Jim Webb on 'Givers' and 'Takers'

I have known, respected, and come very much to like Jim Webb over the course of more than 30 years. We originally met because of deep disagreements about the Vietnam War. He went to Annapolis, served with distinction and bravery as Marine officer, was badly wounded, and then in his novels, movies, essays, and public-affairs work championed the memories and the futures of the people he had served with. I was in college while he was in combat, opposed the war, and deliberately avoided being drafted to serve in it.

Over the years we have come to share similar views about many of America's biggest challenges, from the pernicious new culture of permanent undeclared war to the increasing polarization of the country on many fronts but especially including economic class. I was living in China six years ago when Webb made his surprising but welcome decision to challenge George Allen for the U.S. Senate seat from Virginia. I wrote then that

From a partisan perspective, Webb (who served in Ronald Reagan's administration) is just the kind of candidate the Democrats need: a culturally-conservative populist whose personal and policy toughness no one can possibly doubt. More broadly I think he is the kind of politician the country needs more of: someone getting into politics because he feels so strongly about the issues of the day.

Via Andrew Sullivan, I have just seen (while still out of the country) the video of Webb at a Democratic rally in Virginia talking about the idea that 47% of Americans are "takers." It is no secret that Webb has disagreed frequently with the Obama administration and in many ways is an awkward cultural fit with today's Democratic party. But in speaking for the president and the party, in a crucial swing state, Webb displays the unconcealed moral indignation that, in a good way, has distinguished him through his political and literary career.

Passages like the one below might look biting enough on the screen, but you should listen to the way Webb delivers them. This part begins two minutes in and is worth hearing in Webb's own voice:

Those young Marines that I led have grown older now. They've lived lives of courage, both in combat and after their return, where many of them were derided by their own peers for having served. That was a long time ago. They are not bitter. They know what they did. But in receiving veterans' benefits, they are not takers. They were givers, in the ultimate sense of that word. There is a saying among war veterans: "All gave some, some gave all." This is not a culture of dependency. It is a part of a long tradition that gave this country its freedom and independence. They paid, some with their lives, some through wounds and disabilities, some through their emotional scars, some through the lost opportunities and delayed entry into civilian careers which had already begun for many of their peers who did not serve.
And not only did they pay. They will not say this, so I will say it for them. They are owed, if nothing else, at least a mention, some word of thanks and respect, when a presidential candidate who is their generational peer makes a speech accepting his party's nomination to be commander-in-chief.

This is a theme straight out of Webb's heart and brain and soul. I remember hearing almost exactly the same views from him when we first met in the late 1970s. We sometimes think about campaigns as if they're all about positioning and micro-strategy and all the rest. But every now and then we see the genuine passions and principles that are at stake.

To my no doubt biased mind -- biased as a friend of Webb's, biased as someone who likes very little of what the current GOP represents -- the passage of Webb's is as powerful a response to the "47 percent" video as this also extremely powerful Obama ad.

Again, election campaigns are ludicrous spectacles but occasionally more than that.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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