A conversation with Australian author Richard Flanagan about his latest book “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” The Man Booker Prize-winning novel is based on his father’s experience as a slave laborer in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.
Former U.S. Sen. Jim (D-VA) is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam war. Among his awards, he received the Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts serving as a Marine. In a new memoir he writes of how growing up in a military family helped shape his character and taught him how to be a leader — on the battlefield and off. After the war, he served as secretary of the Navy under President Reagan. And then as a Democratic Senator representing Virginia. He decided against seeking re-election in 2012. Join guest host Susan Page for a conversation with Jim Webb about leadership, love of country and life after Congress.
- Jim Webb former Democratic senator from Virginia; he was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and a former assistant secretary of defense. He's the author of numerous books, including "A Time to Fight."
Jim Webb Through The Years
For a glimpse of Jim Webb throughout his early life and career, click through this slideshow of photos from his book “I Heard My Country Calling.”
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from “I Heard My Country Calling” by James Webb. © 2014, James Webb. Reprinted with the permission of Simon & Schuster. All Rights Reserved.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's getting over a cold. Former U.S. Sen. James Webb grew up as a son of an Air Force pilot. He himself attended the Naval Academy and served as a combat Marine in the Vietnam War. In a new memoir, he reflects on what the military taught him about courage and character. And he explains why one term in the Senate was enough. The book is titled, "I Heard My Country Calling." And author James Webb joins me here in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
SEN. JIM WEBBThank you. Good to be with you.
PAGEWe're inviting our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to email@example.com. Or find us on Facebook or Twitter. So you have a chapter in your memoir called -- titled, "Military Brats." Are you one?
WEBBI think anybody who was in the -- in a military family, even today, can -- you know, they're used to being called military brats. And I kind of explain what the term was in the book. But that period in post-World War II, up to the end of the Vietnam War, was a very unique period in the history of our military, just in the whole sociology of the military because we had never kept large standing armies before the end of World War II.
WEBBWe'd always demobilized, and so our peace time militaries were very small. And as a result, the family support structures and those sorts of things were never a part of the ongoing peace time military. And after World War II, we started to demobilize. A lot of people don't remember this. And then events around the world caused us to have to maintain a large standing army around the world. And growing up in that environment where our -- in our cases, our fathers were constantly deployed, and there was no real structure behind the families.
WEBBIt was evolving. It was kind of unique. I mean, we talk about family support programs today. And I'm very proud of what I've been able to do over the course of my professional career in helping to build these structures for military families. But when I was a little kid, family support meant my grandmother and my aunt moving in with our family. My dad being deployed or in places where there were no military -- I mean, family housing in military for 3 1/2 years. My mom was 24 years old, had four kids. And if it wasn't for my grandmother, we didn't have anyone we could go to.
PAGEI don't think of military brat as being a pejorative term. Do you think it is?
WEBBDepends on who's using it. There are a lot of phraseologies that really depend on how it's used. A lot of people would use it as a something of a pejorative when we were growing up. But I look at it fondly. That's why I used it in the book.
PAGENow, one of the things that happens if you're in a military family is that you end up moving around a lot. A good thing or a bad thing for a kid?
WEBBCould be a little bit of both. On the one hand, on the positive side, you really ended up -- we really ended up seeing a lot of different parts of the country. Someone, after reading a draft of my book, said, you're a little bit like Forrest Gump here, you know, where you're -- you were living in Alabama during the Civil Rights thing. You were -- you know, you went through Sputnik. We were out and off at Air Force base during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
WEBBMy father was involved in that, et cetera, et cetera. On the other, it had an incredible wear and tear on kids. You know, we moved more than 30 times. We -- I, at one point, in five years, was in nine different schools. And so my young education was enormously erratic. But I did learn a lot about dealing with different kinds of cultural groups inside our country.
PAGEA lot of this book is about your father, your role model. Tell us about your dad.
WEBBYeah. Let me back up a little bit and explain something just because of your intro. I have spent almost exactly half of my professional life in public service and half of it as a writer. And those are not necessarily mutually enforcing careers. In fact, as you know, if you're a writer or if you're a journalist, you're supposed to have a creative tension or a professional tension with the people who are in the political system.
