Tangled Webb

James Webb’s fiction wins accolades, but his speeches suck.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—They should teach political-science courses on this. Every time a Democrat gets slimed between the eyes with a Karl Rove Swift Boat special, the same litany of questions and complaints surges up from the left: Is it better to respond or not? Is it good for Harold Ford that the Playboy ads are being aired nationally? Is it even thinkable that triple amputee Vietnam veteran Max Cleland was likened to a terrorist for opposing the war?

So, what is the appropriate response to a sliming, anyhow?

Virginia Senate candidate Jim Webb has to figure out a response to the sidesplitting new George Allen attacks last week. And he has to do it fast. Allen now claims that passages from Webb’s fiction are evidence of a candidate “demeaning” to women and children. My first reaction to these Allen-campaign efforts was that they were a parody. But then, I also thought Rush Limbaugh’s attacks last week on Michael J. Fox were a parody. That’s the trick, you see: These attacks are real and effective, in the same way a sucker punch is always effective. It takes away your breath. And into that empty space, elections seem to tumble.

At a rally today at the University of Virginia’s Newcomb Hall, Webb shares the stage with Cleland, but the two veterans—who refer to one another as “brothers”—could not be more different: Cleland, the decorated Vietnam vet and former U.S. senator from Georgia who was unseated after GOP commercials accused him of being unpatriotic, seems almost to have located the humor in the situation. While the ugliness of the attacks on him can still numb the moral brain, his comments this afternoon suggest that he knows it’s all a dirty game. After Webb pushes his wheelchair onto the stage, Cleland waves and grins. He cracks the obligatory Cheney duck-hunting joke to explain his triple-amputee status (“At least someone in the Bush Administration has combat status”), and then he launches into a spirited and moving defense of the soldier’s pledge not to “lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”

He notes wryly that the Allen campaign has “attacked Jim for being obscene.” He pauses. “I will tell you what’s obscene. Going to war with no strategy to win is obscene. Obscene is sending Americans into war without proper equipment.” Cleland speaks without notes, and—doubly poignant coming from a man without legs—he devotes most of his imagery to the contrast between Webb’s boots (the candidate wears his son’s combat boots to honor him as he serves) and Allen’s cowboy boots (in a place where “there are no cowboys”). He charges the crowd to use their boots to pound the pavement for Webb. Although Cleland’s war injuries were more brutal and his swift-boating more vicious, he is sufficiently recovered from them both to be passionate and funny and wry.

But Jim Webb, with his Dick Tracy features and his ramrod military posture, is just not there yet. After Cleland’s introduction, Webb steps stiffly forward and awkwardly embraces him. Then he begins, again stiffly, to speak. And juxtaposed against Cleland’s ambling Southern charm, Webb comes across as so formal and literary that it’s hard to believe he was ever a Republican. He sounds like he’s tumbled out of Al Gore’s pocket.

Webb almost immediately makes the mistake of engaging with Allen’s moronic attack. Instead of exploding the whole bizarre smear campaign with one devastating line, he pulls from his pocket a list of his novels’ reviews and begins to read: His novels are required reading in the Marine Corps. They were required reading for college courses on Vietnam. He quotes the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post and the Washington Times. Everyone agrees his novels were important works on the ravages of war. It goes on too long, and he’s clearly upset. But why is he dwelling on this?

He then tries to laugh it off: “I never believed when I ran for the Senate I’d be reading reviews of my novels.” But he says he wants to make two points here: “I’ve lived a literary life, and I’m proud of it.” More important still: “I have lived in the real world and reported on the real world.”

And then he finally says the only sentence he needed to say about this whole pathetic episode of swift-boating by close literary reading: “If you’ve been in the Senate for six years and the best you can do is dissect your opponent’s novels, you don’t have much to bring to the table.” The crowd roars, relieved.

There is a good turnout at today’s UVA event, and the audience members are primed and ready to pound the pavement for Webb. They are angry about the war and sickened by the current Congress and president. But they also seem to see the latest Allen efforts for the lame distraction that they are. Webb isn’t there yet. He’s pissed off, and he’s entitled to be. But the only folks who benefit when he angrily reads his critical literary reviews at campaign rallies are Karl Rove and the moral Cirque du Soleil performers who orchestrate these campaigns.

They sucker-punched you, Jim. It sucks. Now catch your breath, tell a joke, and move on.