Anyone but Webb
Why Jim Webb would make an awful running mate.
It's anybody's guess who Barack Obama wants to be his running mate, but the chattering class has fallen hard for Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.
On paper, Webb is the perfect choice for veep. Is Obama too closely identified with the left? Webb is a former Republican who served in the Reagan administration. (Washington Times editorial, June 7, 2008: "[Webb] offers Mr. Obama … an opportunity to blur some hard-left positions that are certain to alienate large blocs of voters.") Did Obama lose big in the Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia primaries? Webb's family roots lie in Appalachia, and he's a bona fide expert on the flinty Scots-Irish who settled there, having published a well-received book about them in 2004. (Eve Fairbanks, the New Republic, June 25, 2008, issue: "Like Obama, [Webb] is not simply a member of a group historically important to the party; he is someone who embodies that group, someone who has turned that group's narrative into his own.") Is Obama too cautious and detached? Webb is famous for speaking his mind. (Elizabeth Drew, the New York Review of Books, June 26, 2008 issue: "Like a boxer or a military man, Webb decides on his targets and charges straight at them.")
It's this last characteristic that's the problem. Webb, 62, is a bit of a blowhard. Because he's a writer, he's left a paper trail. In a 1979 Washingtonian article, "Women Can't Fight," Webb wrote that it had been a mistake to open the military service academies to women:
[Women's] presence at institutions dedicated to the preparation of men for combat command is poisoning that preparation. By attempting to sexually sterilize the Naval Academy environment in the name of equality, this country has sterilized the whole process of combat leadership training, and our military forces are doomed to suffer the consequences. … [T]he system has been objectified and neutered to the point it can no longer develop or measure leadership. …
Asked two years ago on Meet the Press whether he still believed this, Webb said, "I'm fully comfortable with the roles of women in the military today." He also said, "There's many pieces in this article that if I were a more mature individual I wouldn't have written." As late as 1992, though, Webb complained (in a New York Times op-ed that called the Tailhook investigation a "witch hunt"):
Military leaders are at best passive and at most often downright fearful when confronted by activists who allege that their culture is inherently oppressive toward females and that full assimilation of women depends only on a change in the mind-set of its misogynist leaders.
Such piggy statements won't endear Webb to the white female Hillary Clinton supporters who are threatening not to vote in the general election.
As Navy secretary during the Reagan administration, Webb was an ardent supporter of President Reagan's goal to create a "600-ship Navy," an ambitious benchmark whose urgency was unclear even at the height of the Cold War. By 1988, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika program well underway, justification for the rapid buildup was dwindling fast. But when Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci removed 16 aging frigates from an administration budget request, Webb went ballistic and resigned, grousing to reporters on his way out that Carlucci failed to provide "leadership" or "strategic vision." Even Reagan was taken aback, writing in his diary, "I don't think Navy was sorry to see him go." This episode doesn't inspire confidence in Webb's qualities as a team player.
Now that Webb is a media darling, able to make even TheNation's Katrina Vanden Heuvel swoon like a bobby soxer over his "blue-collar street cred," the dominant narrative has it that Webb has finally soothed the savage beast within. But in his new book, A Time To Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America, Webb compares the U.S. Senate to "100 scorpions in a jar" and writes, "The jar needs to be shaken." No sooner was Webb elected in 2006 before he picked an utterly pointless fight with President Bush. At a post-election White House reception, Webb, who had ostentatiously declined to stand in a receiving line, was approached by the president, who asked, "How's your boy?" (Webb's son was serving in Iraq, and Webb had spoken of him often while campaigning against the war.) Webb replied, "I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President." When Bush replied brusquely, "That isn't what I asked. How's your boy?" Webb replied even more brusquely, "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President." Four months later, Webb's aide Phillip Thompson was arrested carrying Webb's gun into the Capitol. Asked at a subsequent press conference whether he, Webb, was in the habit of obeying a strict handgun ban in the District of Columbia, Webb replied defiantly, "I'm not going to comment in any level in terms of how I provide for my own security." They may love that in Appalachia, but is it wise to place on the national ticket a candidate who virtually boasts about violating the law? Even Webb's friend (and mine) James Fallows has expressed polite trepidation about a Webb vice presidency.
There is much to admire in Webb. He's smart, he cares about ordinary people, and I hear his novels are excellent. (I've never read any.) He recently pulled off a coup in the Senate by outmaneuvering John McCain on a veterans' benefits bill. Webb may yet turn out to be a great senator. (Though that raises another problem: He only arrived there last year! The Obama ticket doesn't need another rookie, and, setting aside Webb's deep knowledge and experience in the area of military affairs, Webb is a government rookie.)
But Webb's personal history has demonstrated time and again that he can't play well with the other children. A volcanic temperament is endurable in a novelist or an opera singer. It is not endurable at the bottom of a national ticket. Nominating Webb isn't worth the risk that he'll alienate important constituencies, embarrass Obama, or break with him outright, as John Nance Garner did with Franklin Roosevelt. He's trouble, and Obama's already had too much of that.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Barack Obama and Jim Webb by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.