Jim Webb, Democratic Senator from Virginia, has made a huge difference in the Senate. As the 51st Democrat in the Senate, he swung the majority two years ago when he won the hotly contested seat during his race against George Allen, when Allen was derailed by allegedly racist remarks captured in news stories around the country.
And the best-selling novelist, nonfiction writer and highly decorated Vietnam War veteran had just been in office just one day when he introduced what Webb and principal co-sponsor of the bill Chuck Hagel (Republican, Nebraska) called, in an editorial in the New York Times, "one of the most important pieces of legislation in our history." The Post-Iraq G.I. Bill, which finally became law eighteen months later on June 30, 2008, provides for the first increase for college costs since the Montgomery G.I. Bill which provided a flat payment of $800 a month, which would have covered an average of less than 40 percent of state university costs and 12 percent of private university costs.
According to an editorial in the Washington Post this past June "it is a testament to the tenacity of....Webb and the justice of his cause that Congress has enacted a new GI Bill for war veterans. The freshman senator's ability to work across party lines means that men and women who risk their lives for America's well-being will, in return, get expanded education benefits, along with the opportunities for better futures."
The education benefits were part of a $257.5 billion emergency spending bill. Although the program's costs, $62 billion, are not cheap, they seem cheap in light of what the government is now spending to bailout out failed Wall Street institutions and our nation's banks. While the bill had little initial chance of passing, Webb enlisted the support of influential House Republicans and Democrats and, as the Post added, "what served him best was his justifiable outrage at how a generation of veterans was being shortchanged."
Esquire magazine recently named Jim Webb one of its most influential 75 people of the 21st Century, saying "(He) has done more to repair his party's relationship with the military than anyone since the Democrats ran afoul of the rank and file during the Vietnam era by appearing not so much antiwar as antimilitary....Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (said that) 'Jim Webb is that rarity in Washington. He knows himself.' Which is why he will have the ear of whoever wins the presidency."
But it is clear that should Obama win the presidency, it Obama's ear he will have. Webb, along with Virginia governor Tim Kaine, was one of Obama's top choices for Vice President, until Webb took himself out of the running saying he still had work to do in the Senate.
After a glowing introduction by long time Southwest Virginia representative Rick Boucher who said that "Webb is a hero to vets," Webb jumped on stage during last week's rally in Roanoke, Virginia, to thunderous applause and began by saying:
"Barack Obama is like you!" He knows what it is like to struggle."
He then turned solemn for a moment, and with a twinkle in his eye, said: "And on a personal note I would like to say that Barack Obama is the son of a dad from Kenya and a mom from Kansas by way of Kentucky so his ancestry goes back to the mountains. He is from this area. Barack Obama understands you!"
Virginia's mountains have always posed an interesting problem for Democrats. The state has not voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but this year looks the most promising. Yet, it has voted for several Democratic governors, including a black man, Doug Wilder, now mayor of the capitol city of Richmond. In addition to Jim Webb, it looks likely that Mark Warner will replace retiring Republican Senator John Warner (no relation) in this year's Senate race. Many of Virginia's cities consistently vote Democratic, including small ones in the Shenandoah Valley and the small rural mountain communities, while the surrounding areas often go Republican. There has been a huge effort to sign up new voters this year, and record 300,000 new Democrats have been registered, many of them young people. There are Democratic headquarters in even the smallest towns.
Obama himself has made many trips to Southwest Virginia and Rick Boucher predicts that Southwest Virginia will vote for Obama like the rest of the state. If so, it is people like Jim Webb who will help make that possible. Despite a recent profile in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that discusses polls that wonder if Obama can resonate with white rural men, the writer comes to the conclusion that "from all the available data Obama isn't actually doing any worse with white men that the last two Democratic nominees, both of whom also ran when the national climate offered considerable advantages..." which it certainly does not now. If anything, the economic climate can only help Obama. And despite the fact that Webb may disagree with Obama on an issue or two (perhaps guns, for one,) both he and his many relatives are clear and enthusiastic supporters.
Webb was the subject of a lengthy New Yorker magazine profile in 2006 when he burst onto the political scene during his run for the Senate and surprise victory. The magazine called Webb a "Democratic iconoclast." More recently, in the Esquire interview where he was named one of this century's most influential people, he revealed that he thought of himself as a writer first and a public servant second. "I sort of unwittingly started this two-track career," he revealed. He also said that writing novels is the most disciplined thing he ever did and that he rewrote his first novel cover to cover seven times.
But at the same time he was writing, Webb also served four years as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs and then as Secretary of the Navy. After finally being convinced to run for the Senate by Bob Kerrey (former Democratic Senator from Nebraska, a long time friend), Webb said that the campaign was harder than the actual job. And now that he's in the Senate, he told Esquire that his urgent issues are ones surrounding "national security policy, economic fairness, accountability issues, and infrastructure."
Webb sounded eloquent and possibly presidential when speaking before the crowd of 8,000 on October 17.
"You can trust Obama," he said enthusiastically to the cheering crowd. "I do!"
"I'm a fairly skeptical person," Webb continued. "And when I say I trust someone, I mean it. And I trust Obama. I've known John McCain for more than thirty years, but it's gotten ugly. It's not about McCain being a bad person. But it is about who is best to govern our country!"
He went out to explain that "There are three issues that are important right now. And on all of them we need leadership from the top.
"We need political leadership for our war of occupation. And only one person can move us to a better place in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We need leadership on the issue of economic fairness. We have lost over 80,000 manufacturing jobs in Virginia alone and the average wages are down while the profits are going up.
"And we need leadership that requires knowledge and vision and judgment. There is a country music song that goes 'I know what I was doing, but what was I thinking?' We can't have leadership like that."
With that, Jim Webb, quickly and almost quietly introduced Barack Obama.