Awards & Recognitions
Esquire’s Magazine’s Most Influential People of the 21st Century
September 18, 2008
By K K Ottesen, Esquire
Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, has done more to repair his party’s relationship with the military than anyone since the Democrats ran afoul of the rank and file during the Vietnam era by appearing not so much antiwar as antimilitary. Webb’s new GI Bill, passed this year, will treat returning Iraq veterans much the same way World War II veterans were treated when the GI Bill was first conceived.
A highly decorated Marine in Vietnam, a Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, and an early favorite to be Barack Obama’s running mate, Webb withdrew from consideration, saying that he was content in the Senate, prompting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to tell us: “Jim Webb is that rarity in Washington. He knows himself.” Which is why he will have the ear of whoever wins the presidency. For all his varied and influential career in public service, Senator Webb, the author of nine books, thinks of himself first and foremost as a writer, and says the rigor and watchfulness required of writing influences all of his work in Washington.
Below is the entire interview with Sen. Webb, bipartisan bridge, novelist and one of the Esquire’s most influential people of the 21st Century.
Can you talk about your dual careers in government on the one hand and writing on the other? You’ve done both at such a high level.
I view myself principally as a writer, professionally. Writing is what I will always do, no matter what. This side of things [government service] I feel obligated to do from time to time. I sort of unwittingly started this two-track career.
I went to the Naval Academy and at that time they had a mandatory engineering degree, which I did not want, but we were allowed to pick a minor. So I started this confusion then. I had an engineering degree with a literature minor, which is totally non-functional (you don’t want me as your engineer). But engineering did teach me to think in a different way. I would be studying physics, and I would go, Hmm how about the Newtonian laws of cultures. You know, a culture at rest tends to remain at rest unless it’s acted upon by an outside force. A culture in motion tends to remain in motion. I would be learning this concept, but I would be thinking more about how it applied in the areas that I was really interested in. It doesn’t work to talk those sorts of things in thermodynamics class though.
People are usually categorized as Thinkers or Doers. How do you generally see yourself?
I think I’m both. I’ve never felt more natural than when I’m doing this sort of stuff, when I feel like I’m leading, from the Marine Corps to working on the Hill, to working in the Pentagon, to working in the Senate. But nothing gives me greater pleasure than to write something that I believe is really good. And in both, I think all the time. [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan probably is my best prototype. He combined an intellectual career with a career in public service. So they’re not incompatible.
When did you think: Ok, I can do this, I can be a writer?
I would say early on, when I was working on [my first novel] Fields of Fire. When I decided to write, rather than going to a creative writing class or something, I chose the people that I thought were the great novelists at least of the twentieth century, and I studied them — you know, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the British and the Irish poets. Just reading them in a different way, and learning from them.
When I was reading A Movable Feast, Hemingway’s little memoir — right before he killed himself actually — about his years in Paris, he had a passage in there where he said he learned how to write by studying Cezanne paintings. When I read that at first I thought that was kind of typical Hemingway. I had Thursday afternoons free that semester and Georgetown Law School was just like six blocks away from the National Gallery. So I started going down to the National Gallery looking at the French Impressionists. That was the first time that I really understood there was such a thing as art. I started trying to understand why they put certain things in and why they didn’t and how that created an impact. Just on my own, looking at them. I had just finished reading A Farewell to Arms and I walked into a room, and there was a painting on the wall, and I said, If Hemingway had painted, he would have painted that picture. And it was a Cezanne.
Yeah. And I went, Wow, I have learned something. I don’t even know what I’ve learned, but I know I’ve learned something. Anyway, I’d go back and forth and back and forth and finally after like two or three weeks I understood what I had learned. It was the same tone: the bluntness. And my writing really took off at that point.
Did you say you wrote and rewrote your first book?
