[This book review appears in the Winter 2008 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 394-398.]

Book Review 

 

A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America

Jim Webb

Broadway Books, 2008

 

            Jim Webb is one of today’s more intriguing figures in American politics and letters.  A good many American leaders in recent years have come on strongly, only to self-destruct when their image has proved a façade.  There is reason to suppose that Webb, however, is more than a hollow man.  His self-destruction, if it comes, will be a particular surprise.

            Our principal undertaking in this review, other than to tell directly about him and his book, will be to explain just how it is that Webb occupies a piece of solid ground in what has become quite a tortured swamp of American ideology and politics.  His is a niche as old as America itself, and yet one that points promisingly to the future. Toward the end of this review, we will have reason to caution the reader to watch carefully a certain tendency in Webb’s thinking that may throw into question the solidity we have just commented upon.  But it will be helpful to start by telling about the man himself.  As we will see, he is a man of many sides.

            Despite being elected to the United States Senate as recently as 2006, his status will escalate to that of senior U.S. Senator from Virginia when Sen. John Warner retires in early 2009.  Webb’s history provides a mixture of family heritage, politics and literary accomplishment.  One of his forebears served at Valley Forge and crossed the Delaware with Gen. George Washington.  His family on both sides came to live the rugged life of pioneers in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Missouri.  Webb’s characterization of their spirit: “Struggle.  Persist.  Endure.  Look back, but not in anger.”  His father, who Webb says has always been his greatest hero, “became the first known Webb to finish high school,” went on after 26 more years to get his college diploma, and in the meantime served as a career U.S. Air Force officer.  Webb himself grew up working after-school jobs and playing baseball.  (His athleticism is indicated by his having been a boxer for eight years, including his time at Annapolis.)  That he was precocious in school is attested to by his having gone on to write nine books, including six novels that rank among the best in contemporary American literature.  It will surprise those who know only of his political career that he says that “for thirty years, writing has been my true profession.”  If he leaves a lasting legacy, he says, he believes it will be his writing.

            Webb graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1968 and was commissioned an officer in the Marine Corps.  Sent to Vietnam, he became an infantry platoon and company commander, winning the second and third highest U.S. awards for heroism.  A wound caused a leg infection that led to his medical retirement from the Marine Corps.  Thereafter, he obtained his law degree at the Georgetown Law Center.   Later, he served as Assistant Secretary of Defense and as Secretary of the Navy in the Republican Reagan administration (which, at least until explained, makes it seem strange that he is now a Democratic senator).  Because he favored a strategy that would give priority to a strong navy and airforce, he resigned as Secretary of the Navy in 1988 “rather than agree to a reduction in the Navy’s shipbuilding program.”  Off and on over the years, he has worked as a journalist.  He was an “embedded journalist” in Afghanistan in 2004.  As long ago as 1983 his coverage of the war in Beirut for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) earned him an Emmy Award.

            An Achilles heel in his record may be that he has been married three times, although that is something we are unprepared to evaluate.  The dedication of his book says that his present wife, who came to the United States as a “boat person” from Vietnam in 1975 when she was seven, is the “love of my life.”  She is now a securities attorney in the United States.  

            What we have given is, of course, an abbreviated telling of Webb’s biography.  Webb has managed to crowd several lifetimes’ worth of experiences into a still-short life of 52 years.

            It is from this varied background that we come to understand just who Jim Webb is and why he occupies the niche he does in today’s American politics.  We know from that background that he is intelligent and thoughtful, characteristics that create the tone of his book.   And it is not surprising that he is fiercely independent.  This causes his writing to speak with the authenticity of his own voice.   His family heritage has fashioned in him a man with deep roots in the soil and in work, so that he sees things from what is perhaps a traditional Democratic perspective.  He expresses much empathy for people who struggle, and says he understands how is it that they often need outside support.  Webb tells how during the Great Depression his grandmother revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom she credited with having “saved them.”  In line with this, Webb says “I am a longtime union member and a determined supporter of organized labor”; and when he was elected to the Senate in 2006, he received 90 percent of the black vote.  One of his books traces the Scotch-Irish contribution to the American demographic, and he says that this heritage, of which he is a part, led to his attachment to “egalitarian fairness” and Jacksonian democracy. 

            He earlier considered himself a “Reagan Democrat,” one who was led to the Republicans because he saw the Democrats as having become “too weak on national security issues,” “too overwhelmed by interest-group politics,” and too diverted from worker issues by their preoccupation with cultural revolution.  What Webb wants now is “a revitalized Democratic Party,” with erstwhile Reagan Democrats “returning to their worker-oriented, Jacksonian roots.”  He has been turned away from the Republicans by what he sees as the neo-conservatives’ “Trotskyite worldview” and as the arrogations of power, flawed foreign policy, and deceptions of the George W. Bush administration.

