WASHINGTON -- When Ronald Reagan's former secretary of the Navy, James Webb, eked out victory against the Republican Sen. George Allen in Virginia, what did the Democrats gain? To be sure they gained control of the Senate. That has been widely noted. Less widely noted is the fact that they gained something infinitely more subtle, but delightfully more amusing as will become apparent in the months ahead. In Webb they gained yet another very unpleasant person as a conspicuous member of the party hierarchy. He will not be easily obscured. Webb now takes his place with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Dr. Howard Dean, Al Gore, Jean-Francois Kerry and so many other Democratic notables as a rebarbative blowhard with whom you would not want to share a gondola. Nor would a civilized American want to have any of these churlish cads to dinner or even as neighbors down the block. Just the other day one of Sen. Clinton's neighbors turned up with a gunshot wound. I would not be surprised if it were self-inflicted.
All of the above are demonstrably unpleasant individuals, known for their public temper tantrums, their rudeness to staff, their slipperiness with the truth and their occasional bizarre outbursts. The Republicans have a few such stinkers, for instance Newt Gingrich, but not nearly as many. It almost seems that to be a Democratic notable one has to be ill-tempered and, as I say, unpleasant.
Think back to Dean's historic scream and frequent public demonstrations of bile. Think of Clinton's and Gore's mendacious moments and lapses into self-absorption when public matters were at issue, for instance 9/11. Think of how often all of them have played the role of the bad sport after a failed election or, in Hillary's case, a visit to a grand jury.
Recall, if you will, Sen. Kerry's recent catastrophic joke on the campaign trail. To many Americans he seemed to be saying that our solders serving in Iraq are dolts. Call me naive, but personally I accepted his explanation that he merely botched a joke meant to imply that President George W. Bush is a dolt -- Bush, who, incidentally, graduated from Yale with a higher grade point than this intellectual mediocrity. Nonetheless, it was in Kerry's defense of his botched joke that he revealed his unpleasant essence. He snarled that, "I apologize to no one." In his hastily called press conference he went on to pout, "I'm not going to stand for it." And he went on in his bullying diatribe to thunder, "I'm sick and tired of a bunch of despicable Republicans … Enough is enough. We're not going to stand for it." For what? For perceived mistreatment from "these Republican hacks who've never worn the uniform of our country … " blah, blah, blah.
As I say, Kerry is an unpleasant fellow in a party increasingly led by unpleasant fellows and fellowesses. Consider incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who blustered to Time magazine not long ago, "Anybody who's ever dealt with me knows not to mess with me." Again, is this someone you would care to dine with or even pass in a hallway?
As it happens I did dine with Webb, sometime after his brief stint at the Department of the Navy. He is a pretty good novelist and in print at the time had expressed some ideas of which I approved, particularly his scruples against women in combat, though other of his references to women strike me as coarse. At any rate, I invited him to dinner for what turned out to be a gruesome evening. Webb is one of those people of whom it is said he is uncomfortable in his skin. At first I thought his discomfort might come from the fear he was going to have to pay his way. It was a classy eatery. I reassured him that he was my guest. I went on to make clear I considered him a fine writer. Nothing I said reassured him, not even my insistence that he have dessert. I left baffled. Most of the military men I have known are gents. Many writers are cads, but I thought a writer who had also served high up in the Reagan administration might be civilized. After that dinner I never made the mistake of inviting him anywhere again.
His campaign was a prolonged demonstration of his caddishness. He who had called President Bill Clinton's administration the most corrupt in modern history invited Clinton to campaign with him. He actually exploited his own son's present service in Iraq for political advancement. While campaigning he paraded around in his son's combat boots! There were others in the 2006 election with sons in Iraq. One is a leading opponent of the war. None put a son in such an embarrassing and potentially dangerous position. Once elected, Webb took his boorishness to the White House.
Invited there with other freshmen members of Congress, Webb refused to stand in the presidential receiving line. He would not have his picture taken with the president. "How's your boy?" the Washington Post reports the president asking him later during the reception. Webb replied that he would like to get the troops home, a point appropriate for the campaign trail but not at a White House social event. "That's not what I asked," the president persisted, "How's your boy?" "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," the unpleasant Webb replied, and he cut his host. This the Post portrayed as part of Webb's "unpolished style." "I'm not particularly interested in having a picture of me and George W. Bush on my wall," he told a reporter. Well, then a gentleman does not accept the president's invitation to the White House and no one told him he would have to display the picture anywhere.
I have said it before and I shall be saying it again, often politics is not a rational act. Increasingly, especially in the Democratic Party, it encourages behavior that is abnormal: politicians windsurfing to assure their constituencies that they are just like them or ranting to show how genuinely human they are. These pols play on the fantasies of mildly delusional voters. In the case of the unpleasant Webb, the delusions are a bit over the top. It makes me wonder why his stay at the Department of the Navy was so brief. Did the Reaganites shove him out? Did one of them make the mistake of taking him to dinner? Or did they catch him acting up at a White House reception that has gone unreported? Some reporters should have looked into this.