Is Jim Webb Too Good for the Vice Presidency?

In his new book, Virginia Sen. James Webb quotes T.S Eliot and Rudyard Kipling. He alludes to his past as a boxer and marine. He recalls his "four times great-grandfather," who served as an enlisted soldier under George Washington -- and not as the fair-weather kind who fought through the summer but melted away when the fall chill set in, but as one who suffered through the brutal winter at Valley Forge. He mentions the nine books he's written, the literature courses he's taught at universities, and the screenplays he's penned. He dwells fondly upon a photo of his grandfather, a hardscrabble farmer who died from an infected wound that dripped poison into his bloodstream. He talks about the "efficiency" of his walking pace, calculating he covered more than 1000 miles striding between his office and that of his former boss, Casper Weinberger, secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan.

He does all of this by page 10.

Webb has written a book that it is impossible to imagine any other Democratic politician writing. It is hard to know precisely how to take A Time To Fight. Is it a manifesto, or a job application? On the one hand, Webb, who's written a slew of best-selling novels and won an Emmy for his reporting from Beirut, has been a writer for far longer than he has been a politician, and it shows. His prose is surefooted and clean, and the subject matter is deeply considered and refreshingly idiosyncratic. Webb devotes pages to furious defense of his past novels, some of which were smeared by Republican operatives in the 2006 election. Webb quotes the attacks, then excerpts reviewer after reviewer lavishing praise on his work ("Webb is as much a moral philosopher as novelist …"). It is the sort of extended flight of ego that politicians are taught to suppress but in which writers frequently indulge. 

So James Webb is a writer. But he is also a prominent United States senator with a tremendous profile. A Time To Lead was released on May 20, 2008. Webb -- and his aides -- undoubtedly understood that the book was coming out amidst intense veepstakes speculation.

Webb is no stranger to that competition. Tradesports, the leading online predictions site, currently ranks Webb as the second likeliest vice-presidential pick behind Hillary Clinton. The press release for the book describes Webb as "the celebrated junior senator from Virginia, who is already being mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate." A good soldier knows when to launch his assault, and A Time To Fight was released to coincide with maximum media interest and candidate attention. And it worked: Over the past week, Webb's book-related media blitz had him sitting down with Tim Russert, Keith Olbermann, David Letterman, Lou Dobbs, and Teri Gross.

Problem is, Webb is too good a writer for his book to be an effective political document. Rather than keeping to the safe, sanitized-image construction traditional to the genre, Webb wanders off-path, taking extended digressions to defend Douglas MacArthur's conduct during the Korean War and blast the Senate for giving Teddy Roosevelt an undeserved posthumous Medal of Honor. He assails much of the Democratic Party for abandoning the troops in Vietnam, and spends a chapter lamenting our culture of incarceration. A Time To Fight is that rare book by an active politician that actually leaves you feeling like you understand something about the author, his core commitments, his driving obsessions, and his political style. The picture that emerges does not suggest a man politically or temperamentally suited to the vice-presidency but a man who may prove to be one of the Democratic Party's most important political figures nonetheless.

Take Webb's political style. If Barack Obama has built his political persona around an unyielding faith in the power of hope, Webb has constructed his around a visceral understanding of tragedy and unfairness. Chapter three of A Time To Fight is titled, "The Uncles on My Shoulder," and tells of the ancestors who serve as a moral backdrop to Webb's life, and whose knowing presence and silent judgments provide Webb with "my measure of accountability." But where most politicians tell inspiring rags-to-riches stories, Webb's family history is often grim: His Uncle Ercil, an outdoorsmen, was paralyzed in a car accident and later committed suicide. His grandfather, Birch Bay Hodges, broke his hip in a farming accident and died from the resulting bone infection. His grandmother stole feed corn from nearby farms and boiled it with lard to feed her children. "What did I learn from this?" asks Webb. "An appreciation for tragedy. An understanding that we are sometimes visited with circumstances that we do not deserve." This is not the glittering uplift of Obama. Hope, in Webb's worldview, takes the form of a stolid determination to endure and a steady refusal to yield before life's unending assault. It is a populism borne of necessity.

Though new to the Senate, Webb is not new to the ways of Washington. From 1977 to 1981, he worked for the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. From 1984 to 1987, he served as the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, and from 1987 to 1988, he served as Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy.

After leaving the Marines, Webb could have taken any number of jobs in the military-industrial complex, but he became a writer and journalist in order to protect his autonomy. He resigned from his post as secretary of the Navy because he disagreed with proposed cuts in shipbuilding. Importantly, both decisions are presented as sacrifices in service of principle. "I valued my philosophical and political independence," says Webb, "and I did not want to trade away the credibility of any controversial position I might hold by having opponents claim I was merely trying to sell a product or to advance a client's point of view." Politicians often make this claim. But Webb's career, the jobs he left behind and the lucrative opportunities he passed up, give it force.

