's just growing up on a military base," Gary Webb said. "It was a rough experience."
Jim Webb did better with his fists than his schoolbooks, but he also wrote poetry and short stories. Although Webb later embraced such 20th-century masters as Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, the writers who spoke to him early on were journalistic observers such as John Steinbeck and James A. Michener. The latter's "Hawaii," in particular, captured his imagination as a teenager.
"I was living in Nebraska, working in a grocery store, freezing my tail off, and I started reading this book," Webb said. "And, you know, the first hundred pages is lava forming an island, and bugs landing on it. But after that, you started getting into all the different ethnic cultures. It was just fascinating. I read that book, and I said, 'I'm going there.' "
One day he saw a mango at the grocery like the ones in the book, and he had to have it, even if it did cost a day's pay.
"I got this thing, and I brought it home, and I didn't even know how to peel it," he recalled.
His brother said Webb yearned to be a Marine general like Lt. Gen. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, the legendary war hero. After a year at the University of Southern California on a Navy ROTC scholarship, he enrolled at Annapolis. Nicknamed "Spike," he had an unyielding reputation, whether in the boxing ring or in the daily trials plebes faced.
Webb graduated in 1968, accepting a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marines at a time when the academy failed to meet its Marine quota because of the carnage in Vietnam. He arrived there in 1969 as a platoon leader with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
Right away, Webb's cool head impressed his company commander, Michael Wyly. As with each new officer from Quantico, Wyly sent Webb on patrol his first night in the bush. Unlike with other green platoon leaders, Webb's eyes showed no hesitation, Wyly said.
Wyly, a retired Marine colonel in Maine, saw a lot of himself in Webb: Both had a reputation as "difficult subordinates." Wyly said, "He had the guts to come and say, 'Skipper, there might be a better way to do that,' " Wyly said.
One day, while hunting for a Viet Cong weapons cache, the company stumbled into a complex of bunkers, Wyly recalled. A grenade flew from a bunker, exploding near Webb. He charged the bunker and killed its two occupants. When another grenade rolled toward him, he shoved a comrade to the ground and shielded him, suffering grievous wounds himself.
Webb won the Navy Cross, which is second only to the Medal of Honor. He also won a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars and was awarded two Purple Hearts. But the two grenades also sprayed him with steel, inflicting career-ending wounds. Pieces of shrapnel remain in the base of his skull and a kidney.
"Before he went over to Vietnam, he was extremely idealistic," Webb's brother, Gary, said. "When Jim came back, he was much more realistic about people, about issues, about facts."
After Webb's wounds forced him from the Marines, he went to Georgetown University's law school. There he felt the sting of contempt from antiwar classmates and faculty. He also began to write.
His first novel, "Fields of Fire," appeared in 1978, featuring as the protagonist Lt. Robert E. Lee Hodges Jr., who was a Kentuckian like Webb's grandfather and shared his name. The book went against the current of the times, offering a slap at the era of malaise and pacifism that some called the "Vietnam Syndrome." Webb's novel, for all its cautionary asides on bloodshed, teaches that no other experience is as terribly profound as combat.Women in Combat
Battle was so terrible and so profound that Webb says he believed only a certain temperament could survive there -- and only men had it.
Four years after Congress opened military academies to women, Webb wrote in the Washingtonian that "no benefit to anyone can come from women serving in combat." Female plebes were "poisoning" men's study of war.
Webb hit such a nerve that Navy brass banned him from speaking at his alma mater. Male midshipmen who opposed having women in the Brigade took his article as a manifesto; female classmates saw it as a goad to more torments.
Speeches and writings that followed continued to champion the idea that the military had become the plaything of feminists and politically correct civilian leaders and that many senior officers were too craven to do anything about it.
Five years after the Tailhook episode, which involved sexual assaults against dozens of women during a boozy convention for Navy aviators in 1991, Webb argued that the scandal should have been a "three- or maybe a five-day story." He had also characterized prolonged investigations of it as a "witch hunt."
"He's a symbol of holding women back and not accepting us for our abilities," said Lisa Stolle, 50, of Virginia Beach, who graduated with the second academy class to admit women.
In 1984, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger brought Webb to the Pentagon to fill a new post as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. By then, Webb had built a reputation as a conservative pundit, helped lead the fight against Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and worked on veterans affairs on Capitol Hill. In 1984, he won an Emmy with the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour covering the barracks bombing that killed 241 Marines in Lebanon in 1983.
In February 1987, Reagan tapped him to succeed Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr., whose signature achievement had been pushing for a 600-ship Navy. Some wondered whether Webb's temperament fit the job.
"He was very passionate about the things that are his core beliefs," said Seth Cropsey, a deputy undersecretary of the Navy who reported to Webb. "I could not figure out how he could apply that passion to the administrative details of being secretary of the Navy."
A month after taking office, Webb sent a directive that performance in combat would receive greater weight in determining promotions -- a move that some female junior officers saw as putting them at a disadvantage because they were prohibited by law from combat assignments.
"To me, it was kind of an under-the-table way of putting a glass ceiling in place," said Donna Sengelaub, 48, a retired Navy commander and 1982 Naval Academy graduate.
Later, under pressure from Congress, Webb opened more jobs to women, as did the other military branches.
Jeffrey E. McFadden, an academy graduate who worked as Webb's speechwriter, said he admired the way Webb took control of staff meetings with admirals and generals who were years older. But Webb seemed to enjoy most being around grunts and sailors, McFadden said.
During a ceremony, McFadden recalled, Webb watched as Gen. Alfred M. Gray Jr., a Marine commandant whom Webb much admired, decorated Marines for bravery. After pinning the medals, Gray gave each recipient a hard, big-brotherly punch in the arm. When Gray finished, the brash young Navy secretary gave the commandant the same playful sock on the arm, and the crowd of Marines roared in approval.
But Webb clashed with Weinberger's successor, Frank C. Carlucci, and spoke out against budget cuts demanded by Congress. On Feb. 22, 1988, after 10 months, Webb quit. He sent his aide to hand-deliver his resignation letter to Reagan. But he left his resignation letter to Carlucci on the desk of one of the secretary's aides -- a gesture noted at the time for a lack of class.A Tightknit Family
Webb settled in Falls Church and still has family in Southwest Virginia. He has been married three times and has four children: Amy Hogan, 36; James Robert Webb; Sarah C. Webb, 23, and Julia A. Webb, 21. Webb's wife, Hong Le Webb, a securities lawyer, is expecting a child in December. Family members said Webb is close to all his children, but especially to Jimmy, who left Penn State University to join the Marines. He is serving in Anbar Province in Iraq.
In an interview, Jim Webb's eyes welled as he recalled walking Civil War battlefields with his son. But he would not discuss what it is like to be a father whose son is also a warrior.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.