The Washington Post

Former Virginia senator James Webb clarifies presidential comments

James Webb wants to participate in the world of politics and policy again, he said Thursday, but he’s not sure whether it will lead him to the presidential run he has suggested is possible.

“We’re taking it a day at a time,” the former Democratic senator from Virginia said at the end of a lecture at the National Archives on Thursday. “I care a lot about the issues facing our country, and I’m going to be participating, helping people and doing things.”

Webb, 68, retired from the Senate in 2013 and stepped out of the public sphere almost completely.

His disappearance was a conscious decision, he said Thursday, part of a “healthy” desire to “take a break” and “get my independence back.” During that time, he wrote a memoir, “I Heard My Country Calling,” and while discussing the book in a radio interview Monday, he left the door open to a presidential bid.

“Let me clarify it,” he said Thursday when asked about the comments. He affirmed that he’s “not saying I’m not” running for president but added that such a non-denial is often interpreted as more of a declaration than it is. He called it “kind of . . . a default answer.”

James Webb retired from the Senate in 2013. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Given his independent streak and desire to mix public service with time to himself, it’s hard to imagine Webb entering the grueling spotlight of a modern presidential campaign.

His comments took Virginia political observers by surprise, but former aides say he is not the kind of politician who would invent presidential aspirations merely to promote a book.

When he ran for the Senate in 2006, Webb did not announce his candidacy against then-Sen. George Allen (R) until nine months before the election. So while he has not been laying the groundwork for a campaign, as supporters of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton have, that does not mean he won’t enter the race.

Webb was careful Thursday, saying he was warned not to talk about politics in the building that houses the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Federal law prohibits “partisan political, sectarian, or similar” activity in the Archives. Yet in describing his new book, his 10th, the Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary was also highlighting his leadership credentials.

Webb said his father’s military career meant he was “raised from a very young age to be a leader.” Traveling around the country for his father’s postings helped him learn to “operate and work with people of all different cultures.” His mother’s poor childhood in Arkansas, he said, helped him understand inequality.

Asked about the scandal over backlogged claims in the Department of Veterans Affairs, Webb called it “a leadership problem” and an inexcusable failure, although he has also noted that the adjudication process has grown more complex since his time on the staff of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in the late 1970s and early ’80s. He said he was proud of his work on the GI Bill for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. But he did not directly criticize President Obama or Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki.

As he has before, Webb argued that instead of diversity, the government should focus on “true issues of economic fairness” and on ensuring that all disadvantaged Americans “have a voice.” The problems of poor whites, he said, have been ignored by both parties, but those in that demographic often vote Republican because they are courted on social issues.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.



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