He launched a presidential exploratory committee eight months ago and I don’t think I’ve seen a single TV interview with him since. For a guy who’s been keeping an oddly low profile, this is an … interesting way to raise it.
Which is not to suggest he’s not speaking from the heart. He is.
This is an emotional time and we all need to think through these issues with a care that recognizes the need for change but also respects the complicated history of the Civil War. The Confederate Battle Flag has wrongly been used for racist and other purposes in recent decades. It should not be used in any way as a political symbol that divides us.
But we should also remember that honorable Americans fought on both sides in the Civil War, including slave holders in the Union Army from states such as Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, and that many non-slave holders fought for the South. It was in recognition of the character of soldiers on both sides that the federal government authorized the construction of the Confederate Memorial 100 years ago, on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.
This is a time for us to come together, and to recognize once more that our complex multicultural society is founded on the principle of mutual respect.
Not the first time he’s spoken in defense of the men who fought for the Confederacy. Seven years ago, when Obama was finalizing his VP picks, Politico noted that Webb was a natural short-lister. Decorated veteran, accomplished author, senator from a key swing state, and Iraq war critic — he may have been more centrist than lefties preferred but in many ways he was an ideal choice. Except for one small thing:
He has suggested many times that while the Confederacy is a symbol to many of the racist legacy of slavery and segregation, for others it simply reflects Southern pride. In a June 1990 speech in front of the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, posted on his personal website, he lauded the rebels’ “gallantry,” which he said “is still misunderstood by most Americans.”
Webb, a descendant of Confederate officers, also voiced sympathy for the notion of state sovereignty as it was understood in the early 1860s, and seemed to suggest that states were justified in trying to secede.
“Most Southern soldiers viewed the driving issue to be sovereignty rather than slavery,” he said. “Love of the Union was palpably stronger in the South than in the North before the war — just as overt patriotism is today — but it was tempered by a strong belief that state sovereignty existed prior to the Constitution and that it had never been surrendered.”
In his book, “Born Fighting,” he lamented the “Nazification of the Confederacy,” but that’s essentially where the left is on this and where the GOP now sort of is, not quite embracing the idea themselves but acknowledging that blacks’ view of the Confederate flag as necessarily a symbol of murder and oppression is reason enough to yank it down. You can anticipate the pushback to Webb’s argument along those lines: If the Confederate flag is worth preserving as a tribute to the gallantry of southern soldiers on the battlefield, why isn’t the swastika worth preserving as a tribute to the bravery of Wehrmacht soldiers who fought to the bitter end? For that matter, why isn’t the hammer and sickle worth preserving as a tribute to the ferocious resilience of the Red Army? Webb would counter, I assume, that it all comes down to the character of the men involved. The Confederates weren’t waging total war on innocents and raping their way across the countryside like the German and Soviets were. To which the response will be: Well, yes, many of them were doing that, albeit before the war. That’s what slavery’s all about — subjugation, forced labor, rape, and murder. Those who fought and died without owning slaves themselves fought and died for the right of others to continue that. That debate, over whether Confederate soldiers should be honored even if the Confederacy as a political institution shouldn’t be, is really just the broader debate about the flag re-set in a military context. The broader question is this: Is it fair to expect blacks, whose ancestors were enslaved under the regime that flew that flag, to accept it now with assurances that it no longer signifies what it once signified? And if the answer is “no,” what then? Continue to fly it and tell them to get over it or retire it on public grounds as a gesture of goodwill, knowing that there are plenty of statuary monuments to Confederate soldiers across the south to recognize their gallantry?
The fact that Webb is so alone among Democrats in this position makes me wonder if he’d have taken it, or at least been so public about it, if he was doing as well against Hillary as Bernie Sanders is right now and had more to lose in doing so. He probably would have — with Webb, what you see is what you get — but it’s a major own goal among Dems who might otherwise have looked at him as a possible protest candidate. In theory he’s a superb third-party candidate in the making: All the qualities I mentioned above in his VP vetting still apply, including and especially his identity as a centrist, and as a son of the south himself, he has unusual potential among Democrats nowadays to appeal to white southern voters. If he had any real money behind him (paging Donald Trump), he’d be better off quitting the party and running as an indie. As it is, he’s going to be marginalized in the Democratic primary as the guy who went to bat for the flag even as the GOP was reversing on it. Maybe that’ll make the southern primaries more difficult for Hillary than they otherwise might have been, but even if Webb were to threaten her in a few of those, his position on this issue ensures that the wider party would see those results more as a reactionary gesture by southern whites in support of the flag than as a vote for Webb on the merits. Oh well. He was never going to win the nomination, in which case why start pandering to liberals now?