The Magazine

Tangled Webb

Cognitive dissonance in Virginia.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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The culture so dramatically symbolized by the Southern redneck [is] the greatest inhibitor of the plans of the activist Left and the cultural Marxists for a new kind of society altogether.

From the perspective of the activist Left, [rednecks] are the greatest obstacles to what might be called the collectivist taming of America, symbolized by the edicts of political correctness. And for the last fifty years the Left has been doing everything in its power to sue them, legislate against their interests, mock them in the media, isolate them as idiosyncratic, and publicly humiliate their traditions in order to make them, at best, irrelevant to America's future growth.

--from Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,

by James Webb (2004)

Yowie. We don't often hear rude talk like that up here in Arlington, Virginia, straight across the river from Washington, D.C. Here the leafy, winding streets are lined with Priuses and Volvos and the bumper stickers say "Visualize World Peace" and "Goddess Power." We especially don't hear such rude talk during Sunday afternoon house parties like the one Pat Langley hosted two weeks ago. Mrs. Langley is a Democratic party activist in this most liberal of suburbs in this most conservative of states. She'd invited friends, fellow activists, and neighbors over for punch and coffee and finger food. She wanted them to watch a campaign video and listen to a conference call over a speaker phone, and then give as much money as they could to her favorite candidate, James Webb.

That's the same James Webb--the staunch defender of the right to bear arms who's warned his countrymen about collectivist taming by the Left, its war on salt-of-the-earth "Joe Sixpack" through such programs as affirmative action, also known (to Webb, among others) as "state-sponsored racism." The same Jim Webb whose war novels bristle with contempt for the professional liberals, mollycoddlers, and antimilitary cultural Marxists who constitute society's decadent elite and who have made their home in the Democratic party ever since their treacherous betrayal of our fighting men in Vietnam.

Something's not right with this picture, obviously, but then so many pictures seem out of whack this election year, and nowhere more so than in Virginia. Here George Allen--former governor, favorite of the conservative movement, and one-term Republican senator of no particular distinction--is being challenged by the most sophisticated right-wing reactionary to run on a Democratic ticket since Grover Cleveland.

It turned out that not many people at Mrs. Langley's knew much about Webb. As committed activists, they were just happy he's a Democrat who's been running even in the polls with Allen and has a fair chance at an upset. And they know he's a Vietnam veteran whose two Purple Hearts, Silver Star, and Navy Cross testify to unimpeachable heroism. Other things they think they know about him, however, aren't quite so.

"He's a war hero, but you know he's refusing to let the campaign reference his war experience," one of Mrs. Langley's neighbors told me. "He refuses to exploit it. That tells you something right there about the kind of man he is." The neighbor didn't flinch when Mrs. Langley played the campaign video, which offered a parade of old combat pictures of Webb and a series of testimonials from his war buddies.

When I asked another neighbor what she thought of Webb's experience working in the Reagan administration--he served as secretary of the Navy late in Reagan's second term--she waved me off.

"He resigned in protest!" she said.

And so he did--but only when Reagan ordered cuts in the military budget that threatened the Reaganite goal of a 600-ship Navy. It's hard for anyone in these days of the Reagan Afterglow to remember that some people, back in the late 1980s, thought Old Ron was going soft.

Dreema Fisk, an Arlington poet and retired schoolteacher, told me she'd heard that Webb had once been a member of the Republican party--a group with which, she said, she was tragically familiar. "I come from West Virginia," she said, "and I discovered last time that my entire family back home voted for Bush." She shook her head and kneaded her hands. "I cried all night."

She said she was a Quaker. I asked her whether she'd read any of Webb's war novels. "Are they violent?" she asked. "Maybe I should read one."

Among those Arlingtonians who do know more about Webb, enthusiasm is often muted. As chairman of the County Board a decade ago, Ellen Bozman helped bring about Arlington's continuing era of Democratic dominance. At the party she told me that many of her acquaintances had expressed reservations about her candidate.