WASHINGTON — When President Bush gave his 2006 State of the Union speech, Jim Webb hadn't yet decided to run for the US Senate. But he had no doubts about the war in Iraq, which he called "the greatest strategic blunder in modern times."
Tuesday night, Senator Webb is giving the Democratic response to this year's State of the Union – an unusually high profile for a freshman. But no Democrat in the Congress is more primed to talk on the No. 1 issue in congressional politics: the endgame in Iraq.
"We have never clearly defined what a win is – never, not since 2002," says Webb, on a brisk walk through the Capitol basement after President Bush announced an increase of 21,500 troops in Iraq. One of them will be Webb's son, Jimmy, whose Marine unit has just been extended for an additional 60 days in Iraq.
A decorated combat marine, Webb knows – and can articulate – the human face of war with an authority that is rare on Capitol Hill. As a company commander in the An Hoa Basin during the Vietnam War – the setting of his first of six bestselling novels, "Fields of Fire" – he was awarded the Navy Cross for exceptional heroism, three medals and two purple hearts. He dedicated that 1978 book to "the 100,000 Marines who became casualties in Vietnam. And for the others who became casualties upon their return."
As a law student at Georgetown University Law Center, Webb represented and later cleared the name of a marine convicted of war crimes in Vietnam, three years after his suicide. With the House Committee on Veterans Affairs from 1977 to 1981, he became the first Vietnam veteran to serve as a committee counsel on Capitol Hill. In 1987, President Reagan appointed Webb to be secretary of the Navy, but he resigned in 1988 over deep budget cuts that the Congress mandated for the Navy.
"The fact that he's a longtime Republican, until his recent conversion, plus his war-hero status, plus a strong association with Ronald Reagan, plus the fact that he delivered the Senate to the Democrats on the issue of Iraq – it makes him the logical choice for the Democrats," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Democratic leaders who tapped Webb for his prime-time assignment describe him as "a new voice in a new Congress." "He's also a combat veteran who understands personally how important it is to find a new direction in Iraq and begin to bring the war to a close," said Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
A reluctant campaigner, Webb was once the first person out the door at a campaign event in Arlington, Va., that he was headlining. But he is settling into his role in the Senate, where he often sits through oversight hearings on the war from start to finish – a practice typically rare for anyone but the committee chairman.
"I'm impressed. He was the only one who stayed the whole time... Senator Webb and [Chairman Joseph] Biden," says Marjorie Lasky, a war protester from Berkeley, Calif., who sat near the front row of recent Senate hearings. "I hope he stays right on top of this war."
For Webb, the key to getting out of Iraq is for the Bush administration to "aggressively deal with the situation in a regional context," he says. "If we do that, we get our combat troops out, and we can still address the war against international terrorism. We can help increase the stability of the region, and we can deal with our strategic interests elsewhere. That's how you define a win."
His committee assignments on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Foreign Relations Committee give him a platform to raise these issues, even though his position at the bottom of the seniority rankings usually leaves him the last to speak.
At a Jan. 11 hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee, he challenged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to "more actively engage" in diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. "There are many, including myself, who warned that invading and occupying Iraq would in fact empower Iran, and that has become a reality," he said. Then, he asked: "Is it the position of this administration that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran in the absence of a direct threat without congressional approval?" Ms. Rice said that she would answer in writing.
Aides say he does much of his own research to prepare for hearings and develops his own questions. He generally reads at least four hours a day, aides say. "That's what he hated the most about campaigning – losing time to read," says Webb spokeswoman Jessica Smith.
Aides say he is drafting his own response to the State of the Union, working mainly in the evenings, although Democratic leaders will have a say in the final language.
While he's not one of those senators who seeks television lights – or print journalists, for that matter – like a heat seeking missile, he is clearly warming to the job. "It's a great time to be in the Senate," he says.
Ramrod straight and typically no- nonsense, Webb had a brief, much-reported skirmish with President Bush at a White House reception last year. When Mr. Bush asked after his son, Webb replied: "I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President." Pressed again, "How's your boy?", Webb said: "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President."
Tuesday, both men speak to the nation.