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JUNE 25, 2008

Mad Skills

In the spring of 2006, Jim Webb was not yet a rising superstar. In fact, he was late getting started and low on cash in his effort to win the Virginia Democratic primary, so an admiring Roanoke circuit clerk named Steve McGraw took pity on him and agreed to put him up when he came to southwestern Virginia to campaign. Webb quickly established himself as the model houseguest, washing everybody's chili bowls and shooting pool with McGraw over a bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon. But a worry gnawed at McGraw: The rumor about Webb was that behind the noble-war-hero facade lay a man who harbored a volatile, prideful, and possibly unmanageable anger. "I kept looking for it," confides McGraw. "He started late, with no money. He told me that during the campaign he was sleeping about four hours a night for five months, and he said, 'I just can't turn my brain off.' ... I kept saying, 'Sooner or later, something's gonna happen.'"


McGraw isn't the only person who's kept vigil waiting for Jim Webb to blow. Webb the hair-triggered hothead has become something of a legend here in Washington. Reporters pepper their Webb stories with colorful adjectives like "irascible" and "enraged," and, throughout town, he's often whispered of as though he were a mysterious specimen from a foreign and bellicose tribe. As evidence of Webb's hot streak, Washington social anthropologists point out that he switched party loyalties; that he's fond of hyperbole (he once called the Naval Academy a "horny woman's dream"); that he angrily quit his post as Reagan's Navy secretary; that he snapped at President Bush for asking after his soldier son Jimmy at a November 2006 White House party; and that his legislative aide tried to bring his loaded gun into the Capitol last spring, prompting Webb to explain cryptically that it was important "for a lot of people in the situation that I am in to be able to defend myself and my family. " (What "situation"? Does he shoot his political enemies?)


The interesting thing about the angry-Webb mythology, though, is that it fascinates just as much as it frightens. Fellow Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill adoringly described Webb as a "street brawler," capturing the way some Democrats--call them the Jim Webb Orientalists--romanticize Webb's aggressive, exotically redneck roots and, by extension, his capacity to hormonally invigorate a party sick of its effete, wine-sipping image. Why promote aristocratic Democrats like Al Gore or John Kerry when there's Webb, who hangs out not with actresses or New York bankers but with the likes of his friend "Mac" McGarvey, a rough-hewn, ex-Marine honky-tonk manager with a nipple ring and only one arm?


And the specific trajectory of Webb's political anger--he's a former Republican now raging against a "Republican Party that continually seeks to politicize military service" and CEOs "openly consumed by self-justifying greed"--is powerfully appealing, too. He embodies the liberal fantasy laid out by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter With Kansas?: that blue-collar whites will stop being mad at liberals for frowning at their guns and start being mad at conservatives for raping their pocketbooks. His emotional journey is the same one liberals want lower-class whites to undergo en masse.


For these reasons, Jim Webb's anger would seem to make him an especially powerful vice-presidential choice for the refined and white-working-class-alienating Barack Obama. But the researchers vetting Obama's shortlist must be vexed by a question: Is Jim Webb a vessel for the kind of righteous indignation the Democrats need--or is he just too angry to be vice president?



 


Webb was an author before he was a senator; and, more than anything else--more than his conduct as Navy secretary or the occasional heated quote--his literary oeuvre is probably the source of his hotheaded reputation. Consider the Scots-Irish heritage--"whose blood still courses in [his] veins"--that Webb traces in his pop-history book Born Fighting. The modern-day Scots-Irish now living in Appalachia and the American South are, he explains, cut from the same mold as the "large-limbed, tattooed, red-haired madmen" of medieval Scotland who struck fear into the hearts of the more genteel Romans. These tribes were fiercely suspicious of authority, and their signature unwillingness to kiss anybody else's ass persisted through generations of depressing migrations and poverty. Their hero was William Wallace, who "learned early to hate--and to fight--the local English authorities." In the sixteenth century, writes Webb, the Scots-Irish could be found taking part in "unending blood feuds" in Scotland; by the seventeenth century, they were writing "no surrender" in their own blood during the siege of Londonderry in Ireland; by the eighteenth, they had become "daring moonshine runners" in the colonies; in the nineteenth, they were peopling the "frequently impatient, always outnumbered ... wildly and recklessly Celtic" Confederate army against the "plodding" Union force; and, by the twentieth, they were mounting KKK rallies out of "bitterness at being dominated."