WEBBAnd I've done this four times. This is the fourth time that I've spent time in military or working in the Pentagon or working as a counsel in a Congress and then as a senator, and then left and decided to return to writing. So this really wasn't so much about why one term in the Senate was enough. It was more -- I was able to step in, put my oar in the water in a way where I could be very independent because I knew that I was going to go back and work for myself as a sole proprietor.
WEBBAnd then the question became, I'm a writer. I'm a writer by trade. I have a novelist's eyes. What am I going to write about? And I would say there were a number of nervous people in the Senate who thought I might just write about some of the things that happened when the doors were closed over in the Senate.
PAGEYou might write about them.
WEBBYou know, I've never done that. I met with Cap Weinberger every day for four years when I was in the Pentagon in the Reagan Administration. You'll never see a word about anything that happened when the door was closed. And so I thought, if I could write a book basically about how I became what I became, how I reached the point where these two careers almost unexplainably joined -- the writing career and the public service career outside the military -- that I would be able to pay tribute to the people who really helped us through our family struggle, particularly to my parents and my grandmother who were just amazing sources of strength for us kids as we were growing up.
WEBBAnd my dad was a pretty unique guy. You know, he was the first one in the family to finish high school. He went to night school for 26 years. He graduated from the University of Omaha after going, you know, in their night school programs. When I was a senior in high school -- and it was a great Santini moment for those of us who remember the movie "The Great Santini" where he got his diploma. And we were sitting in the bleachers, like, in the basketball gym.
WEBBHe broke out from the line, walked across the room, and stuck the diploma in my face. I'm sitting, going, oh, no, I don't -- he's really not going to do this. But he did. He said, you can get anything you want in this country, and don't you ever forget it. So he was an inspirational guy. He was a hard guy. He was a tough guy. But he loved his kids. And he loved his country.
PAGESo how did growing up in that sort of military family shape you, make you who you are today?
WEBBWe were taught about duty. We were taught about love of country. We were taught -- and I've always believed -- there's no greater honor than in serving your country in some way. We also learned resilience -- I think that's probably the best way to put it -- from constantly moving and being thrown into different environments. And, you know, we -- when you move like that, you do -- your family either is stronger or kind of falls apart. And it brought us, I think, a lot stronger.
PAGEWell, in fact, you talk a lot about your mom, of course, but also about your grandmother who was such a central figure for you growing up.
WEBBShe was. She was amazing. She lived with us from time I was 2 to the time I was 8. She was -- used to tell us stories every night. We have this great oral tradition that's existed in our family, the storytelling tradition. And she had been born in Western Tennessee and moved across into Arkansas on a barge in a covered wagon. And, you know, she and my mom -- that part of our family lived very hard life in the Eastern Arkansas. She -- when my grandfather died, she had to make something of a Sophie's choice.
WEBBShe had my mother. Three of my mother's siblings had died, not at childbirth but during childhood, of diseases that we don't even see in America anymore. One of them died of typhoid fever. And my mother was 10 when her father died, and her younger sister was 3. And my grandmother, a couple years later, literally made Sophie's choice. She had enough money to take one child with her to California. And she took the younger daughter, left my mom with an aunt, went out and was Rosie the Riveter out there.
WEBBShe was small. She was, like, 4'11" and had biceps like Popeye. But she worked in the nose cones, making World War II bombers. And then when the time came, when my dad went back in the military and had to deploy, you know, there my mother was, 24 years old with four kids in a town where she didn't know anybody. And my granny moved back in with us, and she was just an amazing force in my life, all the way through my young life.
PAGESo with your dad in the military, did you grow up thinking, yes, that's what I'm going to do, I'm going to go into the military?
WEBBI always knew that I wanted to serve. And I didn't quite know what college was. It wasn't in our tradition. A lot of people were that way. I'm not saying I was unique. But I remember asking my dad, you know, what am I going to do? And he says, go to college. I said, what do you do in college? He says, be an engineer. I said, I -- what do engineers do? He said, they invent things. I said, I don't think I can invent anything. You know, so we would go back on forth on actually what would happen after high school. But I always knew that I wanted to be in the military for a part of my life.
PAGEAnd he was a pilot. Your brother became a Marine Corps helicopter pilot. You decided to stay on the ground.
