I mentioned some of the factors that make Jim Webb, the Democratic Senator from Virginia, a less than entirely compelling Vice-Presidential pick for Barack Obama, here. To recap: when he campaigned for the Senate in 2006 Webb was, not to put too fine a point on it, hopeless on the campaign trail. You could see that it pained him to even ask people to vote for him and he plainly had little patience for the self-abasement and daily humiliations of life on the campaign trail. He is not a natural baby-kisser. My sense - from his own writing and what I've read about him - is that he is also difficult, stubborn, awkward, cussed and not to be trifled with. these too may not be attributes best-suited to a national campaign in the modern political era.
What he is, however, is something more important: he's clearly his own man and, crucially in this political era, a man one can respect even - or especially - if one disagrees with him (eg, on trade). There is, to use the word that came to dominate his 2006 Senate campaign, an authenticity to Webb that most politicians would chew their right arm off to possess. That is to say, I'd trust that Jim Webb had come to a decision honestly and because he considered it the wisest, most appropriate cause of action, not because a focus group or political calculation had persuaded him it was the most advantageous way forward. This would be true, I think, even in areas of disagreement. Perhaps especially so. In other words, I think he acts in good faith which is, in the end, all one can ask of any politician.
And so there's something compelling to the idea of Vice-President Webb. The political considerations first: the Democrats have no other plausible candidate with anything like Webb's military experience. At the very least one might think Obama could ask Webb to be a Shadow Secretary of Defense in advance of nominating him to the post after the election. Sure, Webb was a Republican until recently, but in addition to the Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts he won in Vietnam he served as Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. He also, and vitally from a Democratic point of view, opposed the Iraq War for reasons that, alas, look more cogent than ever.
That he resigned from Reagan's Pentagon on a point of principle (opposing cuts to the Navy) also a) stamps him as a man the US military ought not to be afraid of and b) marks him as a man cut from different cloth to that customarily worn by politicians today. Clearly, however, his presence on the Presidential ticket would go some way towards reassuring some voters that Obama's national security team is not going to be wet behind the ears and that there'll be no repeat of the drift and squandered opportunities of the Clinton years. Webb won't be learning on the job.
Secondly, even allowing for the truth that Webb could probably not have won Virginia without George Allen's self-immolation it remains the case that Virginia is trending Democratic and Webb's presence on the ticket could conceivably help Obama win the Commonwealth's 14 electoral college votes. Pinching states from the opposition is no small thing.
But really Webb's appeal as a running-mate is greater than that and greater too than the prospect of his being able to compensate, to some extent anyway, for John McCain's appeal to working-class white men. It's not hard to imagine Webb helping the ticket in virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, to say nothing of the benefits his populism could potentially have in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. He may, in fact, be just the sort of culturally conservative and genuine Democrat Obama needs to balance his ticket.
An Obama-Webb ticket closes a circle. Much has been said, some of it overblown but enough of it with a kernel of truth to justify the hype and optimism, about how electing Barack Obama would be an act of historic significance, in some way atoning for the original sin of slavery and reconciling the darker elements of American history. As I say, a good deal of this is trite: a President Obama is not going to magically close the divide between white and black America, but there's enough to this to make the hope it inspires understandable.
Putting Jim Webb on the ticket completes this process. like John McCain, Webb can plausibly claim that his ancestors have fought in almost every American war. Unlike McCain, Webb is a creature of the white working class. He believes his people - the Scots-Irish of Appalachia - remain misunderstood, under-appreciated and disparaged by America's elites. If Obama is a "wine track" candidate, Jim Webb is definitely "beer track". He's quite happy - proud in fact - of his "redneck" stock.
I doubt there's another member of the United States Senate who has made a speech at the Confederate War Memorial (correct me, readers, if I'm wrong). Let alone one who gave a speech such as the one Webb delivered in 1990:
This is by no means my first visit to this spot.
The Confederate Memorial has had a special place in my life for many years. During the bitter turbulence of the early and mid1970's I used to come here quite often. I had recently left the Marine Corps and was struggling to come to grips with my service in Vietnam, and with the misperceptions that seemed rampant about the people with whom I had served and what, exactly we had attempted to accomplish. And there were many, many times that I found myself drawn to this deeply inspiring memorial, to contemplate the sacrifices of others, several of whom were my ancestors, whose enormous suffering and collective gallantry are to this day still misunderstood by most Americans. ...