Webb obviously finds this sort of wild, brawling nature seductive. At times, Born Fighting describes the Scots-Irish fighting spirit with almost pornographic delight: These men were "bellicose and often warlike," "unapologetically, even devilishly hedonistic," "often impossible to control," men of "infinite stubbornness" who "dressed provocatively, acted with a volatile belligerence, drank to excess," and "came to accept the fight as birthright, even as some kind of proof of life." Their modern heirs were people like Webb's father's friend Bud, whom Webb worshipped as a child and who once punched somebody so hard his eyeball fell out when he sneezed.


How much of himself does Webb see in this? "A lot of it," he told me last month in his office, which is decorated with portraits of haunted-eyed Appalachians. "The culture formed me, and the military accentuated that." It's not hard to see why Washington's ruling class feared that Webb would be a little too keen on bringing Bud's m.o. to the Senate.


Last summer, Webb's fellow senator from Virginia, John Warner, put these fears to the test by taunting Webb with a once-in-a-lifetime political betrayal. For months, Webb had been working tirelessly on an amendment to cap the length of soldiers' tours in Iraq, and Warner had promised him crucial support. But, just hours before the scheduled vote on September 19, Warner backed out. "I endorsed it," he proclaimed melodramatically on the Senate floor. "I intend now to cast a vote against it." Standing nearby, Webb looked like he'd been slugged in the face.


Warner's bombshell, which doomed Webb's amendment, was enough to send the phlegmatic Harry Reid into spasms of bitter complaints; and the stunned scribes gathered in the press gallery could only wonder what kind of fury it would provoke from Webb. After all, if William Wallace had been jilted like that, he probably would have stabbed the offender on the spot. We all ran down to the post-vote press conference to witness the fireworks.


But then came the surprise: There were none. In fact, in defeat, Webb was less William Wallace than Oprah Winfrey. "I think Senator Warner probably struggled with this right down to the wire," he said empathetically, gently adding that he had "great respect" for the treasonous Virginia Republican. The Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman captured the press's bewilderment. "After the vote, Webb seemed sorrowful rather than angry," she wrote.


It wasn't an isolated moment. In fact, Webb's behavior since reentering politics suggests that, while he might admire the bellicose personality type, his own temperament just isn't as hot as advertised. A friend, the author Bob Timberg, recalls that the first time he thought Webb had a chance to win the Senate race was when he watched him on "The Colbert Report." "I thought he might kill [Colbert]," Timberg admits. "And he was just fine!" Steve McGraw, the man who hosted Webb during the 2006 campaign, reports that the explosion he was waiting for never came; in fact, he found Webb had an "extremely good sense of humor." And, more recently, Webb's work on the G.I. Bill has been a model of negotiating patience and discipline. He reached out to vets' groups like the American Legion to build grassroots support. He gave up some of his own demands to bring skittish GOPers (like Warner) on board. And he waited. By the time it came to a vote last month, there was such momentum in favor of the bill that 25 Republicans jumped on, humiliating John McCain, who'd tried to stop it. The rumors of Webb's difficult nature, a once-skeptical Democratic aide raves, are "all blown out of proportion. ... There are no surprises with him."


These days, Warner practically falls all over himself with praise for Webb's comity. "During a vote, on several occasions he's turned to me and said, 'Which vote do you think is in the best interest of the country?'" Warner says, sounding proud that Webb takes his advice. "You couldn't really want anything more from a working partner."


Webb has even repaired relations, or tried to, with Bush. When his son came home from Iraq, Webb decided to at least pretend that the president had evinced a good-faith curiosity in the boy and trooped him down to the White House to take a picture in the Oval Office. Jimmy, in his dress blues, looks vaguely irritated to be in the president's presence, but Senator Webb is smiling.



 


When it comes to anger, then, Jim Webb is more theorist than practitioner. He believes in anger, appreciates its role in history, even glorifies it--which is not the same as actually being angry.