Regrettably, this outlook is the antithesis of the vice presidency, which often requires mortgaging your personal credibility and sacrificing your independence in order to further the president's point of view. Lyndon Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, said of the position, "Anyone who thinks that the vice president can take a position independent of the president of his administration simply has no knowledge of politics or government. You are his choice in a political marriage, and he expects your absolute loyalty." Humphrey gave his absolute loyalty and found himself silenced and sidelined. It is hard to imagine Webb enduring similar treatment, or proving similarly docile in the face of decisions with which he disagreed.

Humphrey, of course, suffered from a particularly toxic relationship with Johnson. But his description of the vice presidency is broadly true. Even Al Gore, who enjoyed a productive partnership with Bill Clinton, had to repeatedly swallow his principles and personal beliefs and soldiered on for the good of the administration, notably on the Lewinsky scandal, which by all accounts repulsed Gore. Would Webb do the same?

This would be a less critical question were Webb's beliefs not both idiosyncratic and strongly held. Some of Webb's positions, like his opposition to Clinton's soft approach toward China in the 1990s (a critique he reprises in A Time To Fight), suggest conflicts with the mainstream of the party. His skepticism of the intervention in Bosnia -- and the type of war that represented -- could bring him into conflict with Obama, who viewed the deployment more positively. His commitment to the military's ability to control its own culture could have him locking horns with liberals down the road. And that's not even getting into his continuing fury toward those who protested the Vietnam War. That's not to say Webb wouldn't be able to privately voice his opinions and fall behind whatever decision the president renders, but such quiet service is contrary to much of Webb's record and his accounting of his own priorities.

The vice presidency is quite a prize, of course, and it is possible that compromises could be made. Assume Webb would be able to subsume his beliefs, his opinions, and his personality. Assume he would hold his tongue and sand off his edges. What a waste. In management, there's a dictum known as The Peter Principle, which states, "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." Webb, an idiosyncratic, free-thinking, independent-minded politician, is being pushed for a position that steamrolls those qualities. Worse, he's being pushed for the position because people love what an idiosyncratic, free-thinking, independent-minded politician he is. It's like celebrating a former alcoholic's sobriety by taking him out for a drink.

It's all the more frustrating because Webb is arguably the most exciting and meaningful politician the party has seen in decades. His understanding of the military is the equal of anyone in the party, and his visceral connection to the institution dwarfs that of any other major Democratic politician. The section of his book dealing with Middle Eastern affairs is complex, deeply thought-out, and flatly brilliant. His opposition to the war in Iraq is situated in an understanding of America's involvement in the region over the past century. It's not only a deep analysis, it's a confident one. Webb does not fear the subject, and as his Iraq-fueled run for Senate proved, he's anxious to pick the fight.

And he's good at it. His work with the GI Bill has shown legislative skill and an intuitive understanding of the ways in which the current administration's policies have not only shortchanged our veterans but been disrespectful of their sacrifice. Less publicly, his quick action pushing a resolution demanding congressional authorization for military action against Iran showed a tactical fearlessness rare among Democratic politicians.

Moreover, Webb is not only a skilled legislator but a symbolically important politician. He is a tribune of the culturally conservative, fiercely traditionalist, military-oriented slice of the population that found itself disgusted with the Democrats after the Vietnam War. He is a refugee from Nixonland, and his conclusion that the Democratic Party now represents his ideals better than the Republican Party could be a first step toward healing rifts that have bedeviled the party since the 1960s. Encouraging him to attach himself to another politician's style and ambitions so quickly could prove fatally disruptive to that project.

Happily, there's another institution where individuals of strong conviction and substantial political talent can shape national policy: the United States Senate, where Webb currently serves. There, Webb's expertise in military affairs and deep commitment to foreign policy could serve to unite a Democratic caucus that is all too often adrift on those issues. There, Webb can keep faith with his brothers and sisters in the military, as he has done in his remarkably successful efforts to push an expanded GI Bill. There, Webb can sharpen his domestic-policy thinking, which is currently an impassioned but vague appeal to "economic fairness." There, Webb can build the understanding and respect for the military that he feels Democrats have often lacked. There, Webb can act as the advocate for the Scotts-Irish tradition he feels has been unjustly dismissed. There, Webb can guard against foreign-policy blunders like the war that compelled him to run for Senate in the first place. There, a nontraditional politician like Webb can represent something new and exciting in the Democratic Party without being forced to subsume his personal politics beneath so much that is old. There, Webb can be Webb. And if, in the future, he moves up, it can be on his own terms, atop his own politics.