Speculation on potential running mates for Barack Obama often settles on Jim Webb, the freshman Senator from Virginia and the former Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. His national-security credentials and his ability to attract centrists are often mentioned as reasons for a good match with Obama, as well as their efforts to pull Virginia out of the Republican column in the Electoral College, and perhaps the entire South. In fact, his affinity for the South may be a bigger problem than an asset:
Webb is no mere student of the Civil War era. He’s an author, too, and he’s left a trail of writings and statements about one of the rawest and most sensitive topics in American history.
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.”
Webb expanded on his sentiments in his well-received 2004 book, “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,” which portrays the Southern cause as at least understandable, if not wholly laudable.
I’ve never really understood the fascination with Jim Webb. In the first place, Webb didn’t win his one political race as much as George Allen lost it, with his “macaca” statement. He has served in public office for a total of three years — two as Senator and less than one as the Secretary of the Navy. He actually has less experience than Obama in public service, with the exception of Webb’s four years of military service in Vietnam.
Will his writings on the Confederacy make much difference in a general election? Probably not. The one group that would be most offended would be African-Americans, and it’s doubtful that Webb would split them from Obama. Webb just wouldn’t do that much to help. He adds next to nothing to the ticket, and certainly doesn’t shore up Obama’s gaping vulnerabilities.
Maybe this will serve as a good excuse to get the speculation spotlight off of Webb. In fact, one has to wonder whether Obama’s team might have decided to tip this off in order to do just that.