WEBBYeah. They always teased me about that. You know, the pilots, if you've been around them, they always talk with their hands. And they think, you know, flying this thing up in the air is the most exciting thing in the world. And, actually, one of my sisters married a pilot. And the other one married an Air Force -- a guy who was career Air Force but was not a pilot.
WEBBBut I kind of like the ground under my feet. Oh, I grew up. I loved to camp, loved to fish, loved to hunt, and felt a sort of an affinity with being in the outdoors. And I felt, from a very young age, that I was basically born to lead, that I was taught from my father what leadership is. And the infantry is the most labor-intensive leadership environment in the world, I think.
PAGEWe're talking with James Webb. He's the former Democratic senator from Virginia. He was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan Administration and a former assistant secretary of defense. He's the author of 10 books. His new one is called "I Heard My Country Calling." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones and take some of your calls and questions. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850. That's our toll-free line. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about a new book, "I Heard My Country Calling." The author is Jim Webb. He joins us here in the studio. You've written 10 books, fiction and non-fiction. I've heard you say that this was the hardest one to write. Is that right?
WEBBThis was the hardest book that I've ever written, and for a lot of reasons that are different from other books. I mean, the book I wrote, "Born Fighting," which was a cultural history, took me a couple of decades of thought and research before I could write it.
WEBBBut it wasn't the same emotional impact as writing about your family and writing personally -- trying to make sure everyone receives the proper recognition and that no one feels that they've been in any way insulted. And also having to go back, it was really hard going back into those years, particularly the Vietnam years, and saying, OK. Now, it's May 19, 1969. Today, actually, is Ho Chi Minh's birthday. And I remember that because we were attacked from three sides.
PAGEYou know, many people wouldn't know -- many people would not remember Ho Chi Minh's birthday. That's...
WEBBI would not have remembered, except that we were under attack that night. And so, you know, going back and writing and, you know, thinking in that way, it has an emotional cost.
PAGEYou know, it can have an emotional cost. And I think also the process of going back to research something and thinking about it and writing it can make you see things you didn't see before, understand things you didn't understand before or view things in a different way. Did that happen on any of the things you wrote about in this book?
WEBBWell, I think doing that in a directly personal way is what was so difficult. I mean, I've done books that looked back before. "Fields of Fire" was a hard book to write, by the way, but it wasn't directly personal. And this is -- you know, this one was hard.
PAGELet's go to the phones. We have a caller, Lisa, calling us from Chicago. Lisa, you're on the air.
LISAHi. First, I want to thank you for your service. Second, I am actually in the car on the way to Annapolis to watch Herndon. And my plebe finished up his plebe year. And what I would like to ask is how your time at the Naval Academy helped prepare you and in what way it impacted your leadership development. Thank you.
PAGELisa, thanks so much for your call.
WEBBWell, thank you. And my congratulations to your son. I wrote actually two chapters in this book that involved the Naval Academy. One was pretty much about the indoctrination system that existed at the time that I went through, the plebe indoctrination system and the restrictions that we had, which were pretty unbelievable when you look back on it. You know, you couldn't date for a year. You had to walk everywhere you went. You couldn't ride in a car for three years, couldn't watch TV until your fourth year.
WEBBWe didn't have the communications equipment that exists, et cetera, et cetera. But if I had to pick the two things that affected me the most during my time at the Naval Academy, one would be that we had -- for instance, in our class, we started with 1,300. We graduated 821, I think, people, all of whom, no matter the -- you know, you get smart people together. You get great cynical minds.
WEBBBut at bottom, all of these people were very dedicated to serving our country. And that affects you. The entropy of that affects you. And the other was the pervasive impact of the Brigade Honor System. I served for four years on the Brigade Honor Committee. And the accountability of the honor concept to everything you do has stayed with me and, I think, with just about everyone else that we were with at the time.
PAGEYou graduated with the class of 1968. That was just months after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. What was your perspective at that point when you thought about what was happening in Vietnam?
WEBBWell, we lived with the growth of the Vietnam War, in terms of the military involvement. By my first summer at the Naval Academy, two sort of historical incidents occurred: one was the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which caused the involvement in Vietnam to escalate, and the other was the signing of the Civil Rights Act. And for the four years that we were at the academy, those two huge societal issues intertwined, constantly. And, as you said, just before we graduated, the Tet Offensive occurred, which was the peak of the American casualties in Vietnam.
