By Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 28, 2006
RICHMOND, Oct. 27 -- Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) has accused his Democratic opponent, James Webb, of writing inappropriate sex scenes and demeaning descriptions of women in his fictional books, the latest character attack in a close and nasty campaign.
With 10 days remaining before Election Day, the allegations about sex-laced passages in Webb's writings inject a new question into a campaign that has centered almost exclusively on character issues: Should the author of a fictional work who runs for office be personally held to account for the scenes in his books?
Webb, a former U.S. Navy secretary, responded angrily Friday on Washington Post Radio, defending his novels as "serious" works and calling Allen's attack part of the senator's negative campaign that is devoid of ideas. "To take these things out and pull excerpts out and force them on people . . . is just a classic example of the way this campaign is run," Webb said. "Literature is literature. I've made my career as a novelist. George Allen doesn't have a record to run on."
Webb's books, including "Lost Soldiers," "Something to Die For" and "Fields of Fire," are historical novels that describe wartime horrors in Vietnam and people dealing with the aftermath of combat. Webb is a decorated Marine who served in Vietnam.
Allen campaign officials provided excerpts from the books -- some of them depicting acts of incest and graphic sexuality -- to the Drudge Report Web site Thursday night. Matt Drudge's Internet blog often breaks or promotes stories with sensational angles, most recently the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). Allen's aides, who have been trying to get other news organizations to write about the excerpts for weeks, issued statements saying the fictional scenes in Webb's novels reflect poorly on Webb's character and fitness for office.
Allen told reporters after a campaign stop in Harrisonburg that Webb's books are demeaning to women. "My opponent hasn't been in public office," he said. "But he talks about the books he's written and his creative writing, his novels. Those are some of his writings. . . . People can make that judgment."
Allen's aides would not say whether the senator had read Webb's books. They said he did not know about the books' contents six years ago, when he accepted Webb's endorsement for his first Senate campaign.
Webb said the graphic scenes in his novels, many of which are set in wartime, are taken out of context and do not accurately reflect the books or their content: combat. He said he has written about disturbing scenes that he witnessed on the battlefield or as a journalist in Southeast Asia.
"It is an observation about how the human species lives," Webb said after Mark Plotkin, the radio show's host, read one of the more lurid passages, prompting objections from the candidate.
Webb told Plotkin that listeners should read a book by Allen's sister, Jennifer, who described her brother's harsh physical treatment toward her. He also shot back that Vice President Cheney's wife, Lynne, wrote a novel, "Sisters," which contains scenes of rape and a lesbian love affair. "You can read Lynne Cheney's lesbian love scenes if you want to get graphic on stuff," he said.
In an interview later on CNN, Cheney declared Webb to be "full of baloney" and denied that she wrote anything in "Sisters" that is sexually explicit.
"His novels are full of sexually explicit references to incest -- sexually explicit references," she said.
Her book is out of print and difficult to find, but independent reviews describe it as highly sexual and "steamy" and mention lesbian characters.
Allen's attack on Webb's novels occurred three weeks after the senator gave a two-minute speech pleading for a return to issues after having defended himself against personal-character scandals for months. "The negative personal attacks and baseless allegations have also pulled us away from what you expect and deserve," Allen told voters in the unusual paid television commercial.
By Friday morning, however, the new allegations unleashed by his campaign had become the highlight of morning talk-radio shows and cable news outlets. Conservative groups seized on the news, with one calling for Webb to withdraw for writing "Triple X" novels. Cable news shows debated the issue throughout the day.
Several Web sites and blogs printed the passages. One, from "Fields of Fire," was: "He saw the invitation with every bouncing breast and curved hip. . . . He was thirteen. . . . She was fifteen. . . ." Another was about a man seeing his mother: "She was naked underneath the robe . . . and the robe fell loosely away, revealing her."
Kay James, an Allen campaign adviser, criticized the writings: "How can women trust Jim Webb to represent their views in the Senate when chauvinistic attitudes and sexually exploitative references run throughout his fiction and nonfiction writings?"
Webb's allies rushed to his defense, saying the attempt to criticize an author for scenes in a work of fiction reflects a Republican campaign in Virginia that is in disarray and desperately searching for a way to win at any cost.
Steve Jarding, a senior Webb adviser, said Allen's lack of wartime experience disqualifies him from commenting on Webb's novels.
"Senator, you have not earned the right to question Jim Webb's wartime experiences," Jarding said. "Perhaps if you had gone to Vietnam and served as a company commander instead of serving as a [cattle] driver at a dude ranch . . . you would temper your feigned indignation."
Best-selling author John Grisham, who with Stephen King held a fundraiser for Webb in Charlottesville, said Friday in an interview: "This is a clear sign of a desperate campaign if they plow through novels trying to find evidence of character. I seriously doubt George Allen is much of a reader, but if he would read more, maybe he would understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction."
Some people said Webb's novels are works of imagination intended to be informative and provide entertainment, not statements of actions that Webb endorses.
Margaret R. Soltan, an English professor at George Washington University, said voters should not regard Webb's novels as indicative of his views, any more than voters in England should have been deterred by some of Winston Churchill's more shocking writing.
"To think along those lines exposes you as a person who has no culture," she said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam war hero who has endorsed Allen, praises "Lost Soldiers" on the book jacket. "It captures well the lingering scars of the war," he says. "A novel of revenge and redemption that tells us much about both where Vietnam is headed and where it has been."
An aide to McCain said Friday she could not reach the senator.
Staff writer Robert Barnes contributed to this report.