National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Webb Snaps At Bush

The reaction of establishment columnist George Will and other Washington, D.C., stuffed shirts to Virginia Senator-elect James Webb’s snapping at President Bush last week is laughable.

They really don’t get it. Webb’s reaction to a condescending remark by Bush was perfectly symbolic of exactly what the whole Nov. 7 election was all about. Cut the B.S., cut the suffocating pandering and protocols of an official Washington that has failed us, and that the people of the U.S., from coast to coast, rose up to roust out in one of the biggest one-day governmental overhauls in the nation’s history.

 The fact that Webb brought his sincere anger and contempt to an official Washington hoity-toity do is only a whiff of what we can anticipate will come once the swearing in ceremonies happen early next month.

It was the most refreshing thing to see in Washington since one of the most popular pop singers of her era, Eartha Kitt, dressed down President Johnson at a formal White House event with an unscripted lecture about the injustices of the Vietnam War.

Eartha Kitt was veritably blacklisted after that courageous intervention, her unique voice, style and throaty feline-like growl relegated to fame’s shadows, except that she’s kept it going, and with just as much sex appeal, at smoky clubs and lounges well into her 80s.

However, there’s no blacklisting James Webb. Excuse me, he is a soon-to-be seated U.S. Senator with just as much power to set the standard for acceptable behavior in the nation’s capital as to kow-tow to it.

I think it’s time for a little rough-housing in Washington. I wasn’t around, to my knowledge, but it could be a little like what I read happened with when Andy Jackson brought his friends out of the hills of Tennessee to take over Washington in 1828. It’s a akin to a populist revolt, to a storming of the Bastille.

What’s wrong with a little lusty contempt for a corruption-riddled edifice of status quo governance? I hope, and trust there will be, some yelling, some fierce gavel pounding and sounds of large crowds in hearing rooms and on the floor of the Congress, murmuring loudly, cheering and booing and otherwise noisily engaged.

Bush’s overture to Webb was a typically-noxious attempt at a psychological defanging. By standing, elevated above the seated Webb, and placing his hand on Webb’s shoulder, he adopted a typical power-over-you posture.

Rehearsed to say it, he then leaned his face down toward Webb’s, close enough for Webb to smell his cologne and mouthwash, and he asked about Webb’s “wife and kids,” so to speak. In this case, it was about Webb’s son on duty, in harm’s way in Iraq. Webb responded by saying, in effect, “My son is none of your business. Get us out of Iraq!”

But Bush’s body language was obvious. Trying to assert power over Webb, the new junior Senator-elect, Bush’s words were really saying, “OK, the election is over and with it all the rhetoric. Now we’re here together in Washington where all that is behind us. We’re the elites and while we will continue to differ outwardly to appease our constituents, we’re now on the same team.” In Webb’s case, he didn’t buy it.

It’s a terrible and powerful lure that sucks like a nuclear-driven Hoover Upright at every elected official and high-level appointee who arrives in Washington, including those in the media. Here is the gravy train of high living, endless elbow rubbing, back slapping, bra-tweaking fame and glory. Democrats and Republicans play softball together, and they play together, period, awash in lobbyist receptions, galas and a wide, if soon predictable, variety of white-glove-carried hors d’oeuvres, forgettable white wines and cheap bourbons. Amidst all this, decorum is the rule. Partisanship and divisions between the estates of government (including the fifth, the media) are put off until morning when the junior reporters show up and the TV cameras are rolling.

Enough of this courts-of-the-French-aristocracy jaundiced hypocrisy and betrayal of the public trust.

If the new incoming Congress gets sucked into this, as Bush sought to personally initiate Webb last week, then those who fear for the ability of the new majority in Congress to rule effectively in a different way will see their worst fears come to pass.

This, more than anything, would cause the new Democratic majority to stumble and pass quickly into mediocrity, disappointing a nation full of hopeful citizens.

The key to a new direction is a fresh pep in the step of lawmakers with a good night’s sleep the night before, who carry their brooms of resolute reform not only to the Capitol but to all their D.C. destinations, and make the new mood and new behavior exhibited by our fresh Senator Webb fashionable for the whole damn town.