"I'm a writer, I want to know where you're going with this," Jim Webb says suspiciously at the beginning of our chat. He has been so many things: tough guy, for sure; Ollie North's college boxing opponent, Vietnam War hero, Navy secretary, senator, Republican . . . Democrat.
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But he seems most eager to define himself as a man of letters, or at least he does on this particular overcast day at his office, pausing to talk for a few minutes about what could be his greatest legislative legacy or a most uncharacteristic clunker. The Democratic senator -- er, writer -- is accustomed to controlling the narrative flow whether he's writing bestsellers or directing troops on the battlefield. Yet now, this commanding presence enters a less compliant arena, one in which he inevitably emerges as much as a protagonist as an author.
"I am, at bottom, a writer," he says, invoking his default response. "I start with a theme, rather than a plot." Webb wants to shape a plotline that, with each turn of the page, draws America closer to reinventing its criminal justice system. Questioning why the United States locks up so many of its youths, why its prisons swell with disease and atrocities while fundamental social problems persist in its streets, has earned Webb lavish praise as a politician unafraid to be smeared as soft on crime. And when a law-and-order type as rock-ribbed as Webb expresses willingness to consider legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, excitement follows.
Still, for all the attaboys, ceding control of how he or his ideas will be interpreted clearly makes Webb uncomfortable.
At 63, Jim Webb, is one year removed from withdrawing his name from a list of possible running mates for then-Sen. Barack Obama after much breathless speculation that he would be the fabled Southern Democrat who could boost the ticket. Webb looks much younger than his age, still every bit the picture of the fit warrior, with red hair and a ruddy Scotch-Irish complexion. Once he fixes that stare of his, sets that square jaw, there's little doubt that he is used to giving the orders. His voice starts somewhere deep in his throat, then emerges as a confident rumble, adding to the aura of unquestioned authority, which he asserts when the conversation turns to where his ideas about the criminal justice system could be headed. "I don't want you to perceive from an inverted syllogism where I'm going here," he says.
Even without Webb's reminders (or his casual use of syllogism, which Merriam-Webster helped us to understand as "a deductive scheme of a formal argument, consisting of a major and minor premise and a conclusion"), it would be tough to miss the fact that he is, indeed, a writer. A really good, really successful writer. His crisp, muscular prose regularly lands him on fiction bestseller lists and his stellar 1978 debut novel, "Fields of Fire," was described at the time, by no less a light than Tom Wolfe, as the "finest of the Vietnam novels."
Writing hasn't always burnished Webb's rep, though. The next year, he wrote an article in Washingtonian magazine titled "Women Can't Fight," arguing against women in combat leadership roles. The article lingers as an easy prop for Webb's detractors, even though he says he tripled the number of jobs open to women while naval secretary and cracked down on sexual harassment.
Webb's gifts as a wordsmith -- occasional kerfuffles aside -- afford him a platform unavailable to less literary senators. When he decided to propose a massive reexamination of U.S. prisons and criminal laws this past spring, he gave the usual floor speech. Whereas other senators may get confined to that usually empty chamber and its daytime C-SPAN audience, Webb went on from there to state his case by writing a Parade magazine cover story titled "Why We Must Fix Our Prisons," talking directly to its 30 million-plus Sunday readers.
"Our overcrowded, ill-managed prison systems are places of violence, physical abuse, and hate, making them breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behavior we purport to fear," the writer wrote.
Lawmakers who haven't been decorated for heroism on the battlefield -- and don't have that penetrating gaze -- might have less latitude to broach such themes. But Webb gets a pass.
"He's clearly not a liberal wimp," said Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by Charles Colson. "That's what works about this politically. He's not doing this because he bleeds for prisoners."
On its face, Webb's proposal is bolder in rhetoric than in practice, to put it mildly. He wants to -- brace yourselves -- form a bipartisan commission! (The proposal is included in a bill that has attracted more than two dozen co-sponsors, but has yet to be voted on.) The commission is supposed to, among other things, come up with recommendations for reducing the overall incarceration rate, decreasing prison violence and improving treatment of mental illness inside and outside prisons.
But it is commission duty No. 6 that keeps drawing attention, making Webb's proposal an eye-catcher in the sea of congressional proposals that might or might not go all the way: "Restructure the approach to criminalization of, and incarceration as the result of, the possession or use of illegal drugs, decreasing the demand for illicit drugs, and improving the treatment for addiction."
For once, Webb's mastery of the English language doesn't sound so masterful. This reads as arched-eyebrow intriguing, but gimme-a-break murky.
