A bit past 5 o’clock on a mid-September Wednesday, one month after the miraculous resurrection of his moribund Senate campaign, Jim Webb comes busting out of Call Room One, where Democratic candidates are held captive for hours at a time and forced to plead for cash. Catching the eye of his “body guy,” former Marine Corps Times editor Phillip Thompson, Webb barks, “We’ve got to be in Alexandria, don’t we?” The former Navy Secretary’s feet, shod in combat boots belonging to his son, Jimmy, who’s just gone on active duty in Iraq, never stop churning as he pushes through the heavy front door of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s Washington headquarters and pounds down the narrow walk-up toward his ride–a small SUV, painted in camouflage, with a Jim Webb–Born Fighting sign fixed to the side. Behind the wheel, as always, is “Mac” McGarvey, who lost an arm in Vietnam under Webb’s command. When his “best friend” decided last February to challenge Virginia’s wildly popular Republican Senator, George Allen, Mac up and left his job running a bar in Nashville, volunteering to spend the next nine months being directed–and misdirected–all over the interstates and backroads of Virginia.
“I have no idea where we’re going,” Mac says as Webb bounds into the front seat, quipping, “That could be taken as a symbolic statement about this campaign.” After haggling with the body guy over the best route to his after-work campaign rally, Webb props a boot up on the dashboard and calls over his shoulder, “We have a live at 5:25?”
“There’s a live at 5:40.”
“All right. Oh, man. Do you have the binder with the speech in it?” The body guy hands it up to Webb. “I’m sorry,” the candidate calls back to me. “You can ask me questions in a minute. I don’t have a speechwriter, and I just wrote this this morning, and I need to go over it.” It’s impossible to tell whether Webb, who’s congenitally deadpan, is kidding about the speechwriter. He speed-scans the copy, scribbling a few lines in the margins and handing back a page at a time to the body guy, who’s quietly pointing Mac toward Alexandria. When they get there–if they get there–Senator Barack Obama will be there, too, making his first pitch for a former member of Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet. It will also, no doubt, be Obama’s first endorsement of a formerly bitter critic of Vietnam War protesters, civil rights activists, 1960s liberals, affirmative action policies and women in combat–just a few of Webb’s targets through the years.
From a cranky Republican traditionalist, Webb has transformed into one of the unlikeliest protest candidates ever. And now, thanks to the spiral of controversy set off by Allen’s now-legendary “macaca moment” in mid-August, Webb has also become the unlikeliest of this year’s Democratic challengers to have a genuine shot at toppling a Republican incumbent and giving his new party a majority in the next Senate.
Webb’s gonzo campaign–chaotic, underfunded and featuring a candidate who refuses to pander or even, at many campaign appearances, to so much as crack a smile–grew out of his exasperation with Allen’s unwavering support for George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure. Webb had been warning against military intervention in Iraq, insisting that it would destabilize the Middle East and spawn dangerous anti-Americanism, since the late 1980s. After he wrote an op-ed in September 2002 predicting US invasion forces would “quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets,” Webb met with the senator–whom he had endorsed over Democrat Charles Robb in 2000–to discuss his concerns. Webb came away with his dander up, disgusted by Allen’s reportedly insisting, “You’re asking me to be disloyal to my President.”
Webb might have been a hellacious soldier–one of the most highly decorated to return from Vietnam, in fact–but he has never been a go-along guy, to say the least. His stint as Navy Secretary, for instance, ended with Webb abruptly resigning after just ten months, protesting the Reagan Administration’s refusal to fully fund the 600-ship fleet he insisted was necessary. But as mad as he was about Iraq, and about Allen’s automatic approval of Bush’s disastrous policies, Webb took his sweet time deciding whether to challenge Allen’s re-election bid. It would mean abandoning his lucrative writing career, which has included six critically acclaimed war novels, a successful Hollywood screenplay (Rules of Engagement) and a bestselling cultural history of the Scots-Irish in America (Born Fighting). It would also mean having to do things the proud and contrary Webb despises–like begging for money. When he finally took the plunge, it was with high hopes the candidacy might “inspire some intelligent debate” on the war. Webb had also decided he could help “reshape American politics” by showing how a Democrat can combine foreign policy “realism” with an old-fashioned dose of economic populism to win in the South again.