The Weird, Wild Novels of Democratic Presidential Candidate Jim Webb

Now that the former Virginia Senator is officially running, I'm willing to bet that the sentence "The man grabbed his young son in his arms, turned him upside down, and put the boy's penis in his mouth" will resurface.

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Nov 21 2014, 5:07pm

There's a certain type of person that tends to run for president. Career politicians; white guys with great hair, who like sports and ranching. Maybe a veteran, maybe not, maybe not under suspicious circumstances. Wealthy? Probably. Married, with a mess of strapping children? You bet.

This type of person doesn't write novels.

As best I know, we've never had a novelist become president before, though many of our presidents have written, or had other people ghostwrite, their memoirs. (Some of them write love letters to their mistresses, too, though Warren G. Harding is not exactly the gold standard for an American chief executive.)

But that could change, if Jim Webb decides to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. On Thursday, Webb became the first member of either major party to launch an exploratory committee to consider whether to run a long-shot campaign for the White House. To most people who've heard of him — which is not most people — Webb is the former senator from Virginia who barely beat Republican incumbent George Allen in 2006 (despite the latter's propensity for racial slurs) but only served one term before deciding not to run for re-election. Deciding not to run for a second term in the Senate means one of two things: Either you really want to focus on running for something else—i.e. president—or you really don't like campaigning. Apparently, Webb was in both camps.

To me, though, Webb is the author of the Vietnam War book Fields of Fire, which I to read in my high school English class. I don't know why we read Fields of Fire instead of, say, The Things They Carried, or any other of the far more well known and critically acclaimed novels about that war (though Tom Wolfe did call Webb's debut "the finest of the Vietnam novels.") This was before Webb ever ran for office. The only detail I remember about Fields of Fire is that it had a character named Snake, so it couldn't have been that bad.

Back in 2006, Webb's then-opponent Allen put out a magnificent press release about Webb's books—there are six novels total, plus a work of nonfiction about the Scots-Irish, a political book in 2008, and a memoir that just came out this year. Under the headline "WEBB'S WEIRD WORLD: The Author's Disturbing Writings Show a Continued Pattern of Demeaning Women," the memo wrote that "Webb's novels disturbingly and consistently—indeed, almost uniformly—portray women as servile, subordinate, inept, incompetent, promiscuous, perverted, or some combination of these. It then quotes ten passages from his work, including:

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.

Remember, this was an official press release by George Allen's campaign.

The rest of the cited passages all feature sex or sexuality, of both the conventional and not-so-conventional kind, as well as some truly outstanding writing, in that it was written by a man who is now seriously considering running for president. Such as: "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." And he found he was.

Obviously, Webb should not be judged for the weird shit he put in his books, but elections are a zero-sum game, and with Webb now officially in the race, I'm willing to bet that the sentence "The man grabbed his young son in his arms, turned him upside down, and put the boy's penis in his mouth" will resurface. I'll keep harping on this forever, but Barack Obama was criticized for eating a specific type of lettuce, so if you don't think we'll be reminded how a candidate wrote about a man putting his son's penis in his mouth—something Webb says he actually witnessed in real life—then you live in a better world than this one.

Webb's career extends beyond his novels and military service. Besides his Senate stint, he was Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Navy from 1987 to 1988. Every possible Democratic candidate will be judged in terms of the alternative they offer to Hillary Clinton, and Webb's brand is centrist, anti-war, and working-class. In his announcement, which came with a video that looks like it was filmed on a Blackberry, Webb immediately casts himself as a unifier who can cross aisles, prioritizing job creation and the reduction of income inequality. He's also established himself over the years as an opponent of overseas intervention, a beat he hits again in his announcement, putting him in contrast to Clinton's hawkishness.

Aside from the fact that most people have never heard of him, though, Webb has other issues to deal with. First of all, he's old—if he were to win, he'd be the oldest president ever at the time of his first inauguration. His defense of the Confederacy as a symbol of Southern pride is also obviously problematic, and came up as a stick point when he was being vetted as a possible vice president for Obama. And in 1979, Webb wrote a piece for the Washingtonian headlined "Women Can't Fight," in which he extensively and emphatically makes an argument against women in the military. When he was criticized for the piece during his campaign in 2006, he didn't back down from it.

In a national race, Clinton appears to have the pro-business sector locked down —along with every other Democratic voter, probably— with other potential candidates—Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, or, in progressive dreams, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren—running from Clinton's left (and far, far left in Sanders's case). If Webb does run, he'll be portraying the Everyman. It's just that this Everyman once wrote about a guy named Snake seeing his mom naked.

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