Many who come to the nation’s capital as a congressman or senator become so taken with their newfound status and occupation that they do everything they can just to stay in power.
The idea of walking away from it all, then, would seem strange to many occupants of higher office.
Not to Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. — that rarest of politicians who does not play politics; a war hero, best-selling author, lawyer, Southeast Asia expert and father of six, who didn’t need the job perhaps as much as it needed him.
“He’s the most apolitical senator I’ve ever met,” said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Many people run for the Senate to be something, rather than do something” — but not Webb, said Sabato.
He described Webb as a restless, “been there, done that, close the door” kind of guy. “For a one-term senator he’s got quite a legacy,” Sabato added. “I’ve watched senators serve three, four, five terms and have less to show for it.”
After one six-year term, Webb, 66, leaves office in January, to be succeeded by former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who defeated George Allen, also a former governor and senator.
Webb, who has a 6-year-old daughter and the desire to write and think outside of the beltway for a bit, said the timing is about right.
“This is the fourth cycle I’ve had in public service — the military, then committee counsel, the Pentagon and now this,” he said during an interview while sitting in an empty conference room in his Senate suite of offices in the Russell Building.
“And it’s been my unconscious, or subconscious, professional cycle that I step out for a while.”
Webb appears ready to go. Bare nails hang on the walls where recently had hung plaques and pictures chronicling his public service career, which began in 1969 in the Marines.
Webb served as an infantry officer in Vietnam and was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
He moved to Washington as a lawyer for the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and later served under President Ronald Reagan as an undersecretary of defense and secretary of the Navy.
He ran for Senate in 2006, narrowly defeating Allen, the Republican incumbent at the time, by a little more than 9,000 votes after Allen self-destructed with his “macaca” remark to an Indian-American Democratic staffer.
Despite having never served in elected office, Webb knew what he was getting into when he came to the Senate, he said.
“I understood from the beginning how the place worked. I had a pretty good sense of the realities coming in, and given those realities . I look back and think we gave everybody exactly what we said we were going to.”
Webb’s signature legislative achievement was a “Post-9/11 GI Bill” in 2008, which many consider the most comprehensive veterans legislation since World War II.
Drawing on his military and private-sector experience, Webb also took the lead in foreign policy outreach to Southeast Asia, trying to build better relationships in the region through numerous overseas diplomatic trips.
“When I came to the Senate, I said we were going to focus on reinvigorating the relationships with Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and to change the formula in Burma (now Myanmar),” Webb said.
“It’s not something that resonates in state politics, but for the good of the country I look at that and I think it’s just incredible what we were able to do,” he added. “We had a strategic vision for the country and we drove it.”
He spoke out against the exercise of presidential authority, criticizing Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama for their use of military force without congressional sanction.
Webb also devoted a considerable time on criminal justice reform. His office spent 2 1/2 years building consensus on both sides of the aisle to address all aspects of the system — from apprehension, to incarceration, re-entry, gangs and drugs.
Ultimately, however, the bipartisan effort to fund a $14 million commission to weigh reforms was defeated in a GOP Senate filibuster. In Webb’s estimation it was a casualty of the partisan division that hampers Washington from doing the people’s business.
“The difficulty in the country right now is that it is so divided — so divided in large blocks on both sides,” he said. “My biggest worry in the political sense is that we are not — for all the money that is going into these campaigns — we are not having the debates that need to be held about key issues of governance.”
Webb said the election of Obama created a “reservoir of good will” that quickly dissipated when the administration pushed health care reform during the economic crisis but failed to lead the effort effectively.
Because of the public mood and economic uncertainty gripping the nation, Republicans adopted a strategy, he said, to freeze everything until the results of the 2012 election. Now that the election is over, and the nation appears to be recovering economically, Webb sees an opportunity for both sides to do the right thing.
“I think we have a chance now to really come back and get both sides together to say we need to protect our economy and our national greatness,” he said.
Webb, like most of his Senate and House colleagues, is a spectator in the current budget and deficit debate to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” But starting next month, future votes will be taken by Kaine, his successor.
Webb said he had to make a decision early in the process not to seek a second term, and did so after a long and emotional “soul-searching” conversation with his wife, Hong Le Webb.
Running for a second term would have been an eight-year commitment, including the campaign and the term in office, so “given everything, six years is about right for me in the Senate,” he said.
“I don’t really think the Senate matched his particular personality well,” Sabato said. “He is somebody who wants to get things done.”
Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., called Webb “an original: a thoughtful and intellectual man who has spent most of his life in service to our nation. There are very few people in Washington who command as much respect or have Jim’s credibility on military and national security issues.”
Webb said Kaine “is going to be a really good senator. He’s got the right temperament. He’s very ethically driven. He cares about the right things.”
Supporters said caring about the right things is what made Webb the right man for the job during his term — and why he is able to walk away now.
“He knows who he is — and that gives him the ability to march to the beat of his own drummer,” said state Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, who cited Webb’s efforts on criminal justice and Southeast Asian policy.
“He is a man driven by a very simple principle of fairness,” McEachin said. “You know, a lot of us talk about it, but very few elected officials in my judgment act on fairness. They try to accord fairness to results in the outcomes that they want to see.”
The only certain plan in Webb’s future is that he will write.
“I’m not going to write a tell-all book about the Senate — everybody can relax,” he says with a smile. “But I will write. I’ve always written. And I will do some thinking. And we’ll look at things in a year or two.”