Jim Webb has gotten a lot of attention lately in the veep speculation game -- the one that has substituted for real political reporting over the last month. Most stories focus in on his military and government career, but what I've always found so intriguing about Webb is the thing that makes him such a unique political animal: namely, that he comes from the world of writing, rather than from professional politics.
We get a bit of a glimpse of how this makes him different in his first-person Washington Post essay today. Here's my favorite part:
"When the Reagan administration came in and offered me a job in '81, I said, "No, I really want to go write again." So I went out and did some really interesting journalism and wrote [another] novel...Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to write something that I believe is really good. Writing is what I will always do, no matter what. My mind always writes. You never stop writing if you're a writer."
Personally, I really relate to this -- especially (in my exhausted book tour state) the part about being devoted to the craft of writing, and therefore having a mind that is always writing, even when your pen isn't physically on the paper. As it relates to Webb, this focus -- this glimpse into his mind -- explains why he is so interesting and unique. If you are serious about the actual craft of journalism and writing as Webb is -- and not just using the written word as a self-glorifying propaganda tool -- you end up looking at the world in a far different way than a hack politician.
I met Webb at the last Take Back America conference. A staffer of his told me that (unbeknownst to me) I made a two-page appearance in Webb's latest book, A Time to Fight, and that I should introduce myself (I actually hate meeting politicians who work in D.C., Democrat or Republican -- most of them make me feel like I need to go take a shower. I especially hate introducing myself to them, as I don't want to add to their burdensome schedule -- they have enough constituents, superfans, job-seekers, climbers and self-important journalists to deal with as it is. But since I was encouraged, I did so). And though it was a brief conversation, I definitely got a much different feeling in meeting him than in meeting almost any other politician I've met -- and I've met a helluva lot of them at this point. There's a substance and an intensity to this person that is rare in the cheapened world of politics.
Lots of Webb cheerleaders in the progressive blogosphere love him because he's berated George Bush and given a terrifically blunt State of the Union response. His toughness on military issues and his career makes victimized progressives feel like we finally have our own bodyguard of sorts -- that we have a strongman with a strong military record who is tough in opposing the neocons and the war in Iraq, a guy who shows we don't have to take chest-thumping intimidation from chickenhawks. I certainly get this rationale, and honor his long military service and solid record on military issues. But what intrigues me most about the freshman Virginia senator has little to do with him making the Left feel less wimpy on only those issues.
No, what most separates Webb from other Democratic politicians who seem tough only because of their military resume is that Webb isn't really a politician -- and I don't mean that in the ridiculous "Barack Obama, a career politician, isn't a politician" way, but in the real sense (by the way, no disrespect to Obama at all here -- I'm just stating a fact about Obama actually being a career politician, despite protests to the contrary by some of his fans).
This is a guy that regardless of the issue, displays an intense outrage -- which is a very good thing, as there's lots to be angry about. We've seen it most pronounced from Webb -- at least rhetorically -- on economic class issues -- the issues you aren't allowed to talk about in Washington, D.C.
This Wall Street Journal op-ed that he wrote before ever entering the millionaires club of the U.S. Senate remains one of the hardest-hitting, best-written pieces of economic commentary I've seen from anyone -- politician or otherwise -- in the last decade.
I'm convinced that at least some of that outrage comes from his grounding as a writer -- that if you are serious about writing and reporting, then you inevitably meet realities that quite justifiably superheat your outrage beyond the point where the machinations and spin of career politician-ism get in the way.
That someone like Webb even made it into the U.S. Senate is a good thing. And sure, while he's far from perfect, and while I'm not endorsing him as the VP choice, I am saying that the mere consideration of someone like him as a vice-presidential nominee is, unto itself, a signal that American politics is shifting rapidly -- and that's a good thing too.