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Review: Sen. James Webb comes out swinging in 'A Time to Fight'

After a bruising 2006 campaign, Democrat James Webb, a former Secretary of the Navy, admirer of Ronald Reagan and much-decorated Vietnam vet, beat Virginia's incumbent senator, George Allen.

Allen, of course, helped to knock himself out of a safe seat with his notorious "macaca" remark. After the election, Webb, who ran against the Iraq war even though (or, perhaps, because) his son was serving in the Marines there, was in no mood for bipartisan detente.

At a White House reception for new lawmakers, George W. Bush cornered Webb and asked how his "boy" was doing. Webb was famously brusque: "I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President." Bush snapped back, "That's not what I asked you." Webb refused to answer.

Webb is known in Washington for his contentiousness, admired for his military expertise and respected for his cut-the-crap decisiveness. He doesn't see himself as a crafty Beltway insider, either: "For thirty years, writing has been my true vocation. . . . A great deal of my life has been spent in frequent solitude and not without frustration, dedicated to building up a body of work to provide insights on our way of life and to pass on those perspectives to future generations."

Indeed, Webb has been a journalist, a filmmaker, a social historian (his study of the Scots-Irish in the South is called Born Fighting) and author of six novels, one of which, Fields of Fire, often shows up on lists of the best Vietnam novels.

A Time to Fight, his new book, is a manifesto crossed with memoir, taking on class inequities, the idiocy of invading Iraq, the erosion of the Bill of Rights and the degradation of American political culture. And boy is he mad.

Webb credits his martial Southern forebears for his preternatural toughness: One ancestor froze with George Washington at Valley Forge, and in the 1930s, his grandmother chopped cotton till the New Deal brought work in an artillery shell factory to her Arkansas town.

Sheer Calvinist orneriness helped him withstand what he calls the "hog trough of Karl Rovian negativity" into which the Republicans tried to throw him during the 2006 campaign. They impugned his honor (Southern men don't take kindly to that kind of foolishness), they told lies about his positions, claiming that he was pro-gay marriage, proposed amnesty for illegal aliens and, of course, wanted to "cut and run" in Iraq.

Worst of all, they quoted — out of context! — sex scenes in his novels, trying to make him look like "a pornographer, a pedophile, a misogynist and a plagiarist."

No wonder Webb was in no mood to make nice with Bush. You don't attack a man's fiction. Especially a man proud of his literary accomplishments and high level of book learning.

Webb wants you to know that he's not your usual philistine politician. In preparation for deployment to Vietnam, he read not only the Naval Academy required texts, but French colonial history, South Asian history, Mao, Marx, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. In A Time to Fight he quotes Rudyard Kipling, T.S. Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Miguel de Cervantes — and that's only in the first 17 pages.

Webb's stubborn convictions are attractive in a time when most politicians are prepared to "evolve" their principles according to what focus groups tell them, what voters think they want. He has a populist, multilateralist, multicultural vision for America, and he is unafraid to speak truth to power.

He dismisses neoconservative foreign policy as "Trotskyite nonsense about exporting American ideology at the point of a gun." He's unimpressed with Microsoft and its anti-union attitude. He's outraged over George W. Bush's executive power grab.

Such bracing observations have made him a poster boy for the ascendant Democratic Party, mentioned as a possible 2008 vice-presidential pick (although he firmly took himself off that list recently), maybe even some day a candidate for president.

It may seem churlish to wish that Webb had that self-deprecating sense of humor that helps make Barack Obama and John McCain popular. He does sometimes approach irony, as when he says, "It's pretty safe to say that I am the only person in the history of Virginia to be elected to statewide office with a union card, two Purple Hearts and three tattoos."

But maybe for a pugilist like Webb, the world is just too much of a battle, too serious, too rage-inducing. Who can blame him? From Vietnam onward, his government often failed him. Not that he puts it that way. Webb believes in the promise of America, the genius of our founding documents and the necessity of constant reform.

Like the old Pilgrims who knew the "shining city on the hill" would take a lot of work, he believes American democracy is an ongoing project, maybe a little run-down, but fixable. Webb has brought his hammer to Washington and, by God, he's going to use it.

Diane Roberts, professor of creative writing at FSU, is the author of "Dream State."

A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair

and Just America

By Jim Webb

Broadway Books, 240 pages, $24.95

Review: Sen. James Webb comes out swinging in 'A Time to Fight' 07/19/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 20, 2008 8:20am]
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