WASHINGTON — A look at former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who announced Thursday he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination.
Jim Webb has built a long career as a soldier, writer, Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan and a U.S. senator from Virginia. Webb’s next chapter will include a plotline that could be out of a novel — as a longshot on a quixotic quest to defeat the established Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Since launching a presidential exploratory committee in November, Webb has said he wants to be a voice for working-class Americans who have struggled with economic hardships and been neglected in a political system dominated by money. He says foreign policy has been “adrift” since the end of the Cold War.
He brings to the campaign an independent streak and an outsider’s view on the economy and criminal justice. His foreign policy views on Iraq and Libya and criticism of Wall Street excess could lead to debate-stage confrontations with Clinton, who served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state.
Webb will need to raise enough money to mount a viable campaign, something he’s acknowledged will be a challenge in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling that helped super PACs spend millions from corporations, unions and wealthy people.
A Naval Academy graduate, Webb served as a company commander in the Marines during the Vietnam War and was awarded the Naval Cross, the Silver Star Medal and two Purple Hearts. After the war, he graduated from law school and published his first novel in 1978, “Fields of Fire,” about the Vietnam War. The 2000 film, “Rules of Engagement,” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, was based on a story by Webb.
In the late 1970s, he served as a counsel to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and worked as a journalist, receiving an Emmy Award for his PBS coverage of the U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983. He later served in the Defense Department and became Navy secretary under Reagan in 1987.
In 2006, Webb ran for the Senate on an anti-Iraq war message and overcame a large deficit to defeat incumbent Republican George Allen. In the Senate, Webb focused on foreign policy and veterans issues — he helped write the post 9/11 GI bill — but decided not to seek re-election in 2012.
Webb’s father was an Air Force colonel and his family moved frequently during his childhood. He enrolled at the University of Southern California but left a year later to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.
He was one of the Annapolis graduates — along with Arizona Sen. John McCain — featured in Robert Timberg’s “The Nightingale’s Song,” about those who fought in Vietnam. The book chronicles a memorable boxing match between Webb and Oliver North, a central figure in the Iran contra scandal of the 1980s.
Webb, 69, has written several novels, movie scripts and articles, including one, in Washingtonian magazine, that came back to haunt him. The 1979 piece criticized the role of women in the military and was remembered for Webb’s observation that an Annapolis dormitory was a “horny woman’s dream.” He added, “I have never met a woman, including the dozens of female midshipmen I encountered during my recent semester as a professor at the Naval Academy, whom I would trust to provide those men with combat leadership.”
Webb became a Republican at the end of the Vietnam War based on national security issues and endorsed Allen in the 2000 Senate race. But he became disillusioned with the party during the Iraq war and decided to challenge Allen in 2006. Webb was helped when Allen’s campaign imploded after the incumbent senator called a Democratic tracker “macaca,” taken as an ethnic insult, during a campaign event.
CALLING CARD MOMENT
Webb’s military service in the Vietnam War has infused every aspect of his career: his time on Capitol Hill as a counsel working on veterans’ issues, his novels and stints in journalism and his tenure in the Defense Department. As the nation’s debate over the Iraq war waged, Webb defeated Allen in one of the top Senate contests of 2006. After winning the seat, he raised his son’s military boots in the air during a Democratic rally in one of the lasting images from the campaign. His wife, Hong Le Webb, an attorney, was born in Vietnam. The former senator speaks Vietnamese.
EARLY STATE ACTION
Webb has made frequent visits to the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina but is overshadowed in the contest. He has sought to appeal to veterans and military voters in the early states and has played down the hurdles in running against Clinton, noting that he started well behind Allen about nine months before the 2006 Senate election.
Webb is the author of military-themed books, including the novels “Fields of Fire,” ”Lost Soldiers,” ”The Emperor’s General,” ”A Sense of Honor,” ”Something to Die For,” and “A Country Such as This.” He wrote also wrote his memoirs, “I Heard My Country Calling,” and a policy book, “A Time to Fight.”