Webb reflects on his time in the U.S. Senate
WASHINGTON — Jim Webb may be walking away after a single term in the U.S. Senate, but that doesn’t mean he’s exiting public life for good.
And the 66-year-old is not going into retirement.
“I will be working. Trust me,” he said in a recent interview in the wood-paneled conference room of his Capitol Hill office.
“My situation is different than most people up here. I didn’t come out of a law firm. There isn’t a structure that I can easily go back into. But it’s a very healthy thing, at least from the way my career has played itself out, to step out every now and then and just think about things.”
As the White House and legislative leaders struggle to reach a deal to avoid deep budget cuts and tax increases in January, Webb and his staff are packing up.
His last bit of business is waiting for a chance to vote on a possible compromise to the “fiscal cliff” before the 112th Congress adjourns and his term ends.
“I’m sitting here in the bleachers like everybody else,” he said.
The Virginia Democrat is also hoping to keep in play this month one last part of his agenda: a provision to crack down on abuses in wartime defense contracting. The measure was included in a defense spending bill being considered by House and Senate negotiators.
In the meantime, as he makes way for Virginia’s new senator, former Gov. Tim Kaine, Webb has already closed his six regional offices, and his staff is on the hunt for new jobs.
Webb lauded his staff in a Senate floor speech last week before hosting a farewell luncheon.
“I’ve said my greatest legacy will be the work of my staff,” he said as they watched from the viewers gallery.
Back in his office suite, he said, “I haven’t firmly decided what I’m going to do.”
Webb acknowledged his options might include writing another book (he’s penned eight so far), working with the State Department or returning to his pre-Senate life, when he spent several months a year in Asia. He remains deeply interested in military affairs and foreign policy.
He stressed that he’s not ruling out a return to politics, but he didn’t offer specifics.
“Politics has never been my calling. Leadership has always been my calling, from the time I was a little kid sitting at the table talking to my dad about how to motivate people and how to make hard decisions. Military leadership has been a part of it. Unpredictably, political leadership has been a part of it – I’m not saying I’m done with that, by the way.”
He came to the Senate after upsetting U.S. Sen. George Allen in 2006.
Support for Allen, a former governor of Virginia, had begun to fade when the Republican was taped at a rural rally confronting a young Virginia Democrat of Indian descent. Calling the party worker “macaca” – a term considered by some a racist epithet – Allen welcomed him to “the real Virginia.” Allen’s popular support waned as he struggled to respond to the resulting uproar and other accusations about his sensitivity to issues of race and religion.
Webb won by a 9,329-vote margin out of 2.3 million votes cast.
The victory was the latest chapter in a career that began in 1969 in the Marines. As a lieutenant, Webb served in Vietnam, earning the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
He worked on the staff of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs after law school, and he served during the Reagan administration as an undersecretary of defense and Secretary of the Navy.
His books, both fiction and nonfiction, include the critically acclaimed novel “Fields of Fire,” which is based on his wartime experiences. He’s also won an Emmy as a documentary filmmaker.
Webb said he will continue to write and will probably include his experiences in Congress.
“It’s part of my life,” he said. “But you’re not going to see any tell-all book or kiss-and-tell novel. If I was going to do that, I already would have done it.”
As is common with departing lawmakers, Webb’s Senate colleagues praised his work. But they also noted his independent style.
“What he brought was an iconoclastic, thoughtful approach to issues. Nobody ever thought Jim Webb was playing politics,” said fellow Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. “When he weighed in veterans issues or foreign policy issues, folks listened.”
Even with a single term in the Senate, legacy is important to Webb and his staff. Some in his office spent several months preparing a 134-page report on his tenure that included details of legislation, diplomatic efforts, timelines, photos and supportive news stories and editorials, as well as Webb’s opinion columns.
The senator often relied on his skills as a writer to carry his message, publishing numerous columns in national newspapers or delivering speeches to present his views to the public. He has spoken with reporters but estimated that he turned down 95 percent of interview requests. He doesn’t like someone else controlling the story.
“Because, first of all, because no matter how good you are, you’re not going to get it all right,” he said. “And secondly, I’d rather say it myself.”
With rare exception, Webb said, he doesn’t read what others write about him. “I think it’s healthier not to.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat whose desk on the Senate floor abuts Webb’s, said he has been a unique presence in the chamber because he’s less interested in politicking than in trying to tackle large issues. The two of them and Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, refer to themselves as the “redneck caucus” because of their working-class roots, she said.
“He’s not a back-slapper. He’s not a deal-maker. He’s not someone who depends on the social graces to catapult his ideas,” McCaskill said. “He’s a cross between a barroom brawler and a college professor.”
Webb’s most praised Senate achievement was a new GI Bill that passed Congress 18 months after he took office. The legislation dramatically improved education and related benefits for veterans. To date, more than 800,000 former service members have used the benefits.
Building on relationships that he developed over decades, Webb made inroads in U.S. relations with Southeast Asian nations, including working closely with leaders in Japan, Vietnam and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) to resolve disputes and improve international ties.
“They are lasting contributions in terms of making sure that we, the United States, remain as the stabilizing force in that part of the world,” he said. “I don’t really care about whether it’s a headline.”
Not everything in the Senate worked the way he hoped. His aggressive efforts to create a national commission to focus on reforming the criminal justice system died on the Senate floor last year when it was blocked by Republicans.
The measure, which would have set up a bipartisan commission to spend 18 months examining all levels of the justice system – federal, state and local – was intended to lead to recommendations on how to change laws, enforcement practices and prison operations to make the legal system fairer and more cost-effective.
He built broad support by persuading more than 70 interest groups that normally don’t see eye-to-eye to back the commission. Among them were most major law-enforcement organizations, civil liberty advocates and proponents of marijuana legalization.
Webb, who called the GOP’s blockage “silly,” doesn’t consider the effort a failure.
“It’s a victory to me in this sense: We legitimized the debate,” he said. “People are a lot more receptive to looking at different approaches in terms of criminal justice. You can say that without fear of being branded soft on crime.”
McCaskill, who worked on the wartime contracting bill with Webb, said most senators respect Webb, but “I’m not sure everyone gets him, because he didn’t play the game. ... He doesn’t do the ‘Let’s chew the fat and have a drink.’... He doesn’t want to make the party circuit.”
At day’s end, “he wants to go home to his wife and family as quickly as he can get there,” she said.
He lives in McLean with his wife, Hong Le Webb, a securities lawyer, along with their 6-year-old daughter and his stepdaughter. He also has four grown children.
“It has been the greatest thing in my life to be a dad,” Webb said. “I talk with all my kids almost every day.”
Although he’s been critical of some actions by Congress and the White House, Webb doesn’t want to be remembered as someone frustrated by Washington.
“You can be disappointed when certain things don’t happen. But I understand the playing field,” he said. “The Senate is designed to slow things down. But take a look at what we’ve been able to do in spite of that.”