Webb came to believe in anger not during his childhood, nor at war, but at Georgetown Law School. Landing there in the early '70s after Vietnam, he found himself thrust into a den of upper-crust snobs who relentlessly mocked the soldiers who had served with him. He describes the type in his novel A Country Such as This:



The students, the people of books and pep clubs and prom committees, who had from their childhood feared the simple power and brutality of the blue collar kids, the red-necks, the bowling alley kings, the hot-rodding, ducktailed greasers who once mocked their studies and their lack of manliness ... [now] unloaded on the soldiers, cursing them, daring them, under the accepted guise of hating Army, Pentagon and War.


The "people of books" at Georgetown taunted Webb, who was actually something of a natural intellectual (he likes T.S. Eliot and Impressionist art), for being a "wasp" and a dumb soldier. For the first time in his life, Webb started to feel like he was different. With a curiosity born of alienation, he ducked into the Library of Congress and started to read about his Scots-Irish roots, wolfing down six books on ethnic migration in five days. Through his reading, he came to understand his experience at Georgetown as part of a long struggle waged by his warlike people against cultural elites. "[N]o other group [than the white working class] has been so denigrated, attacked, and even feared by America's ever more interconnected ruling elites," he writes in Born Fighting. "Had I not gone to law school, I never would have fully comprehended ... the ingrained condescension of the nation's elites towards my culture."


By the end of his time at Georgetown, he had come to believe in the legitimacy of white anger in America-- anger, after all, was the age-old Scots-Irish response to being treated unjustly. He explains to me that he and his people had ample reason to "turn around and [tell the Democrats], 'You guys don't respect us, you don't want us around,'" since the party's class-based condescension led it not only to mistreat Vietnam vets but to turn affirmative action into a perverse system of discrimination against poor whites and to blow the Navy's Tailhook sex-abuse scandal into a "witch hunt" against fighting men.


This is still Webb's narrative. Only now, the elites he mistrusts--the objects of his righteous anger--are less likely to be Democrats than big-business-loving Republicans. "What did these people do to earn these fabulous sums?" he writes of wealthy CEOs in his new book, A Time to Fight. "Did they invent the lightbulb? Did they discover the Internet?" And now it's Republicans who insult the soldiers, with their "patronizing litanies [to] shield themselves from accountability by claiming that criticism of the Bush Administration's policies undermines the troops." Lower-class whites, he believes, have every right to be as angry at Republicans after Bush as they were at Democrats after Johnson. "He was right," Webb tells me of Barack Obama's infamous comment that rural whites are "bitter." "They're mad."


Webb is supposed to be Obama's opposite: the angry white politician to Obama's mild-mannered black one. But, oddly, Webb has something fundamental in common with Obama. Both men felt ill at ease at elite schools, leading them to embark on quests to rediscover their ethnic identities in their twenties. Both deepened these discoveries through writing. And both came to their identities as outsiders--as admiring anthropologists of the identity rather than people for whom the identity was organic from birth. This explains why Webb can celebrate anger without succumbing to it. It also helps explain his appeal to Democrats. Like Obama, he is not simply a member of a group historically important to the party; he is someone who embodies that group, someone who has turned that group's narrative into his own. Webb--who, in our interview, defended Obama against charges of cultural elitism made by people "trying to cut Barack down"--has shown appreciation for the similarity between their projects. "If [the Scots-Irish] could get at the same table as black America, you could change populist American politics," he told Joe Scarborough last month, "because they have so much in common in terms of what they need out of government."


Thanks to their analogous symbolic roles, Webb and Obama have one more politically important and bizarre similarity: They appeal to the same voters, wine-track Democrats who come out in unprecedented droves to vote for a black man or a hillbilly white because they want their party to be bigger than themselves. While you'd expect Webb to attract poor, rural beer-trackers, in his 2006 Senate race he didn't do any better than the previous Democratic candidate had among Appalachian voters in southwestern Virginia; instead, he was propelled to victory by Northern Virginia suburbanites--Obama's base.


In the end, if Obama picks Webb to be his running mate, it will probably be more on the basis of their affinity than on Webb's power to win white votes--or Webb's capacity to balance Obama's laid-back vibe with some pugnaciousness. It will be a unity-loving, proud-to-be-black man acknowledging just how much he has in common with an anger-loving, proud-to-be-white one.


Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor of The New Republic.


Click for the previous  and next article in TNR's Veeptacular. And for a full index of our 2008 v.p. coverage, click here

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