            It is important, in placing him as a Democrat, to note that from the whole context of his life, including his military service and attachment to veterans, it is clear that Webb does not share in the deep animosity toward American life that has long been the defining characteristic of the Left. 

            Why is this especially important in assigning a place to his thinking and politics?  Because for well over a century the American Left, in common with the world Left in general, has burned with the alienation of an intellectual literary/artistic subculture that has detested everything “bourgeois” and virtually every facet of American life and of the American population.  That intelligentsia has over a long course of time sought allies in every disaffected or unassimilated group, and it is this that has in turn created its ideology and its politics in all their intricacy.          

            What was called “the Democratic coalition” under Franklin Roosevelt consisted of an odd mixture: this angry intelligentsia, the Solid South (a legacy of the Civil War), organized labor, the big city political machines, and ethnic minorities (along with millions of voters who didn’t necessarily fit into any of these categories). After World War II, the move (especially of the intellectual subculture) was toward an alliance with racial and ethnic minorities much more than with workers.

            Out of all this, we can see that Webb is a Democrat, but not a man of the Left. (Our later caveat will, however, pertain to some muddying on this point.)  His identification is with the “populist” tradition of the Democratic Party (although not necessarily with that of the Populist Movement as such, which had a socialist component; nor is he a “populist” in the sense often sneered at as equivalent to a demagogue).  It is not to be supposed that he will find a cozy partnership with alienation, with the ideology of victimization, or with initiatives that point toward the fragmentation and destruction of his country.  At the same time, we can take him seriously when he says issues of “fairness” are now paramount in American society.  He sees the growing disparities of income and wealth, the decline of the American middle class, and the rise of a permanent underclass as placing the American people at serious risk.  He attributes the vast remuneration paid to business executives to the collusion of corporate boards and compensation committees, not to the normal operation of a free market.  And he perceives an “emerging interconnected international aristocracy.”  These perceptions put him very much in the Jacksonian tradition (one that goes back as far as Pres. Andrew Jackson’s opposition to Nicholas Biddle and the Second United States Bank).  They also suggest that he will have powerful enemies.   

            A Time to Fight is a thoughtful book, reflecting all these themes, but falls far short of being a fully satisfactory explication of his political positions.  Webb shows a sensitive awareness of many issues, such as when he says about NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and the WTO (the World Trade Organization) that “comprehensive worker protection was not even specifically addressed in these landmark agreements,” but no attempt is made to spell out blueprints for their resolution. 

            In at least one major instance, his discussion falls far short even of this (and here we come upon the caveat we have mentioned).  One chapter is devoted to sharply criticizing the American justice system for incarcerating far too many people.  His coverage of the subject, however, raises more questions than it answers.  He is critical of “life sentences without possibility of parole,” not seeming to realize that such sentences, though seemingly harsh, are applied only to heinous cases and are actually substitutes insisted upon by opponents of the death penalty.  He compares the American incarceration rate with that of Japan, where “sentences… are rarely longer than four years for even the worst of crimes” [our emphasis].  The reader waits in vain for some explanation of how a four-year sentence would render any kind of justice for somebody like Wichita’s “BTK [the killer’s self-description that stands for “bind, torture, kill”] strangler,” who terrorized the city for so many years.  And Webb emphasizes that he believes in “giving people a second chance,” which sounds good but which overlooks the reality that people who are sent to the penitentiary have already been given countless “chances” by long-suffering parents, teachers, probation officers, judges and others.  Nor does Webb address the existence of much pathological behavior, which rises to the level of a serious social problem, and how that relates to the high rate of incarceration. 

            Unlike the impression given by the book as a whole, this chapter, at least in the absence of further explanation, suggests a profound naivete and the sort of sentimental mushiness that many associate with the American Left.  There are other examples, too, but we need not go into them.  It suffices to say that those who follow Webb’s career in politics and in writing will have reason to observe this facet of his complex personality carefully to see whether the impression is accurate and, if so, to what extent it may falsify our impression that he is not a “man of the Left.”

            Despite this caveat, A Time to Fight has much to recommend it.  It includes honest ponderings on many subjects, among which one finds: the hollowing-out of the American economy; massive immigration; campaign finance; the need for more prudence in American foreign policy; the war against al Qaeda; the concept of preventive war; the Iraq war; taxes; and issues of the culture war (as to which in general he takes a libertarian-style position). This review is, of course, no substitute for reading the book.

                                                                                                                                                                                        Dwight D. Murphey