Don’t make the mistake of thinking of Jim Webb as Senator Pothole.
The freshman United States Senator swept into office 100 days ago with a mandate from Virginia voters to fix bigger ticket items like the war in Iraq, a surging immigrant tide, the trade imbalance with China and issues of economic fairness. Finding fixes for small craters on I-395 does not figure into Webb’s sweeping agenda; finding affordable pills for his constituents does.
In one of his first extended interviews since taking office, Sen. Webb sat down April 13 with editors from Times Community Newspapers for a progress report at the three-month mark.
Noticeably missing were the fiery catchphrases of the campaign trail and the trademark combat boots that made him a symbol of change in last November’s surprise defeat of incumbent Sen. George Allen (R). Webb’s election win by less than half of one percent of the vote changed the national balance of power by putting Democrats in charge of both the House and Senate for the first time in decades.
These days, the decorated Vietnam war veteran is more apt to spring open his cell phone, revealing the captured image of his four-month old baby girl, rather than show off his son’s dusty boots from Iraq. His tone is more wonkish than fire-and-brimstone, capturing the rhythms of someone who left Washington policymaking 19 years ago to write books and screenplays, but now has a baby to feed and a pile of policy papers to catch up on.
Webb’s father flew B-17s and B-29s during World War II, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Son Jimmy Webb is an enlisted infantry U.S. Marine whose unit shipped out to Iraq last September.
In a now famous incident, the newly-elected Democratic senator sparred with George W. Bush at a White House reception Nov. 29 after bypassing the line for a photo with the President. An opponent of the Iraq War, Webb refused to discuss his son, a solider serving in Iraq, after Bush pressed him on the matter. That part hasn’t changed.
“I respectfully decline to talk about my son’s involvement,” he said in response to a question. “He’ll be home at the end of next month, and I’m looking forward to getting them home.”
Webb speaks of his son’s combat duty in generalities and usually in the plural, given the shared experience of the battlefield. “They’re in a hard place, in terms of what’s going on over there. As you can quite imagine, once they change the dates [of combat service], the morale factor exacts a toll. But, they’re doing a great job,” he said.
Before winning the Senate, Webb spent nearly two decades as an author and filmmaker, penning eight books, including six Vietnam-based novels, and won an Emmy for his 1983 coverage of U.S. Marines in Beirut. But he likes to remind reporters that he is not new to Washington, that he is a returning veteran of its policy wars and has worked with many of its players before.
“I’m really proud of my relationship with John Warner,” he said, referring to the senior senator from Virginia who last year campaigned hard for his defeat. “I worked on his staff in my last year in the Marine Corps when he was Secretary of the Navy and I’ve known him for 36 years. From day one in the Senate, we started to work together.”
This month, for instance, Warner and Webb collaborated in the selection of new Federal judges. “We have worked out a methodology so that both of us are sitting down in the same room doing the selection process, alternating the questions, having discussion,” he said. “That’s very important for the people of Virginia to know that John Warner and I are working together.”
On defense spending, Webb calls this relationship vital, as Virginia hauls in $45 billion per year in military appropriations, the highest recipient after California. “We meet regularly and our staffs meet regularly,” he said, noting that he and Warner have also co-sponsored legislation on items such as fixes to the “No Child Left Behind” act.
Previously, Webb served as a Republican under President Ronald Reagan as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Afffairs and Secretary of the Navy, until he resigned rather than reduce the Navy force structure. Twenty years later, Webb still plugs for a strong military, but vigorously questions the social and economic toll of a prolonged deployment in Iraq.
“This could end up becoming a $2 trillion war,” he said. “It’s costing us $2.5 billion a week, and that’s the wrong place to put money.”
In January, he received plum assignments to the committees on Armed Forces, Foreign Relations and Veterans’ Affairs, seats he readily admits he negotiated. The assignments foisted Webb front-and-center on the hottest of hot button issues of the day: the war in Iraq, relations with China and the breakdown at Walter Reed Medical Center.
So many hearings and closed-door meetings have undoubtedly left him bone-weary some days. “The reality of this is I’m only one of two senators on both Foreign Relations, the busiest committee in the Senate, and Armed Services, the second busiest in the Senate,” he said. “I’ve had days when I’ve had four hearings at the same time.”