WEBBBut also just in that four months before we graduated in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced he wasn't going to run for re-election, setting the political process into some kind of a spin, Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Tet Offensive, as you mentioned. And then the night before we graduated, Robert Kennedy was killed. So there was so much turmoil going on in the country. And at the same time, we all knew that we were going to step forward and serve and that many of us were going to go into harm's way.
WEBBAnd what we had been trained to do was to make decisions, to carry out the missions that the United States military were assigning to us, and to take care of the people who were brought under our stewardship. So we all knew where we were going. And wherever the Vietnam War was going and whatever was happening here in the country did not alter the responsibilities that we were going to undertake.
PAGEBut you could fulfill your responsibilities and either think, this is a good war, a war we should be fighting, or you could fulfill your responsibilities thinking, how did we get into this?
WEBBI would say first that the infantry battlefield is the most apolitical place I've ever been. Nobody woke up -- whether they were on Iwo Jima or in Vietnam, you didn't wake up in the morning and say, well, are, you know, are we going to win the Vietnam War, or, well, is, you know, the capture of Iwo Jima going to cause the Japanese to surrender? You woke up, and you knew that you had to take care of your people. And, you know, you could live or die, and they could live or die if you made the wrong decisions. And service in general, in our country, isn't really political.
WEBBYou know, my son went to Iraq as a Marine infantryman, enlisted out of college, was in some of the worst fighting in Ramadi in '06 and into '07. And his view about the strategic sensibility of going into Iraq was very close to my own, which I had expressed early and that it was strategically absurd, I regret to say. But he stepped forward. He served our country. He served as a Marine. And it's one of the great points of pride in his life, too.
PAGEYou know, you talk a lot in your book about lessons of leadership, leadership on a battlefield, leadership in a legislative body, leadership in a boardroom. Is this attitude toward service -- an apolitical attitude toward service, of focus on the urgent matter at hand, is that a lesson that applies beyond the battlefield?
WEBBI think there are certain leadership responsibilities that must transcend politics. When I left the Senate, Larry Sabato at University of Virginia wrote a piece on my being in the Senate. And in one of the parts of it, he said I was the most apolitical senator he had ever seen. And I took that as a compliment and that we have to set aside these false political positions that have been taking place in our country and come together and solve problems.
WEBBAnd, for me, the last chapter of this book is called "Aunt Lena's Test," and I talk about one my great aunts who had a -- it was my grandmother's youngest sister who had quite an impact on me. And I often applied Aunt Lena's test, which basically is when she said, when I'm proud of you, you can come in my house. You know, what are you doing up there in Washington?
WEBBThis is when I was 30 years old, and I got a job on a congressional staff. She said, when I'm proud of you, you can come to my house. Otherwise, you're not coming to my house. And so, you know, I kind of throw that out at the end of the book, saying, whose house are you trying to get inside? That's a great question for all our political leaders.
PAGELet's go to the phones. We'll talk to Tim. He's calling us from Elkhart, Ind. Tim, thanks for holding on.
TIMThank you. Yes, I'm an Army brat. I basically lived the same sort of life as you did. In 1968, we happened to be stationed there in Fort Belvoir, Va. And that's when Martin Luther King was killed, and they had the Poor People's March and things like that. And after that, we ended up moving to Columbus, Ohio.
TIMAnd, you know, being raised on military bases and things like that, then all of a sudden being thrown out into a big city public like that, you know, it was a, you know, I mean, it was a real shock, you know, as far as society goes to us. Did you kind of face any of the same things? Because, you know, when you live on a military base, whoever moves into next to you was your neighbor, you know. I mean, that's who you played with. They didn't care what color he was. Did you run into the same sort of thing?
WEBBWell, that's a very good question, a very good observation. You know, as someone whose family came out of the American South, we tend to forget that the military was the first major institution in the country to racially integrate. And we grew up in post-World War II with complete integration. It was schools, housing areas, et cetera. And the gentleman's point is correct in that sense.
