A TIME TO FIGHT: RECLAIMING A FAIR AND JUST AMERICA
By Jim Webb
Broadway, 255 pages, $24.95
Jim Webb is often mentioned as a possible running mate for Barack Obama. As a former Republican, his presence would lend substance to Mr. Obama’s talk of bipartisanship; as a senator from red-trending-purple Virginia, he might give Democrats a chance to take some electoral votes from the Republican column. He’s for an expedited withdrawal from Iraq, but he has the same—if not more impressive—military bona fides than those we all thought would save John Kerry, and without the taint of careerism.
But the strongest argument for a Webb vice presidency is the entertaining possibility that he’d eventually break off and start his own republic.
Having read A Time to Fight, his autobiography-cum-manifesto, my respect for Jim Webb—for his service, his idealism, his independence—has deepened. I’m also quite sure he would make a disastrous vice president, in part due to the characteristics that compel that respect, or at least because of the traits that lurk on the opposite side of the coin: a touch of arrogance, the ability to hold long-simmering grudges and monumental inflexibility.
An incident that touches on all three: In 1988, he famously resigned his position as secretary of the Navy—in terms of influence, a position that’s on the low end of the secretary of transportation range—over the military’s rejection of his plan for redistributing and redirecting almost the entirety of American forces overseas. It’s as if Mary E. Peters (what, you didn’t know?) quit because Bush refused to tear up and rebuild the U.S. highway system. Mr. Webb’s resignation was, in part, a gesture that reflects faith in his own ideas. But it was also, well, a gesture that reflects faith in his own ideas. His retelling of the anecdote ends with this smug coda: "It did give me some sense of validation when the reconfiguration of our forces in Europe [in the 1990’s] … closely approximated the recommendations I had brought forward seven years earlier."
Nor is Mr. Webb’s pleasure in his righteousness limited to matters of national policy. Narrating the process by which he went from Midwestern misfit teenager to military recruit, he repeats a famous trick question asked in his Marine scholarship interview: "How do we get the mud out of the Missouri River?" Rather than reach for the obvious parry—you can’t get the mud out of the Missouri River—young Jim outlined an intricate process involving a giant filtering belt, hoses and culverts. Very well, the exuberance of youth, etc. However, the adult Jim Webb still thinks it was a fabulous answer. "Actually," he writes, "I still think the idea has possibilities. …" Taxpayers should be glad the Missouri River doesn’t flow through Virginia.
IT’S A MEASURE OF MR. WEBB’S integrity, and testimony to his remarkable career—and proof of an astounding lack of self-consciousness—that he remains a likable and engaging character despite the drumbeat recital of his own accomplishments. Also, sometimes he really is right. His opposition to the invasion of Iraq came early and forcefully. It was largely founded on military and geopolitical realities rather than ideology; in an op-ed that The Wall Street Journal commissioned just hours after 9/11, then declined to publish, Mr. Webb wrote: "The terrorist armies make no claim to be members of any nation-state. Similarly, it would be militarily and politically dangerous for our military to operate from permanent or semi-permanent bases, or to declare that we are defending specific pieces of terrain. …"
Here I must digress from the serious issues that Mr. Webb addresses (including a convincing argument that we should be worrying more about China than Iran) and focus on the sequel to the WSJ turning down that prescient op-ed: "I posted the article on my personal Web page, where it has since remained," he tells us. This kind of redundant locution is characteristic of the book. Elsewhere he notes, "I like to compare the design of our governmental system to the invention of the game of baseball, commonly accepted as our national pastime." Also, in his discussion of the importance of economic security, he informs us there is a "hierarchy of needs. First, people want to eat and to be clothed and to procreate." Some will find this pedantic; I choose to find it endearing. I never felt like Mr. Webb was overexplaining to show off, but rather he really wants us to know. In any case, it’s a village-explainer rhetorical style that makes one somewhat surprised to hear repeated, as we do, "I’ve taught literature at the university level."
Mr. Webb knows there’s something appealing about his odd and impressive professional journey. He boasts that he’s "the only person in the history of Virginia to be elected to statewide office with a union card, two Purple Hearts, and three tattoos." He somehow forgot to add that he also has an Emmy (for television reporting). And as proud as he is of his résumé, he might take even more pride in his idiosyncratic, even incoherent, political views.
By my tally, Mr. Webb is anti-immigration, anti-gun-control, pro-labor (he’s actually a card-carrying union member), antiwar, anti-affirmative-action (as applied to anyone but black people), pro-military (his prescription for reforming our justice system, he tells us, "derives from my service in the United States Marine Corps"), protectionist and—if you saw this coming, you’re a better analyst than I—adamantly in favor of the legalization of marijuana. If constituencies were based on ideology rather than geography, Mr. Webb’s would be rather small. Really, beyond the author himself, I can’t imagine who else it would include.
Indeed, he devotes much of the manifesto sections of the book to excoriating his own party for having lost its way, and not in some election-year-fashionable Zell Miller/Joe Lieberman kind of way, damning them for having grown too liberal. No, in at least one important regard, Mr. Webb believes the Democratic Party isn’t liberal enough: They need to do more to stop "the breakdown of our country along class lines," including penalizing overpaid CEOs and stockbrokers ("who produce not one actual product for the marketplace"). He complains that political leaders—including Democrats—have been doing "very little push back … [to] stanch this disturbing transfer of wealth to the already wealthy." Modern Democrats, worried that they’ll be accused of waging "class warfare," usually temper such rhetoric.
Give this to Jim Webb: He doesn’t back down from any kind of warfare, including class.
Perhaps even more daringly, he rejects one of the central conceits that has held together the always fragile Democratic coalition for four decades: the importance of the culture wars and identity politics. He bemoans the presence of top leaders in the Democratic party "who … [tout] … hard-to-grasp themes such as the environment and global warming as the prime political issues of the coming decade. …" He puts the question "Should gays be permitted to marry?" on the same footing as "Should Britney Spears be allowed to keep her kids?" He warns that engaging in those discussions pleases "those who do not want significant change" in America and "distract[s] from the issues that truly threaten our future."
DESPITE THE STRENGTH OF HIS convictions, Mr. Webb does not come across as particularly emotional or hotheaded. Sure, he had an infamous run-in with President Bush—the president inquired after the senator’s son, also a Marine, and Mr. Webb told him, "That’s bet
ween me and my boy." He’s also on record saying he was tempted to slug the POTUS. But that reaction seems both reasonable and, though disrespectful of the office, not exactly rude. Even Mr. Webb’s love of boxing seems to stem less from a lust for violence than from a passion for the clarity that combat provides: In the ring, he writes, "there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and nobody else to blame. Whatever else may happen, your pride and your survival demand you focus on the job at hand. …"
For Jim Webb, fighting—including the fight he heralds in his book’s title—is about struggle rather than fisticuffs. And for him, it’s not just his defining characteristic, but the nation’s. I lost count of the number of times he framed our history and our culture as a contest between forces, whether those forces are defined by party, class, opposing ideas or branch of government: "The great strength of the American experiment has been that we live in a continuous state of political abrasion," elsewhere described as its "constant competitiveness" and—mixing things up—"competitive abrasion."
Critics may detect hypocrisy, or maybe just irony, in Mr. Webb’s desire for intellectual combat in light of his opposition to the war in Iraq. But he doesn’t want to stop fighting; he just wants to do it here. When he laments that we are "overwhelmed by vagueness," his remedy—familiar to fans of Tyler Durden—is to step into the ring.
Ana Marie Cox blogs at www.time.com/swampland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.