Is he saying that drugs should be decriminalized, or what?
In the Richmond interview, Webb clearly doesn't like where this line of questioning is going. (After our meeting, his press rep sends an e-mail, saying how uncomfortable they were and noting that the tension was "palpable.") Webb scans for tripwires, parsing each question tossed at him. Once, he says, a journalist tried to trick him into hoisting a grenade to get some color for a piece. He didn't fall for it.
The senator grumbles that no one should fall into the easy assumption that his interest in drug policy might be inspired in some way by his time in Vietnam, a war so often depicted on the big screen through a gauzy haze of pot smoke.
"I saw far more drugs at Georgetown Law Center than I ever saw in the military," says Webb, who earned a law degree at Georgetown in 1975.
Webb wants to frame his project as a sweeping examination of the American criminal justice system, a thoughtful study that defies simplification or distillation.
He notes that he doesn't want to "pre-judge" before the commission has even been formed. But he does provide a list of "findings" in his bill to get any future commission started.
Those findings, which echo Webb's speeches and his public comments, describe a criminal justice system in desperate need of repair. He points out that 2.38 million people are locked up in the United States, "five times the world's average incarceration rate," and that 7.3 million Americans are either incarcerated or on probation or parole --"an increase of 290 percent since 1980."
"Either we have the most evil people on Earth living in the United States," Webb said when he introduced his bill March 26, "or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice."
In his bill, he goes on to state that high incarceration rates have not lessened the availability of drugs and says that "treating addiction will significantly help decrease demand." He also paints a grim picture of life inside the nation's prisons, citing high HIV rates among inmates and disturbing levels of sexual abuse behind bars.
But what about commission duty No. 6? This one looks like it could be big. Does this mean he'd support decriminalizing or legalizing drugs?
"Everything should be on the table," Webb says.
And there it is -- damn the consequences!
This is why, even as editorialists in the mainstream media applaud his efforts to reform the overall criminal justice system, he's also racking up headlines in High Times magazine and getting shout-outs from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws for his "candor and political courage."
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, better known by the acronym LEAP -- a group of current and former law enforcement officers -- is running a petition on its Internet site in support of Webb's commission. The petition and a video of Webb appear beneath the group's signature pitch: photos of Al Capone ("Alcohol Smuggler") and Pablo Escobar ("Drug Cartel"), accompanied by the line, "Same problem . . . same solution. Repeal Prohibition Now!"
LEAP's Norman Stamper, a former chief of police in Seattle, praises Webb as "a tough guy" and says "the hope is that an honest, very critical examination of drug laws will lead to the conclusion that prohibition doesn't work."
Little public opposition has emerged, though that might have more to do with the bill's uncertain status than anything else. In the meantime, Webb says he's been contacted about his proposal by the president and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, both of whom gave encouraging signals. And he is quietly amassing an eclectic band of supporters, ranging from the influential -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada -- to the surprising -- conservative Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. On board, too, is Nolan, a former California state lawmaker who did time in the 1990s for racketeering. Nolan sees Webb's commission as a way to steer drug offenders to treatment facilities, rather than warehousing them in prisons.
Senate insiders have been somewhat surprised about how seamlessly Webb has managed the early stages of selling his bill to members of Congress ever wary of being labeled as soft on crime. His substantive, non-emotional, almost academic approach to the discussion seems at odds with the brusque Jim Webb some have come to expect, and even dread.
Why, wasn't it just a three years ago that Webb had his infamous set-to with then-President Bush at a White House reception for new members of Congress? Bush asked Webb, whose son is a Marine and was stationed in Iraq, "How's your boy?"
Webb -- who had worn his son's combat boots every day during his upset 2006 Senate campaign -- responded, "That's between me and my boy." Later he told The Washington Post, "I'm not particularly interested in having a picture of me and George W. Bush on my wall."
"We were expecting him to be out in the parking lot having fistfights," a high-ranking Senate aide said. "But that's not the way it has been. He's impressed everyone with his preparation and his composure."
Still, Nolan says, "he's not warm and fuzzy. He's not a hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy. He's kind of abrupt. But I don't want somebody who is a glad-hander. I want somebody who can get things done."
But where to look for clues about how he might do it?
He is the writer, after all, so what does he write about getting things through Congress? His latest book -- a nonfiction entry -- is called "A Time to Fight," which sounds kind of feisty. But there, in the text, we see a measure of restraint, even as the writer is preparing for battle.
"The United States Senate is composed of 100 scorpions in a jar," the writer writes. "And one should be very careful in deciding how and when to shake that jar."
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
July 6, 2009