Two days after Webb was sworn in on Jan. 19, both committees “geared up” on Iraq, and he said he was “expected to play a role” because of his military experience and former policy role at the Pentagon. “For the last three months we have been spending an enormous amount of time and energy trying to reshape foreign policy and we’ve done it,” Webb said before catching himself. Or at least, “we have the beginnings of doing it.
Webb was chosen to deliver the Democratic Party’s January 24 response to President Bush’s State of the Union address, a role which further thrust him into the national limelight and helped earn him two one-on-one meetings with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. The issue of China’s primacy, he said, dominates much of his thinking, and he has planned a trip to Asia in July to further his education.
He ponders aloud how China can produce a car for $15,000 which costs Detroit automakers $10,000 more. The social costs of health care, he reasoned, is burdened by the state, not the automaker, thus adding to the costs of production. “We are one of the few countries in the world where the cost of medical is put into the product,” he said. “We have the most efficient work force in the world. So the goal should be preventive health care for every American.”
Webb continues to be alarmed that wages for typical wage earners have been stagnant, while medical costs have soared 72%. “What Americans are having to pay for medical is eating into their wages,” he said. “We’re moving towards a crisis.”
Another alarming episode was the famous breakdown of services for returning war veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, and the ensuing decision to shutter it in favor of new, more modern facilities at Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax County.
“I’m a product of military medicine and in general, military medicine is very good medicine,” he said. “There really was a leadership failure in terms of putting these people on hold for a long period of time. They were lost in the process…There are people who have really been wronged in their treament.”
Webb said the Veterans Administration just got bogged down from the surge of military veterans needing medical care in the post-9/11 era and by Vietnam-era vets coming of age. “A lot of them are reaching the point of retirement from their basic career and they’re looking at the VA system as a fall-back,” he said. “The VA is getting hit from two different directions.”
The result was a backlog of some 60
0,000 claims, with less than 5700 claims adjustors to handle them. “The number of claims adjudicators has gone up, but not by much,” he said. “The claims keep coming and so they keep falling behind…Let’s get the assets to fix the problem.”
The build-out of Fort Belvoir under the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) may compound the problem, he said. “I’m one of those who was very sorry to see them close Walter Reed because I’ve seen military medicine shrink so dramatically in my lifetime,” he said. “I’ve raised some questions about whether they should, but it looks like they’re gonna do it.”
At Fort Belvoir, Webb said that immediate priorities include funding roadway improvements of the Fairfax County Parkway and shuttering the General Services Administration warehouse.
“We’re trying to see if we can get some appropriations money to get things going faster,” he said. “We’re on top of it.”
Webb said about 20 percent of his time in the Senate has been spent on forward-looking issues like economic fairness, ambitious “trajectory” areas where he hopes to make his mark. “I have a philisophy towards government which I formulated 24 years ago,” he said. “Henry Kissinger taught me at the time that if you don’t block out a period of time for forward-thinking on issues, you’ll never do it.”
Forward-thinking also means making government accountable for its mistakes. “Accountability takes care of itself if you get the right kind of leadership,” he said.
Over four years in the 1970s, Webb served as legal counsel to the Joint Economic Committee, and now serves on the panel. “The interesting thing about this committee is that you’re not writing bills but you’re addressing major themes,” he said. “One issue is the criminal justice system. It’s completely broken. And the whole issue of how you put together the pieces where we can bring economic fairness back to this country.”
February’s passage of a minimum wage increase was a vital first step in raising the economy’s “waterline.” “In terms of setting the floor in what we’re going to pay workers, passing this bill has great symbolic effect,” he said.
Resolving the continued surge of immigrant tides also remains a focal point. It is also a personal issue. The senator’s wife, Hong Le Webb, was born in Vietnam, which her family fled after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and was raised in Vietnam. She is an accomplished securities and corporate law attorney in Washington who is about 20 years younger than her husband, who has four children from his two previous marriages. Webb also has three grandchildren from his oldest child, Amy Webb Hogan, and a stepdaughter from his wife.
The solutions have to come from a reasonable control of the borders, better enforcement at the employer level, and a “realistic path” towards citizenship, he said.
“It’s unrealistic to ask someone for their green card if they come to mow your lawn, particularly in Northern Virginia,” he said. “You can’t go into L.A. and pretend to round people up who have truly put their roots down here.”