I used to walk the perimeter of this monument, itself designed by a man who had fought for the Confederacy and who, despite international fame as a sculptor, decided to be buried beneath it, and I would comprehend that worldwide praise can never substitute for loyalties learned and tested under the tribulations of the battlefield. I would study the inscription:
NOT FOR FAME OR REWARD, NOT FOR PLACE OR FOR RANK, NOT LURED BY AMBITION OR GOADED BY NECESSITY, BUT IN SIMPLE OBEDIENCE TO DUTY AS THEY UNDERSTOOD IT, THESE MEN SUFFERED ALL, SACRIFICED ALL, DARED ALL, AND DIED -- words written by a Confederate veteran who had later become a minister, and knew that this simple sentence spoke for all soldiers in all wars, men who must always trust their lives to the judgment of their leaders, and whose bond thus goes to individuals rather than to stark ideology, and who, at the end of the day that is their lives, desire more than anything to sleep with the satisfaction that when all the rhetoric was stripped away, they had fulfilled their duty -- as they understood it. To their community. To their nation. To their individual consciences. To their family. And to their progeny, who in the end must not only judge their acts, but be judged as their inheritors.
And so I am here, with you today, to remember. And to honor an army that rose like a sudden wind out of the little towns and scattered farms of a yet unconquered wilderness. That drew 750,000 soldiers from a population base of only five million-less than the current population of Virginia alone. That fought with squirrel rifles and cold steel against a much larger and more modern force. That saw 60 percent of its soldiers become casualties, some 256,000 of them dead. That gave every ounce of courage and loyalty to a leadership it trusted and respected, and then laid down its arms in an instant when that leadership decided that enough was enough. That returned to a devastated land and a military occupation. That endured the bitter humiliation of Reconstruction and an economic alienation from the rest of this nation which continued for fully a century, affecting white and black alike....
The last twenty five years in this country have shown again and again that, despite the regrettable and well-publicized turmoil of the Civil Rights years, those Americans of African ancestry are the people with whom our history in this country most closely intertwines, whose struggles in an odd but compelling way most resemble our own, and whose rights as full citizens we above all should celebrate and insist upon....
There are at least two lessons for us to take away from such a day of remembrance. The first is one our leaders should carry next to their breasts, and contemplate every time they face a crisis, however small, which puts our military at risk. it should echo in their consciences, from the power of a million graves . It is simply this: You hold our soldiers' lives in sacred trust. When a citizen has sworn to obey you, and follow your judgment, and walk onto a battlefield to defend the interests you define as worthy of his blood, do not abuse that awesome power through careless policy, unclear objectives, or inflexible leadership.
The second lesson regards those who have taken such an oath, and who have honored the judgment of their leaders, often at great cost. Intellectual analyses of national policy are subject to constant re-evaluation by historians as the decades roll by, but duty is a constant, frozen in the context of the moment it was performed. Duty is action, taken after listening to one's leaders, and weighing risk and fear against the powerful draw of obligation to family, community, nation, and the unknown future.
We, the progeny who live in that future, were among the intended beneficiaries of those frightful decisions made so long ago. As such, we are also the caretakers of the memory, and the reputation, of those who performed their duty -- as they understood it -- under circumstances too difficult for us ever to fully comprehend.
Indeed so. What you see here is a politician who, like Obama, is sensitive to nuance and circumstance and to the understanding that history matters but that we need not be in thrall to history. There's a generosity of spirit and pride too that seems commendable to me as well as a basic decency and sympathy that deserves applause.
In that respect then perhaps it's no great surprise that the protagonist in Webb's first (terrific) Vietnam novel Fields of Fire should have been named Robert E Lee Hodges nor that his own son is also named Robert, at least in part to honour the great Confederate general.
In that speech in Arlington, Webb also mentioned that one of his ancestors fought with Nathan Bedford Forrest... At this point you may feel that the neatness of the symbolism becomes too much. And perhaps you would be right. But there you have it. Perhaps it's the romantic in me that finds Jim Webb the most appropriate subordinate for Barack Obama - politically and historically. If circles are to be closed they might as well be closed properly and completely. And what better symbol could there be for a campaign largely predicated upon symbolism?