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'Born Fighter' Settles Down To Collegial First Term

Sen. James Webb and his Marine son, Jimmy, at a meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office. Previously, the senator, an Iraq war opponent, had rebuffed Bush's attempt to ask about his son, who was serving in Iraq.
Sen. James Webb and his Marine son, Jimmy, at a meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office. Previously, the senator, an Iraq war opponent, had rebuffed Bush's attempt to ask about his son, who was serving in Iraq. (By Eric Draper -- White House Photo Office)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008

Even before Virginia Sen. James Webb was sworn in, the decorated Marine was known for his confrontational, sometimes antagonistic style.

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There was that retort at the White House when President Bush asked about his son serving in Iraq ("That's between me and my boy, Mr. President"). His fiery Democratic response to the State of the Union address on national television ("The president took us into this war recklessly"). And his testy exchange with Republican colleague Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) on a Sunday morning talk show ("Lindsey's had a hard month").

Some of his supporters wondered how effective Webb would be in the collegial Senate, where personal relationships count for everything. But after a little more than a year in office, Webb has surprised many people in both parties with a tactful, patient style that has raised his profile among freshman senators.

To "bury the hatchet" with Bush, as he put it, Webb even initiated a private chat with his Marine son, Jimmy, and the president in the Oval Office after Jimmy returned from Iraq. His son's combat boots, the ones Webb wore on the campaign trail to symbolize his "Born Fighting" theme, are now put away, enshrined in glass in his office lobby.

"The [Republican] campaign strategy . . . was to say that I was going to have a temper all the time. . . . This is a guy who doesn't get along," said Webb, 62, of Arlington County. "But I know how to work in this environment."

The former Navy secretary appeared more than 25 times on national talk shows in his first year, unusual for a freshman who is not running for president. He has regularly attended Iraq strategy sessions in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.). He has doled out advice to other senators, including freshman Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana.

His bill to extend home leaves for U.S. troops came closer to passing than any Democratic proposal involving the war last year.

"Jim has a special place in the Senate," McCaskill said. "He has vaulted to a position of influence."

The man he narrowly beat in 2006, George Allen, said he continues to differ with Webb on the war and whether illegal immigrants should be granted citizenship, but Allen also has taken note of Webb's elevated role.

"He certainly became one of the Democrats' spokespersons right off the bat, so he seems to be acclimating well to the Senate and advocating what he believes," Allen said. "I know the Democrats in the Senate rely on him, and in that aspect, he is doing well."

Webb was asked to deliver the keynote address to the New Hampshire Democratic Party at its annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in the fall, a high-profile speech that in recent years has been made by former presidential candidates John F. Kerry and John Edwards.

"We hit the ground running," Webb said. "We're at the bottom of the food chain but . . . we have really made a dent up here."


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