WEBBBut the other thing about the way that we grew up in our family was that we didn't always live on a base. There were a lot of places we lived where we were living out in town, too. I lived in Montgomery, Ala. out in town in 1957 during some of the civil rights struggles there. So we had a mix of being out in the communities as well as being on the bases.
PAGEWe'll take another caller, Louise. She's calling us from Charlottesville, Va. Louise, you're on the air.
LOUISEThank you. I want you to know, sir, that I have admired you for a long time. I used to leave little messages on your answer machine when you was in the Senate, whenever you did wonderful things for the veterans. But -- and, of course, I want you to run for president, but I don't know. I talk about it a lot around here anyhow. I'm taught -- I was born and raised in Norfolk, Va., which, you know, the military is everything there. And I taught children, when I was teaching in 5th and 6th grade, whose parents were at the college there, the war college there.
LOUISEAnd they already showed signs of leadership. I mean, it was wonderful to teach them. And they would be editor of little 6th grade newspaper, and they would lead this and that. You already see that coming out when they're in those military families. And, of course, they can adjust to almost everything, which is great. And I admire what you've done with your life, sir. And I hope you stay in the public eye if you see someplace you can help all of us. Thanks.
PAGELouise, thank you so much for your call.
WEBBWell, thank you very much for all your support, too. And one of the things I didn't say at the beginning is that, when I left the Senate, I decided that I would stop all interviews, editorials, political events, everything for a year, just to kind of clear the air and get my independence back, quite frankly. And I'm very happy to now begin arguing, debating more publicly some of my concerns on a lot of our issues. And I -- Louise made two really good points. One is that, when I was in the Senate, we had great people working on -- veterans on our staff.
WEBBI would have fellow senators coming up and say, how do we help a veteran? And I would say, well, start by hiring one. We've got 10 on our staff. We put together, from our office, the most important piece of veterans' legislation since World War II, the GI Bill, which was based on the GI Bill, the World War II GI Bill. And then the other was that families that have military traditions do teach leadership at the dinner table. And you get great leaders.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Well, here's a current event problem that's plaguing the VA. Here's an emailer who asks, "Can you please ask Sen. Webb what he thinks about the problems at the Veterans Administration. What would he suggest to solve those problems?" And I would just add, do you think Gen. Shinseki needs to resign as VA secretary?
WEBBI've worked in veterans' law since 1977. I was a committee counsel for four years on the House side. We were mentored by the World War II generation on all of the aspects of veterans' law, the VA, the hospital system, et cetera. I think we do have a crisis. And when I came to the Senate, the backlog in the VA was 600,000 cases, the backlog, just to make determinations on cases. When I left the Senate, it was 900,000. And I think you can only solve that with strong creative leadership.
WEBBOne of my great heroes in the Marine Corps was Gen. Bob Barrow, who became Commandant in 1979, during a period where the Marine Corps and other services were having real problems in quality of enlistment. And I remember a conversation with Gen. Barrow. He said, I'm going to fix this. He said, you know how I'm going to fix it?
WEBBI'm going to put my best leaders on the problem. And he did. He took his best young leaders in the Marine Corps, put them in the recruitment, and within two years fixed the problem. And this, to me, when you look at getting access -- not just to healthcare, but to all the VA systems, as being the main impediment, not the systems themselves, we need stronger leadership.
PAGESo you think Gen. Shinseki should be replaced as head of the VA?
WEBBI'm not going to make a comment on that, but I think we definitely need more aggressive leadership to solve these problems.
PAGEDo these allegations of these deadly waiting times that veterans had, and then covered up, systematically covered up so that they weren't reported, is that a -- was that a surprise to you, or did you have any suspicion that this might be going on?
WEBBThe biggest problem in VA is access, whether it's the medical system or getting your GI Bill benefits, et cetera. That's what I meant when I was saying that we've now gone from a 600,000 to a 900,000 backlog just in determinations before you get over into the healthcare issue. And two of the things that I learned over the years, in terms of leadership, were, number one, you have to take responsibility. And, number two, you have to accept accountability for your actions.
WEBBAnd this has got to change. There's just -- there's no reason that it should be -- have been going on this long. I understand the challenge at the VA because they have a new generation of post-9/11 veterans coming into the system. And they have a lot of Vietnam veterans who are leaving their careers and are going to rely on the system, particularly for medical care. But you can anticipate both of those, and you can fix your system so that it will be able to take care of the people it's supposed to take care of.
