Sunday, December 03, 2006

Virginia Senator-elect Jim Webb is the rare Washington figure who doesn't suck up to power
Clift: Senator-Elect Webb Not to Be Toyed With
Virginia Senator-elect Jim Webb is the rare Washington figure who doesn't suck up to power.
By Eleanor Clift

Dec. 1, 2006 - Every so often a politician comes along who doesn’t pander to the president. Fresh off a nasty campaign that centered on the war in Iraq, Virginia Senator-elect Jim Webb had no interest in a picture of himself with President Bush, and he didn’t want to exchange small talk with the man whose war policies he opposes. So he skipped the receiving line at a White House reception for newly elected members of Congress, creating the first of what we should all hope will be many ripples in Washington.

Webb’s presumed snub of Bush is rare enough in a city where everybody who’s anybody has a glory wall, and social occasions are geared to a parade of picture taking. But what happened next is where the story really takes off. President Bush, spying Webb across the room, walked over to him and asked, “How’s your boy?” Webb’s son is a Marine in Iraq.

A more seasoned politician might have been flattered that the president knew his son was in the line of fire and bothered to ask about him. That wouldn’t be Webb, a best-selling author who got into electoral politics for primarily one reason, his opposition to the Iraq war. “I’d like to get them out of Iraq,” he replied, according to several published accounts. “That’s not what I asked you,” Bush said, repeating his question: “How’s your boy?” Webb’s reply: “That’s between me and my boy.” Afterward, a source told The Hill newspaper that Webb was so angered by the exchange he was tempted to slug the guy. That might have prompted the Secret Service to pull their weapons, which wouldn’t have been the first time Webb, a highly decorated Vietnam combat veteran, faced the barrel of a gun.

A quirky individualist who wants no part of the phony collegiality of Washington, Webb was rightly insulted when Bush pressed him in that bullying way—“That’s not what I asked you”—trying to force the conversation back to Webb’s son. Webb could have asked how the Bush girls are doing, partying their way across Argentina. He could have told Bush he was worried about his son; the vehicle next to him was blown up recently, killing three Marines. Given the contrast between their respective offspring, Webb showed restraint.

But that’s not how much of official Washington reacted. Columnist George F. Will was the most offended, declaring civility dead and Webb a boor and a “pompous poseur.” Were the etiquette police as exercised when Vice President Dick Cheney told Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy to perform an anatomically impossible act on the Senate floor? Or is that amusing by Washington’s odd standards?

Webb told The Washington Post that his intention was not to offend Bush or the institution of the presidency but that “leaders do some symbolic things to try to convey who they are and what the message is.” By standing up to Bush, Webb became a hero to a lot of people who voted against this president and this war, and whose views have been sidelined for six years. Symbols matter. Bush certainly understands their importance, or he wouldn’t have jetted onto that carrier in a flight suit and stood in front of a banner that proclaimed MISSION ACCOMPLISHED more than a thousand days and thousands more deaths ago. A president snubbed by a junior senator-elect and then, more tellingly by the puppet prime minister in Iraq, should be wondering where he went wrong, not the other way around.

It’s justice long overdue for a president who has so abused the symbols of war to get his comeuppance from a battlefield hero who personifies real toughness as opposed to fake toughness. Bush struts around with this bullying frat-boy attitude, and he gets away with it because nobody stands up to him. Bush could have left Webb’s initial response stand, but no, he had to jab back—“That’s not what I asked you.” Webb is not one to be bullied. He knows what real toughness is, and it’s not lording it over people who are weaker than you, and if you’re president, everybody by definition is weaker.

The lords of Washington will say that Webb got off to a rocky start, but so did Paul Wellstone, another iconoclastic citizen turned politician who dared to violate social protocol. It was another Bush and another gulf war, but Wellstone’s initial impropriety set the stage for what turned out to be a distinguished and even inspirational career that was tragically cut short by a plane crash four years ago. A professor of political science at Minnesota’s Carleton College, Wellstone was antiwar even then and had run on a progressive platform. At a White House reception in 1991 for newly elected members, Wellstone used his time in the receiving line with President George H.W. Bush to press his opposition to the first gulf war that loomed on the horizon and to urge more attention to education and health care. After he moved through the line, Bush was overheard saying, “Who is this chickens--t?” It's a sentiment the son surely shares.