Jim Webb’s Busload of Baggage

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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After it was reported that former Sen. Jim Webb had formed a presidential exploratory committee, I tweeted a link to a Telegraph column I recently penned, pointing out the baggage Webb would have to overcome.

Here’s an excerpt:

“In a novel Lost Soldiers, he describes a graphic scene of incest and paedophilia between a returning soldier and his son that is too explicit to quote from here; in another he describes a woman performing sexual acts on a banana.

“When Webb ran for the Senate, this was brought up to no avail. But running for president is an altogether different animal. One wonders how American voters would feel about these fictional depictions. And there’s more. Critics point out that he has written fondly of his own Confederate roots and defended the Southern states’ decision to secede from the Union, which led to the American Civil War.

“In 2004 he said that John Kerry deserved to be condemned for his youthful opposition to the Vietnam War — a position shared by millions of Americans of that generation — and he has also argued that women cannot fight so are unsuited to combat roles in the US military.

To which, my colleague, Jordan Bloom, responded:


… This deserves a response, inasmuch as I’m sympathetic to some of Bloom’s points.

1). Webb was a fiction writer. Should he be responsible for what one of his characters does in a book? One could argue (this came up during the recent Woody Allen controversy) that we can divine certain personal or character flaws and traits based on an auteur’s oeuvre. This seems like dangerous business to me. But here’s the thing, the real question is simply this: How will this play in Peoria? (I’m guessing not well.)

2). Webb wrote about the Civil War, and made a reasonable, if nuanced, point about how the average rank and file Confederate soldier might have been more motivated by concepts like honor and chivalry and defense of his homeland, than by defending the institution of slavery. This sounds like a reasonable thing to say, but keep in mind Webb is running for the presidential nomination of an unreasonable Democratic Party — a party that has, in recent years, specialized in demonizing anyone who says things remotely close to this. How might these past comments play in a Democratic primary to replace the first black president of the United States? Do you think his opponents and the media will be as open minded as I am?

3). Bloom didn’t address this one, but since it was in the excerpt I tweeted, it’s worth mentioning his criticism of John Kerry — and his past statements about women not being suited to combat roles. These positions are politically incorrect and controversial, but they are also not absurdly indefensible. But can you win the Democratic nomination by saying such things?

Will others be as generous in putting these things in context as I have been here? One supposes that the better Jim Webb performs in the primaries, the more likely it is that one of his primary opponents will find a way to sink him with at least one of the aforementioned three things.

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Matt K. Lewis