PAGEWe're talking with James Webb. He's the author of "Born Fighting" and "Fields of Fire." And his new memoir is called, "I Heard My Country Calling." We're going to continue our conversation with Jim Webb after we take a short break. You can call our toll-free line and join our conversation, 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an email to email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGELet's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Laz (sp?) calling us from Miami, Fla. Hi, Laz.
LAZHey, I just -- first I want to say that I think it was your -- one or two callers ago who mentioned the presidential run. I just want to sort of underscore that and put my camp on that as a citizen. I also wanted to know as -- thank you for your service in the military. And as a public servant, what did you walk away from the Senate -- what were your most proudest (sic) moments serving your constituents? And perhaps share with us what -- maybe what are your most frustrating or -- yeah, one of your most frustrating experiences in the Senate. And I'll take my answer off the air.
PAGEAll right. Laz, thanks so much for your call.
WEBBYeah. Thanks for your question and for your comment. I would say, when I was in the Senate, that my legacy project, you know, people -- some people want a highway or a university named after them or whatever. I mean, my legacy project was my people, was my staff. We worked very hard to recruit and screen the best people that we could for every single job. I met with every single person on my staff. Even if someone was working in the far southwest corner of the mountains of Virginia in the little town of Grundy, we asked them to drive up, sit down, and talk with us.
WEBBAnd I will say the proudest long-term thing that I believe we accomplished in the Senate was bringing in a pool of very talented people and helping to empower their futures by instilling in them -- or for however they would like to transform in their own lives the leadership policies that we had in place and the vision that we used and that sort of thing. And we had great, great people on our staff.
WEBBLegislatively, we put in the best GI bill in history. It took 16 months. I wrote that with the committee council before I was even sworn in, as soon as I was elected. I'd been talking about it for years. That was a great moment. We've had more than a million veterans now who have been able to have their tuition paid for, their books bought, and a monthly stipend to live on just like the World War II veterans did.
WEBBWe brought criminal justice reform out of the shadows and into the national debate. And I was warned when I was campaigning that I should stay away from that issue. I just -- to me, it's a leadership issue, not a political issue. When we did that from our staff, we had a piece of legislation trying to create a national commission examining it. And as a result, we basically allowed the debate to go forward. And that's something that I'm very proud of.
WEBBAnd with respect to the issues in Asia, this -- what's been called the pivot to Asia -- I don't like that term. I spent a lot of my professional life in Asia, Southeast Asia, Japan, also in most of the Asian countries. And we, from our office, pushed the strengthening of relations with Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, and we changed the formula in Burma, now Myanmar, from our office. I made the first visit by an American leader back to Burma in 2009.
WEBBI was the only American leader ever to meet with Than Shwe, the leader of their military junta. And we opened up Burma to political change, which is going on right now. So those were my high points. The frustrating parts of being in a Senate, I think, are apparent to most people who watch the sort of lethargic process that is going on right now. And I think we need more people who are willing to work across the aisle and focus on issues that are for the best of the country. It may sound like just a catchy phrase, but it's true.
PAGEHere's an email from Douglas in North Carolina who asks, "Will bipartisanship ever return to Congress? And I wonder, I would just add, did -- frustration with kind of the dysfunction that we've seen in Congress, did that play a part in your decision not to run for a second term?"
WEBBNot really. As I said, I have been through this cycle unwittingly four times. You know, I was in the military, then I got out and did some other things. I came back in. I was a committee counsel in the Congress on the House side for four years. We used to put 25 bills a year through the House floor -- went back out, wrote some books, did some journalism, came back into the Pentagon for four years in the Reagan Administration, left, went back out and did some other things.
WEBBAnd without really -- it wasn't in my mind when I came to the Senate, but, you know, my wife Hong and I talked about this at great length when it came time to decide whether I would run. This is a healthy thing to step away. And I'm not saying I'm stepping away from the political process as a whole. But, you know, I think it's always healthy to look at things from the outside.