The most disciplined thing I’ve ever done in my life is probably the act of writing a book — and novels are harder than nonfiction. People tend to think, Oh novels you just start writing a story and you know, let the muse take you. But there’s enormous discipline in writing novels. I wrote my first one cover to cover seven times. I wrote, I wrote, I wrote, and I couldn’t get it published. When I was on my, like, fifth draft for the book, I was able to get it to a guy named Ted Purdy, a really reknowned editor. Anyway, I was sitting here inventing conversations between people who never existed in a room by myself — and Purdy called me and said, “This is the finest war writing I’ve ever read. I’m going to work with you on this.” This is a guy who had edited some of the greats, the true greats. And he made me believe. Actually I had started working on the Hill as a Committee Counsel, and he was like: “Don’t do politics, anybody can do politics, you are a writer!”
That’s interesting, so why have you gone back to politics continually?
There were issues that I cared about. Anyway, when the Reagan administration came in and offered me a job in ’81, I said, “No, I really want to go write again.” So I went out and did some really interesting journalism and wrote a[nother] novel. Then when the [Marine barracks] blew up in Beirut — I’d been over there as a journalist — I just felt like, I need to stick my oar in the water. It was one of those feelings like you need to come in and try to solve problems rather than simply writing. I came in for four years [at the Pentagon, as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs and then as Secretary of the Navy] and then I kind of felt like I’d done what I wanted to do.
This time back [in politics] was very similar in a sense. From 9/11 to Katrina, it was almost the same feeling as when the building blew up in Beirut: I got so frustrated with the direction the country was going. So I just said, All right, I’m going to stick my oar in the water again.
How did you decide to run for the Senate?
Bob Kerrey, a former Senator from Nebraska and long-time friend of mine, had encouraged me to run over the years. After Katrina, I called him, I said, “You know, I think I’m going to run.” And I went up and spent several hours with him, just talking about the mechanics of what it would look like — I’d never been involved in a campaign before really. So from September into the end of the year, I just talked to people. I kind of went back and forth, and then finally in February I said I was going to do it. I was very late. I actually announced nine months to the day before the election — with no money.
What was the reaction of people around you, close to you, when you said you were going to do it?
My son, Jim, was really encouraging me to run. [My wife], Hong, was kind of neutral. None of us really knew what was going to happen. My friend, Nelson Jones said, “What are you doing?” He said, “You know what it means to dance with the bear? You start dancing with the bear, you can’t stop dancing till the bear wants to stop dancing.” And that’s really what a campaign is.
Did you want to stop?
[laughs] It was pretty brutal. But you know once you put yourself into issue, you have to see things through.
Have there been surprises for you in being a senator?
Not really. The campaign was the big surprise. Trying to raise the money, trying to put a staff together, trying to defend myself against, you know, all the negative ads, and trying to get a message out in a very complicated state — Virginia is demographically sort of a microcosm of the country. Having all those going on at once was enormously challenging.
What are some of the more urgent issues that you want to take on in your time here in the Senate?
We need to reorient our national security policy, which is a lot more than Iraq. What in classical terms you’d call grand strategy: how we connect with the rest of the world. I’ve been writing and thinking about that since I was in my early twenties. The first book that I wrote when I was twenty-eight years old was on that theme. There are three chapters in this new book [A Time to Fight] where I kind of lay out a lot of that.
Economic fairness. We have calcified along class lines in this country like we haven’t seen since Teddy Roosevelt’s days. And it’s very difficult to get the right kind of discussion going on that — up here, or anywhere, really. We’re doing everything we can to inject that into the debate. And to get some corrections into the body of law that eliminate, basically, special favoritism.
Accountability issues. Infrastructure. We have a decaying infrastructure at a time when so much of our money is going out into other countries where they’re building really first class, twenty-first-century infrastructure. We’re in danger of becoming a third world economy.
On every single, every single issue that I have to take a vote on up here, we start off with: What’s fair? Not which pressure group is calling the most or any of those things. We talk about what is fair to the spectrum involved, what’s fair for the country.
What is your level of hope that there will be movement on these issues near-term?
