In the Arena

Two Vets Passing in the Night

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Jim Webb and John Kerry, two Vietnam war heroes, passed each other on the up and down escalators in the past 24 hours–and there is a link between Webb’s rise and Kerry’s fall, and it has everything to do with social class. One of the reason’s why Webb’s speech worked so well last night–why it seemed so fresh–was the marriage of a populist economic message with a longstanding family tradition of military service. No way Webb could ever pass for effete; he’s a guy who always looks as if he’s five minutes from his next altercation. And he’s been through a remarkable intellectual journey: he writes about it in his book, Born Fighting, which is a history of his Scots-Irish–a euphemism for redneck and proud–heritage. With his rediscovery of Andrew Jackson, Webb once told me, he had a political transformation. He realized that the Republican Party had been manipulating his southern Scots-Irish brethren, especially over the issue of race. He was mad as hell about that. And I must say that in all the talk of Webb’s testosterone level on TV last night, one thing was missed–the substance of his economic message was reinforced by the fact that here, for once was a Democrat who palpably didn’t drink chablis.
For years, Democrats have been having difficulty selling their economic message, in part because the salesmen were so…unlikely. They could promise universal health care, free college, whatever–but it didn’t make a difference if they O-Ra-Ted the way John Kerry did.
Kerry, whom I’ve known for many years, was always a different, more awkward guy in public than he was with his Vietnam pals–and, according to one of his closest Vietnam pals, he’d even stopped being loose with them in private in recent years: “We lost him when he married Teresa.” It showed. It showed when he got pissed off at the secret service guy for getting in his way when he was snow-boarding in Sun Valley. It showed when his consultants ran focus groups to figure out how to respond to Abu Ghraib–something Jim Webb (or John McCain) would never do. It showed…all the time. It always looked like he was saying what he’d been told to say.
Yes, there’s a tradition in the Democratic Party of inspired, idealistic aristocrats. But there is also a reality: where you stand often depends on where you sit. And I can see Jim Webb sitting down the end of the bar, with a shot and a beer, at some saloon just outside the Quantico Base, bitching to his friends about that wimpoid Bush trying to prove himself to his daddy, wondering whether his own parents can figure out the Medicare drug thing, pissed, patriotic, perfectly who he is. I’m probably going to disagree profoundly with Webb on issues like protectionism, but I’m sure as hell going to listen carefully to what he has to say.