Remark By Webb Arouses Passions

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 2, 2006

RICHMOND, Dec. 1 -- An icy exchange between President Bush and Virginia Sen.-elect James Webb that was made public this week has turned Webb into something of a folk hero among critics of the president, who have longed for someone to challenge his bravado.

At the same time, Webb's refusal to play the gentlemanly political games so common in Washington has angered conservatives and renewed questions about how well he fits with other politicians in a sharply divided Congress, where compromise will be key.

"He already has become what Washington did not need another of, a subtraction from the city's civility and clear speaking," conservative columnist George Will wrote Thursday.

On the campaign trail, Webb rarely minced words about Bush, repeatedly calling the Iraq war "a blunder of historic proportions." At the White House reception last month, Webb said, he tried to avoid interacting with the president. But when Bush walked up to Webb to ask about his son, a Marine in Iraq, Webb hinted at the campaign criticism.

"I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," Webb said, according to a description of the conversation by several people familiar with the exchange. Webb confirmed the account this week.

"That's not what I asked you," Bush replied. "How's your boy?"

"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," Webb responded.

Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that in the short run, the incident will boost Webb's standing among the part of the electorate that is angry about the Iraq war and eager to see Bush blamed for it.

"People will see he deeply cares about this issue and is willing to stand up to the president," Ornstein said. "He's not going to be driven by the normal proprieties in this business."

Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), whose daughter was stationed in Iraq this year, said it was Webb who turned the president's question into an issue.

"I understand having a child over in harm's way in Iraq. You take the situation over there much more personally," McDonnell said. "The problem for Mr. Webb is he's got to learn a little bit better about having a sense of decorum. To be an effective U.S. senator, you have to deal in a collegial manner."

But Webb chief of staff Paul J. Reagan said the senator-elect is going to be effective once he takes office next month.

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