This country right now is filled with frustration. The last seven years have been disastrous in terms of articulating priorities for the health of the average person in this country. People are looking for answers. This is going to be an interesting Presidential campaign, and then it’s going to be interesting to see what we can do on the other side of it. But there are answers. It just requires the right kind of priorities being set by the top leadership.
Do you know your path for the future? Are there any other areas that you want to explore?
I like what I’m doing, up here. The one real adjustment was what I call the “leash law.” [laughs] During the week, because of the way that votes are taken and meetings take place, you can’t leave this complex. And that required a real adjustment for me, to be subject to someone else’s schedule, after working as a writer for all these years. But absent that, we have a really talented group of people here. I was very careful in bringing the staff together. I interviewed every single person. We have the potential to do a lot of good things. So that’s what I’m doing.
I’m not writing now, but my mind always writes. You would probably get that. You never stop writing if you’re a writer.
What is the legacy you’d like to leave behind?
When I first came in people started talking about this could be your legacy project or that could be your legacy project and I said, “No, my staff is my legacy project.” We’ve got people in here who are going to do some really great things in their lives. I want the people who come to work here to take away with them how I approach issues, and the priorities that we have. So that’s my legacy — governmentally.
Is that something that you benefited from? Did you have mentors early on who inspired you?
I had the opportunity to serve under Cap Weinberger, a really undervalued leader. And I certainly think about him a lot. And then people I served with in the Marine Corps had a great impact on my life in terms of how you treat people, how you take care of people, those sorts of things. And my dad. Watching his struggle. He graduated from college my senior year of high school, watching him go to night school, combining deployments. My dad’s rule of leadership was basically one sentence: you can either make somebody do something, or you can make somebody want to do something. Now who would you rather work for? [laughs]
You’ve talked about being in “dummy English,” I think that’s what you called it. Do you think that helped you empathize with other people’s struggles?
One thing it did for me — I think I mention it in the book — is it made me strongly believe that this country needs to remain a nation of second chances. We tend to label kids early on and we’ve gotten worse at it rather than better over the years. And not just kids. One of the things that I’m going to try to get into over the next year or so is adult education. Where we continue to focus on early childhood education, but there’s a lot of people in this country who got off track when they’re sixteen, seventeen years old. Maybe somebody had a baby and then left school and weren’t able to go, or whatever. That’s an overlooked group, the young to middle aged adult, who’s gotten off track and still could do some great things if they could just find an on ramp.
Of all the things you’ve done, what are you particularly proud of?
I love being a dad. I’ve got five kids and one step daughter. I’ve got kids across the ages.
You’ve done a lot in relatively few years. Do you not sleep?
This last book [A Time to Fight] was kind of an act of will. My publisher came to me and asked if I would write a book after I gave the State of the Union response. And I had been told by Bob Kerrey that Daniel Patrick Moynihan had written a book a year in his time in the Senate. This was very early and I figured, well, if Moynihan could do a book a year, I could figure out a way to do this. And then as a part of the contract, I had to deliver the book by the end of the year. And uhhh, with everything else that was going on, it was torture. But there’s an old saying: how do you get over a fence you can’t climb? You throw your hat on the other side. I said I would do it, so I had to do it.
So how did you celebrate finishing the book? It must have been a happy moment.
Well… I got to the end at ten thirty at night on New Year’s Eve.
Oh, that is grim!
But then my son, we had gotten a tattoo together when he was like eighteen, nineteen, something like that, so he goes, “We’ve got to finish that tattoo.” So I celebrated my book and he celebrated getting into Maryland by finishing up our tattoos.
Was that New Years Eve — later that night?
No, no, no, that was a couple of weeks later.
Well, that’s not what I expected! So what are they, can I ask? You can say no if you want.
I won’t get the same one, I’ll promise that.
We’d gotten an Asian symbol, and we decided to put the Scottish and Irish there. And then to keep the homefront calm, I got my wife’s name on it.
And that made it okay?
Oh yeah. I mean wouldn’t you consider that an honor? [laughs]