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Pugnacious, Brusque And a Media Darling

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007; PW02

RICHMOND

What is it about James Webb?

Virginia's junior senator is riding a wave of attention that is rare for any politician and virtually unheard-of for an officeholder during his first weeks in public service.

And it's not just the liberal bloggers, who recruited Webb and spent the fall helping to get him elected. Webb has become the darling of the MSM (mainstream media), which have featured him in numerous articles since the beginning of January.

Consider:

In the past few weeks, Webb has appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," CBS's "Face the Nation" and Fox's "Fox News Sunday." He has been quoted repeatedly in this newspaper, the New York Times and the New Yorker and has appeared on cable and network news broadcasts.

So what's going on?

The most obvious answer has to do with his selection by Democratic leaders to give the party's response to President Bush's State of the Union address last month. Webb's nine-minute speech was a boffo hit that sparked praise from conservatives and liberals alike.

Times columnist David Brooks, appearing on PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," called Webb's speech "intense," "eloquent" and "forceful." Other comments were equally positive, giving Virginia's newest senator a nice beginning to his six-year term.

But Webb's appeal has not faded in the weeks since he gave the address. There are two reasons: his style and the war in Iraq.

Webb is a prickly man. He's blunt and can be standoffish. And though he has a deep-throated laugh, he rarely offers it up to an audience. But most of all, he has a countenance that is almost always serious. It's as if the furrows in his brow never go away.

Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the New Yorker, described him as "pugnacious of temperament." Chris Wallace, during the Fox interview, put it this way:

"You have a reputation, and it has only strengthened since you were elected, as being -- forgive me -- combative," Wallace said.

That personality, which made being a candidate challenging, has become an asset in office. He has created a blunt, "no-bull" image that members of the national press corps and the news programs find refreshing in Washington.

He cemented that image even before he took office, during a brief but tense exchange with Bush about Webb's son, a Marine serving in Iraq. During the Fox interview, Webb called the exchange "vastly overblown" but took another shot at the president by agreeing that more courtesy is needed in politics.

"In that particular situation, I don't think the lack of courtesy was mine," Webb told Wallace.

But personality only carries you so far, even in Washington.

The attention being paid to Webb is also a function of the subject dominating the political process: the war in Iraq and debate about the president's plan to send 21,500 additional troops to Baghdad.

Webb's background -- personal and professional -- gives him instant credibility. He is a decorated Marine who served in Vietnam and comes from a family of military men. He is one of only two senators with a child who has served in the Iraq war.

Professionally, his service as Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan, though brief and a bit rocky, inoculates him from the charge that he is a liberal with little respect for the military. And his early opposition to the war, documented in a 2002 op-ed article in The Washington Post, helps him further.

During the next several weeks, Webb is likely to retain the spotlight as the Senate debates resolutions opposing the troop increase and then moves to contentious discussions about the president's request for billions of dollars to prosecute the war.

But then what?

Eventually, the subject of the war will fade and other issues will surface: the economy, stem cells, health care, crime. Will media interest in Webb tail off as the nation's attention, and that of Congress, shifts to other subjects?

Perhaps. In addition to the war, Webb continues to talk about the growing divide between the rich and the poor. It's a populist theme that he used with some success during the campaign and talked about during his response to the president.

But the way he talks about that subject puts him at odds with many Republicans and some in his own party. It is not clear that he will command the same attention on that subject that he has on Iraq.

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