WEBBIn terms of bipartisanship, I think the formula works -- remember when Jimmy Carter was president and people were saying that the job had become too complex, that maybe you needed three people to be president. And Ronald Reagan came in -- I say this as a Democrat. Ronald Reagan came in, and he was a leader. And he knew whatever people might've thought on an issue by issue. He got good people around him. He gave very clear signals about where he wanted the country to go. And things got back on track.
PAGEWe've had two callers, Laz and Louise, say they hope you run for president. Would you consider doing that? Is that something that you think, maybe that'll be in my future?
WEBBWe're -- Hong and I -- my wife and I were just thinking about what to do next. And I care a lot about where the country is, and we'll be sorting that out.
PAGESo that, I would say, is not a denial of interest in running for president. In fact, that would be, I think, (word?) seen as -- given the question I'd asked, an expression of interest in the possibility of running for president.
WEBBWell, if you look at how I ran for the Senate, you know, I announced nine months to the day before the election with no money and no campaign staff. When I -- it takes me a while to decide things. And I haven't -- I'm not going to say one way or the other really.
PAGEWhat about the idea of being vice president?
WEBBNo. I had some discussions, you know, (word?) about that, and I just really don't care to -- you know, just it wouldn't be a good fit for me.
PAGEWhy wouldn't it be a good fit?
WEBBI just -- in terms of governmental structure and that sort of thing, I just don't think I'd be a very good vice president.
PAGESo if you were going to run for president, you mentioned before that Larry Sabato said you were pretty apolitical. In fact, there were any number of commentary when you ran for the Senate that you seemed to not be in some ways that interested in getting elected. I think that you were asked once, why did you want to be in the Senate? And you said, well, it wouldn't be that big a deal one way or the other or some kind of (word?) like that.
WEBBI don't think anybody ever -- I never said that. And, trust me, once I stepped forward and said that I was running, I always believed that I could win. When I started, we were 33 points behind an individual who had just gotten the highest number of votes for president at the conservative political action conference.
PAGEAnd that would be...
WEBBGeorge Allen who was the incumbent at the time. So I wouldn't have gone through all of the -- you know, the difficulties of campaigning if I thought I was -- or if I was indifferent or if I thought that I was certainly going to lose. The most important thing to me right now is rejoining the debate in this country on where we need to go in terms of our national interest strategically.
WEBBI think that -- you know, when people say that we have become more isolationist, I think -- I don't think we've become more isolationists. I think we have become frustrated because people can't see a clear expression of what our national security interests are, which would calm a lot of people down in terms of what we're doing around the world. And I think that same principle applies here at home.
PAGEWhen you think about national security policy and the direction of the country, what concerns you about the direction that we're heading now?
WEBBThe thing that concerns me the most is that we are kind of bouncing from issue to issue without a clear articulation of what the national security interest of the United States actually is. And when you do that -- and I just had a dinner last week with the foreign minister from Singapore and some other people in his entourage. And there were some concerns expressed about, is the United States going to remain a viable ally in Pacific Asia, something I worked on for many, many years.
WEBBThe ascension that you're seeing now in the Spratly Islands, the Paracels, the Senkakus up around Japan, I've been writing about them and talking about them for years. And my comment to him was the same that I'll make to you, and that is, if you have a clear expression of the national interest in not only your allies, but your potential adversaries will be able to adjust and know clearly what -- you know, what you're going to do or not do. And we don't have that.
PAGEWe don't have that. That's a critique of President Obama.
WEBBI think it's a major concern for our foreign policy right now. And it also goes to the Senate, by the way. If you look at the Libya incursion as a good example -- now I spoke about this on the Senate floor and on the Foreign Relations Committee. I've never -- I don't think we've ever, in our history, had a situation where a president unilaterally injected our military into an area where we recognized the leadership.
WEBBYou know, I would have these -- we would have these hearings, and I would ask the State Department witnesses, do we recognize this government? We recognized the Libyan government same time we're bombing it. We had no treaties in place that impelled us to do it. We had no Americans at risk. There were -- we were not, you know, pre-empting a potential attack.
WEBBThere was nothing other than this very vague concept of humanitarian intervention, which, if you turn a president loose with that, could mean anything under the sun. And it wasn't just the administration. It was, at that time -- because the Democrats in the Senate particularly didn't want to embarrass the president, they wouldn't act on it either. We couldn't even get a vote on authorization to the Senate floor. We couldn't even get it considered.
