With Daring Prison-Reform Proposal, Sen. Jim Webb Tries to Make Each Word Count

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009

RICHMOND "I'm a writer, I want to know where you're going with this," Jim Webb says suspiciously at the beginning of our chat. He has been so many things: tough guy, for sure; Ollie North's college boxing opponent, Vietnam War hero, Navy secretary, senator, Republican . . . Democrat.

But he seems most eager to define himself as a man of letters, or at least he does on this particular overcast day at his office, pausing to talk for a few minutes about what could be his greatest legislative legacy or a most uncharacteristic clunker. The Democratic senator -- er, writer -- is accustomed to controlling the narrative flow whether he's writing bestsellers or directing troops on the battlefield. Yet now, this commanding presence enters a less compliant arena, one in which he inevitably emerges as much as a protagonist as an author.

"I am, at bottom, a writer," he says, invoking his default response. "I start with a theme, rather than a plot." Webb wants to shape a plotline that, with each turn of the page, draws America closer to reinventing its criminal justice system. Questioning why the United States locks up so many of its youths, why its prisons swell with disease and atrocities while fundamental social problems persist in its streets, has earned Webb lavish praise as a politician unafraid to be smeared as soft on crime. And when a law-and-order type as rock-ribbed as Webb expresses willingness to consider legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, excitement follows.

Still, for all the attaboys, ceding control of how he or his ideas will be interpreted clearly makes Webb uncomfortable.

At 63, Jim Webb, is one year removed from withdrawing his name from a list of possible running mates for then-Sen. Barack Obama after much breathless speculation that he would be the fabled Southern Democrat who could boost the ticket. Webb looks much younger than his age, still every bit the picture of the fit warrior, with red hair and a ruddy Scotch-Irish complexion. Once he fixes that stare of his, sets that square jaw, there's little doubt that he is used to giving the orders. His voice starts somewhere deep in his throat, then emerges as a confident rumble, adding to the aura of unquestioned authority, which he asserts when the conversation turns to where his ideas about the criminal justice system could be headed. "I don't want you to perceive from an inverted syllogism where I'm going here," he says.

Even without Webb's reminders (or his casual use of syllogism, which Merriam-Webster helped us to understand as "a deductive scheme of a formal argument, consisting of a major and minor premise and a conclusion"), it would be tough to miss the fact that he is, indeed, a writer. A really good, really successful writer. His crisp, muscular prose regularly lands him on fiction bestseller lists and his stellar 1978 debut novel, "Fields of Fire," was described at the time, by no less a light than Tom Wolfe, as the "finest of the Vietnam novels."

Writing hasn't always burnished Webb's rep, though. The next year, he wrote an article in Washingtonian magazine titled "Women Can't Fight," arguing against women in combat leadership roles. The article lingers as an easy prop for Webb's detractors, even though he says he tripled the number of jobs open to women while naval secretary and cracked down on sexual harassment.

Webb's gifts as a wordsmith -- occasional kerfuffles aside -- afford him a platform unavailable to less literary senators. When he decided to propose a massive reexamination of U.S. prisons and criminal laws this past spring, he gave the usual floor speech. Whereas other senators may get confined to that usually empty chamber and its daytime C-SPAN audience, Webb went on from there to state his case by writing a Parade magazine cover story titled "Why We Must Fix Our Prisons," talking directly to its 30 million-plus Sunday readers.

"Our overcrowded, ill-managed prison systems are places of violence, physical abuse, and hate, making them breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behavior we purport to fear," the writer wrote.

Lawmakers who haven't been decorated for heroism on the battlefield -- and don't have that penetrating gaze -- might have less latitude to broach such themes. But Webb gets a pass.

"He's clearly not a liberal wimp," said Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by Charles Colson. "That's what works about this politically. He's not doing this because he bleeds for prisoners."

On its face, Webb's proposal is bolder in rhetoric than in practice, to put it mildly. He wants to -- brace yourselves -- form a bipartisan commission! (The proposal is included in a bill that has attracted more than two dozen co-sponsors, but has yet to be voted on.) The commission is supposed to, among other things, come up with recommendations for reducing the overall incarceration rate, decreasing prison violence and improving treatment of mental illness inside and outside prisons.

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