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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

The Bizarre Mystery of Jim Webb's Presidential Campaign

Jim Webb is a war hero, novelist, and former senator who once almost beat a biker to death with his bare hands. He also hates politics. So what is he doing running for president?
July 7, 2015, 9:14pm
Photo by Flickr user kalexnova

You may not have noticed, but late last week, just as everyone in America was shutting down their laptops and sneaking out from their sad desk jobs for the long weekend, another candidate jumped into the 2016 White House race, this time on the Democratic side. On Thursday, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb officially launched his presidential campaign, becoming the fourth man willing to let Hillary Clinton bulldoze him on her inevitable path toward her party's nomination.

The timing of Webb's campaign launch, on the afternoon before a major federal holiday and three-day weekend, was obviously weird. But Webb didn't seem to notice or care if anyone paid attention to his surprise news. The announcement, detailed in a 2,000-word blog post, seemed more like a courtesy—a heads up to the American people that Webb would like to run their country.

It was, in many ways, a fitting entry for Webb. In a presidential race that includes, among others, a pediatric neurosurgeon who doesn't believe in evolution, a former horseshoer, a Socialist, and Donald Trump, Webb may actually be the strangest candidate of the bunch.

By strange, I do not mean "promising" or "surprisingly legitimate" —Webb hasn't held elected office since his one and only term as a senator, which ended in January 2013. He didn't run for re-election because he hated campaigning, which isn't a great sign for a presidential hopeful. Before that, he was a Republican who did a short stint as Secretary of the Navy for Ronald Reagan, which isn't likely to make any Democrat think, "Finally! That's the guy who can beat Hillary." And with 2 percent support in most current polls, it isn't like there's a national clamor for this dude to take the reins for the nation's liberal party.

In fact, Webb isn't not much of a Democrat at all, at least based on where the party is at today. He is conservative on immigration, has a terrible record on climate change— including voting against cap and trade and calling for delaying EPA regulation of green house gases—and refers to Ronald Reagan as his hero. In a Facebook post last month, he called for "mutual respect" in the Confederate flag debate, which is a bizarre thing to say in the best of times, and an even worse thing to say when the entire Republican Party and every major American retailer is taking the flag down.

Webb does have some progressive bonafides. A decorated war hero who fought in the Vietnam War, Webb has long opposed American military intervention overseas, and voted against the Iraq War, one of Hillary Clinton's biggest weak spots. He's also been calling for calling for criminal justice reform for years, which puts him way ahead of the curve on that issue. Still, it's unlikely that many of the Democrats who were waiting for Elizabeth Warren are going to flock to a pro-gun politician who thinks affirmative action has outlived its usefulness, and whose past comments about the role of women in the military include the observation that a Naval Academy dormitory was a "horny woman's dream."

The area where Webb has found the most success is in his writing. He's written at least nine books, including memoirs and a bunch of war novels. But while his books are much better than the average ghostwritten political autobiography—and some are actually pretty good—some of it is definitely... unusual stuff for an aspiring president to have written about. A few examples:

"Fogarty . . . watch[ed] a naked young stripper do the splits over a banana. She stood back up, her face smiling proudly and her round breasts glistening from a spotlight in the dim bar, and left the banana on the bar, cut in four equal sections by the muscles of her vagina."

"He saw the invitation with every bouncing breast and curved hip. . . . He was thirteen... She was fifteen... In a few moments she drew him to her and he murmured in his quiet voice, 'I am still small.' 'You are large enough,' she answered. And he found he was."

"The man grabbed his young son in his arms, turned him upside down, and put the boy's penis in his mouth."

What makes Webb's candidacy particularly weird is that he doesn't even seem like politics. In fact, he hates politics. Explaining his decision not to run for reelection in 2012, Webb wrote in a recent book, "I faced the Hobson's choice of either turning into a perennial scold or surrendering a part of my individuality to the uncontrollable, collective nature of group politics. I was not ready to do either." Not sure what he thinks being president would be like, but it probably isn't much different.

Webb also doesn't sound like a particularly fun guy to be around. In one of the Clinton emails recently released by the State Department, the Secretary of State's advisors mention Webb explicitly, apparently noting observations from a June 2009 hearing: "Jim Webb arrives, looking typically angry," the email reads. That was kind of Webb's vibe when he was in the Senate. In a new book unearthed by the Daily Beast, onetime Pentagon official and former US Ambassador to Qatar Chase Untermeyer seems to confirm this depiction, with a story about the time Webb almost killed a biker with his bare hands.

"I had him by the hair and was beating his head on the sidewalk when he suddenly went limp on me," Webb recounted. "Then it came to me: I had killed the fucking son of a bitch, and I would be put on report back at the Academy! So I revived him—whereupon he came to and kicked me in the head about ten times till I was able to grab his leg... Moral: Show no mercy in a fight."

Needless to say, it's unclear just who exactly this guy will appeal to, particularly in a Democratic presidential primary. Could Webb ride a silent, heretofore unknown majority of socially conservative, fiscally progressive, working-class, war-mythologizing anti-war voters into the White House? I guess. I mean, it isn't impossible. In all possible universes — let's say, a billion, billion universes — there is probably at least one in which Jim Webb wins the presidency.

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