As Sen. Bernie Sanders was making his presidential campaign official at the other end of the National Mall Thursday afternoon, Jim Webb, who is still considering his own underdog campaign against Hillary Clinton, was speaking to Vietnamese-Americans and U.S. veterans near the Vietnam Memorial.
Webb, a former senator from Virginia, was speaking to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. Webb is a Vietnam veteran, and he opposed the Iraq War—a point he and other Democrats have used to contrast themselves with Clinton.
Webb and his wife, Hong Le Webb, stood on a small stage adorned with oranges, pineapples, flowers, and incense. Hong Le Webb, who was born in Vietnam, was 7 years old when Saigon fell. Her family fled the country on a fishing boat and after three days at sea was eventually rescued by the U.S. Navy. They lived in refugee camps in Guam and Arkansas.
"In those places, they were moving into new communities, they were learning a new language, and they were making new lives as Americans," Webb said Wednesday. "That is the story told 2 million times over by the members of the Vietnamese community in the United States."
In 2006, Hong Le Webb told The Washington Post that her husband sometimes teased her about her family's escape.
"He says that if [U.S. troops] hadn't rescued me, I'd be snaggletoothed and selling pencils on the streets of Saigon," she said at the time. "It wouldn't be too far from the truth. If I'd stayed behind in Vietnam, I wouldn't be where I am today."
After the event on Thursday, a small group of political reporters crowded Webb to ask about more domestic political news—specifically, news that was happening two miles west of where Webb stood. When asked about Sanders' announced presidential run, Webb chuckled.
"Bernie will bring a lively debate. I've known him for quite awhile," Webb told National Journal. "He'll give an interesting perspective, so he'll liven things up."
Like Sanders and Lincoln Chafee before him, Webb touted his antiwar voting record in Congress as a way to draw contrast between himself and Clinton, who voted for the Iraq War when she was a senator from New York. Webb said his experience as a combat soldier, as a military planner for the Pentagon, as a journalist, and as a U.S. senator gives him ample perspective on foreign policy.
"All of these experiences helped shape my view of American foreign policy, and I think that I have a long history in terms of pretty accurate predictions, whether it was the Iraq War or issues like the Shitang Islands in the South China Sea," Webb said. "I think when people look at what we've said over many years, it gives people a comfort zone in terms of what they would see in presidential leadership."
A Vietnamese reporter covering the event referred to the White House, asking Webb, "Do you have a plan to run for the house on the other side?" Webb demurred on the presidential question, but paused and quietly said something to the reporter in Vietnamese (which Webb speaks). He added, "We care about the same issues, and I think I have a long record of working with them toward better solutions."
When asked what Webb had said to him in Vietnamese, the reporter replied that he couldn't understand what Webb was saying.
Correction: Jim Webb opposed the Iraq War, but he did not vote on the Iraq War resolution, as he was not a senator at the time.
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