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Webb's decision to retire surprises few who know him best

By Christian Davenport and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 10, 2011; A04

After an awkward campaign in which he shied away from Virginia voters and their parochial issues, and after he snubbed President George W. Bush at a White House reception and accused him of taking the country into Iraq "recklessly," there was more than a little unease about how Jim Webb would fit into the Senate.

"He's going to be a total pain," one Democratic aide groaned early on. And that was the sentiment in his own party.

So when Webb - who has always defined himself not as a senator but as a Marine grunt, Vietnam veteran, Navy secretary, novelist, historian and journalist - announced Wednesday that he will retire from office in 2012, few were surprised. This was, after all, a rare senator who once said that he pined for the days when "you can sit on a park bench and no one knows who you are."

A politician he is not - at least not the way politics are played now. He hates asking people to vote for him. He hates raising money. He hates Capitol Hill cocktail parties. And, as someone who switched from being a Democrat to a Republican and then back again, he hates the partisan politics that define Washington.

He was such a reluctant campaigner that Rep. James P. Moran (D) said during Webb's 2006 run: "It would probably help if he'd be willing to shake a couple of hands." Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist who advised Webb that year, said the candidate found the slog of campaigning "offensive."

Tick-necked and hard-headed, Webb is an acerbic, hard-working Scots-Irishman, an ethnic group whose values, as he wrote in his book "Born Fighting," stands in contrast to the country's "paternalistic Ivy League-centered, media-connected, politically correct power centers."

The Senate "just isn't his cup of tea," said Thomas M. Davis III, a Republican former congressman from Northern Virginia who has known Webb for 25 years. "The Senate is a place where you have to conform, that works by unanimous consent. It's very slow and deliberative." Webb is not.

In a way, Webb assumed the senatorial mantle of another era, pursuing his own interests - even if they resonated little or not at all with constituents - instead of rushing back home on weekends to march in parades and shake hands at barbecues. The man who thought of himself as a writer first and a politician second - or third - never considered making the Senate a career.

When Webb spoke with former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), a longtime friend, about running for office, "the central question," Kerrey recalled, "was: 'Can I make a difference in a single term?' "

Webb's time in the Senate may be remembered most for something that happened before he was sworn in. At a White House reception for incoming members, he refused to stand in the receiving line to meet Bush, who found him anyway and asked about Webb's son, who was serving in Iraq.

Webb famously declined to answer, saying, "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President."

He then delivered the Democratic response to Bush's State of the Union address, calling for an end to the Iraq war. Given his military experience and the growing backlash against Bush, Webb became a natural voice for antiwar sentiment from the left and the right.

The war is what sparked Webb's candidacy, and it gave him a national platform, which crescendoed in a narrow victory over Sen. George Allen (R). Webb campaigned in the combat boots of his son, a Marine lance corporal.

Once in office, Webb made good on a promise to expand benefits for veterans. On his first day in the Senate, in 2007, he introduced the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.

"He basically took the combat experience he had and applied it to Capitol Hill," said Todd Bowers, deputy executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "He made that promise not necessarily to his constituents, but to veterans as a whole."

As a senator, Webb has seemed more interested in foreign affairs than local issues. He has a particular interest in Burma, whose people, he wrote, "need our assistance and our strong involvement in order to have the kind of future that we claim is our objective."

In 2009, he became the first member of Congress in a decade to visit Burma - a trip that led to the release of John Yettaw, an American citizen who had been sentenced to hard labor after swimming to the home where Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi was being detained.

Webb also has sought to reform the U.S. prison system, which he has called a disgrace, noting the disproportionate number of African Americans behind bars. He has argued that law enforcement focuses too heavily on low-level drug offenders instead of violent criminals.

But with the nation fighting two wars and the economy beginning to slide, Webb was criticized for focusing on an issue that does not directly affect most Americans.

That iconoclastic bent, however, is exactly what has made Webb a valued asset in a body where so many think alike, colleagues said.

"He was willing to take on the tough battles," said Jarding, the Democratic strategist. "Congress is kind of robotic. Everyone is the same. These voices are hard to come by."

Webb's voice has come through best, however, through his pen, not at a lectern. Several close friends expect the author of "Fields of Fire" to return to writing after he retires from politics.

"He's a writer," Kerrey said. "That's who he is."

davenportc@washpost.com kumara@washpost.com

Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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