PAGEYou know, another area that has been the subject of some considerable concern is our policy toward Syria. The president's drawing a red line and then deciding he would go to Congress for approval. And what is your assessment of what's happening with U.S. policy towards Syria?
WEBBWell, again, I think the major question there is consistency. What I'm saying -- we don't have a clear articulation of what our national interest is. I was one of those. Having served in -- as a journalist in Beirut in 1983, I was one of those who were saying, you know, if the wheels go off in Syria, it's going to be Beirut on steroids, you know.
WEBBAnd Beirut, at any one given time, there were five different factions going at it. And what happens when you're -- when an administration is pulled one way for a while and then another way for a while is your adversaries look at it in one way, the people who think you're with them look at it another way, and everyone becomes frustrated.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Now, here's an emailer who writes more directed at domestic policy writing: "Why on earth would anyone in the younger generation ever defend a country where they are guaranteed to live off -- live worse off than their parents, have a terrible public school education, be in so much debt that they can never swim out of it, if they are lucky enough to go to college, and never be able to retire since there are no pensions and no wages high enough to save for it?"
WEBBI think he's -- the writer he or she is expressing a concern that a lot of people in the younger generation feel. And I'd like to see an America where you don't have to worry about those things. And I think we can have that.
PAGEHow can we have that?
WEBBWe can have that by the right kind of leadership, by the right kind of policies. You know, I can't sit here and tell you nit by pick. But one of the things that we are seeing -- and I've talked about for many years -- I actually was one of my major campaign themes was that we have a situation in this country where the people at the very top have moved away from everyone else in terms of how they live, how much money they make, and, in some cases, the amount of taxes that they pay.
WEBBI'm not a big tax person. I frustrated a lot of Democrats when I was in the Senate because I refused to raise taxes on ordinary earned income. I refused to vote for it. But I have -- if you look at the top half of the top 1 percent, you will see they make a majority of their income off of passive income, investments, capital gains, these sorts of things. And people can look at that and see that the system is not working fairly for everyone. And it inspires this kind of frustration that you see in that email. I think we need -- we should be taxing capital gains at the same rate as we tax ordinary income.
PAGEHere's another emailer who writes, "What are your views about women serving on the front lines in the military?" I know that this is an area in which you express some concern. The landscape has really, like, changed since you yourself were serving in the military, a lot of combat roles now open to women. How do you think that's worked?
WEBBI think you need to trust the military, you know. And I had some serious concerns about women in combat in the type of combat that I saw years and years ago. But, also, when I was Secretary of the Navy, we opened up more billets for women than any secretary of the navy in history, but we did it the right way. I grew up in the military. I trust the military.
WEBBWe created a commission, 28 senior NCOs and officers, who went around the world at Navy bases, gave the recommendations to the uniformed leadership, the chief of air, submarines, and surface warfare, who then gave them to the chief of naval operations. And then they came as the military service to me, the secretary of the Navy, with their recommendations.
WEBBIt wasn't the political process waving a wand and saying all these things should occur. So the changes that have been made I think work. I was very impressed when I was in Afghanistan as a journalist in '04. But the main thing is the political process needs to listen to the military.
PAGEWe're almost out of time. I want to ask you one last question. We've had two callers say thank you for your service. And that's something I myself have said to veterans. And I wonder if that is seen as a nice thing, a meaningful thing, or is it seen as kind of a cheap platitude? Because I've worried about that sometimes, even when I've said it myself.
WEBBI think any expression of gratitude is appreciated by the people who have served. And as I said to a number of my friends in the Senate, if you really want to thank a veteran, hire them.
PAGEWe do see a lot of veterans looking for work.
WEBBAnd there's a -- you know, we tend to undervalue -- particularly for the enlistees, you know, the people who were the sergeants and the corporals out there pulling these hard tours, we tend to undervalue what they've learned in terms of leadership and getting things done. The officers, you know, they've got education. They're going to get more education. But focus on these young people who are citizen soldiers and did a tour and came back and are ready to do something good.
PAGESen. James Webb, thanks so much for joining us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
WEBBMy pleasure to be with you. Thank you.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Denise Couture, Susan Casey Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn, Danielle Knight and Allison Brody. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones.
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