If our current political system made any sense, WebbButton2Jim Webb would be a leading candidate for president instead of a long shot who had to drop out early on.

James Henry Webb Jr. has a biography that would earn him the respect of the Founding Fathers. Unfortunately, he is not much of a campaigner—characteristically missing by two days the date he should have announced, Independence Day 2015 —and an even worse fundraiser.

George Washington could afford to stay aloof from campaigning back then, but Webb couldn’t afford to do so in this benighted era and his candidacy collapsed.

Too bad. In many ways he is a throwback to those leaders of the American Revolution who stood up on behalf of our country and then, returning to civilian life, went on to lead their new nation in the right direction.

A born warrior, Webb comes from a long tradition of military service dating back to the Revolutionary War, and a combative heritage even beyond. In his nonfiction book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, he traced his lineage back to the fierce clansmen on the north side of the wall that the Roman Emperor Hadrian built to keep them out of Britannia.

In that tradition, Webb entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968 and earned a commission in the Marine Corps. His service in Vietnam as a platoon and company commander earned him the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism, as well as the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

Still affected by his wounds, Webb left the Marines and entered Georgetown Law Center at a time when many of this fellow students regarded any Vietnam veteran as a kind of enemy alien. Feisty as always, though, he persevered, graduated and took a job as a committee counsel on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, he began to write. Over the years he has written 10 books—fiction including his highly acclaimed novel Fields of Fire, and nonfiction like Born Fighting. (He started with the byline “James Webb” but switched to “Jim Webb” after entering politics.) Webb also distinguished himself as a journalist, winning an Emmy for his coverage of the Lebanese civil war.

It was Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger who reached out to bring Webb into the administration of President Reagan as assistant secretary for reserve affairs.

“He has a magnificent war record, and I am partial to people who have extraordinary combat records,” Weinberger recalled later to The New York Times. “He also writes extremely well. Leadership quality and writing ability are rare to have alone, and a valuable combination.”

Webb wound up as Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, the first U.S. Naval Academy graduate ever to hold that post. He resigned in protest over controversies including the size and deployment of the service he headed (he was right, by the way) and went back to writing.

He was drawn back into government when President George W. Bush elected to invade Iraq in 2003 for reasons that were bogus then and haven’t survived reexamination. Webb vehemently opposed the move and ran successfully for the Senate from Virginia in 2006.

He came to describe himself as a Jacksonian Democrat, saying he was returning to the party’s populist roots after a roundabout journey.

Harry Enten of fivethirtyeight.com, the website founded by Nate Silver that mines political data, called Webb “one of the last of the moderate Democrats.” Enten described Webb’s Senate years as “quite centrist” and his presidential campaign as quixotic. “Jim Webb Is Searching for a Bygone Democratic Party,” said the headline on Enten’s analysis.

Doomed though his presidential bid was, Webb’s Senate years did leave behind one lasting legacy—the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. It doesn’t bear his name, and President George W. Bush grudgingly signed it into law without mentioning its author. The facts nevertheless are that it was the first bill Webb introduced in the Senate, and he quietly shepherded it to bipartisan passage. It provides that those who stood up for their country after 9/11 can go to college for free.

Webb has never shied away from a fight, and some of his positions have haunted him in this single-issue era—his 1979 stance against women in combat, for example, and his more recent defense of displaying the Confederate flag because it is an integral part of our nation’s history.

A handful of positions like that over the years might call into question his judgment on particular issues—but never his patriotism, brains and courage.

The nation’s founders might be baffled by some recent developments in the nation they began to build more than two centuries ago, and they might disagree on current events just as they did back then. But all would instantly recognize Jim Webb as a kindred spirit.

© 2016, J.V. Reistrup

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