National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Webb

It crossed my mind as I watched Sen. Jim Webb deliver one of the strongest ever Democratic responses to a State of the Union message Tuesday night that one year ago, this man was sitting in his Falls Church, Virginia, home, a private citizen having never sought election to public office in his life.

Webb’s is one of the greatest political “rags to riches” stories in U.S. history. He veritably rocketed from complete obscurity to the man chosen by his party to deliver a nationally-televised response to the president of the U.S., and he did it in the span of less than a year.

He battled from the standpoint of an outsider to his own party, starting his campaign without a penny in its coffers, and fought fierce resistance from party regulars to score a stunning upset in the Democratic primary last June.

But even then, who thought this man had a ghost of a chance against entrenched Republican Senator George Allen? Allen looked at last November’s election as a necessary nuisance on his way toward a presidential run in 2008. Allen, certainly, stumbled famously. But Webb did not miss the chance. He did not fade, he came on stronger.

Webb is the kind of person who seems, at least to date, never to get enough credit for his own, personal mind, talent, values and skills. Maybe it’s because many who’ve spent their entire careers climbing into their political niches don’t like the way he came barging in.

Even after Tuesday, too many still dismiss him as a product of circumstances around him. It was the anti-Iraq mood that swept him to his primary victory last spring, they claim, and it was that combined with Allen’s self-destruct that accounted for his win in November.

They now credit his winning the job of answering the president’s State of the Union to his fortuitous timing that made his late-declared victory the clincher of the Democrats’ Senate majority.

Yet, once again, Webb on Tuesday demolished the perception of such pundits that he is a mere beneficiary of fortunate circumstance. His was far and away the most powerful, eloquent and straightforward refutation that any State of the Union respondent has provided in memory. It trumped the president for its brief and concise power.

Did that come from some speech writer? No, it came from Webb’s internal convictions and his ability to express them. That’s the only source for such brilliant use of verbal emphasis and subtle inflection. This was seen time and again during the course of his campaign and in informal interplay with audiences.

He spoke firmly, looking right into the camera, and thereby into the eyes of every American watching. He spoke without apology, without equivocation, without any of the usual ceremonial pandering. But he did not rant and did not divide. Brilliantly, he invoked a great Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, on the subject of economic justice, and then presented an image of what President Bush should do based on the precedents of two powerful Republican presidents of the 20th century.

Because of its clarity, it will be vividly recalled for a long time for how he cited the precedent of President Teddy Roosevelt calling for economic fairness in the face of the excesses of the robber barons of his day. It will be long remembered how he cited President Eisenhower remarking on the stalemate of the Korean conflict, and how upon his election in 1952 he moved to get the nation out of that military quagmire.

These two Republican examples were how Sen. Webb defined the task for President Bush, in contradistinction to the President’s own “stay the course” remarks about Iraq and lack of sensitivity to the economic disparity that is dividing the nation at home.

Most outrageous about Bush’s rambling speech was its failure to mention the continuing challenge to restore New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, not even once. It’s the greatest single domestic policy priority the nation faces, the reality that one of the nation’s greatest cities continues to languish in the face of its enormous natural disaster.

But Webb’s retort was a tour de force, a five-minute message that uniquely encapsulated the essence of the failures of the present administration and a reasonable, common-sense approach to a better way. It should, and will, be replayed in classrooms for many years to come.

E-mail the author at