Man Without Qualities

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Two Misters Webb

The "icy exchange" between President Bush and Virginia Sen.-elect James Webb has occassioned a great deal of comment (here and here and here and here, for example). We are told that perhaps the exchange has turned Webb into something of a folk hero among critics of the president, who have longed for someone to challenge his bravado, or that maybe his refusal to play "gentlemanly political games" has renewed questions about how well Mr. Webb fits in Congress, where compromise is almost always key. Others assert that Webb was a "jerk" - or perhaps, on the contrary, that it was Mr. Bush who made sounds of the "rattling little aggressions of our day" (this last take seems particularly far fetched).

With all respect to the many commenters, the copious commentary may be missing the most likely root of this exchange: Senator-elect Webb's son probably does not agree with his father's anti-war stance. If that's true, then the elder Webb has very good reason to fear being drawn into a conversation with the President that a more customary response to "How's your boy?" would have occassioned. If the Senator-elect had been drawn into the conversation that the President invited, Mr. Webb père might well have faced the need to either admit that his son supports the war or to dissemble to the President. It's not surprising that the new Senator would choose to evade that choice after his original plan - completely avoiding the President at this gathering - was frustrated by Mr. Bush's attempt to be friendly.

And a serious difference of opinion between father and son probably does exist on this point. How likely is it that Mr. Webb fils - who volunteered as a marine, is now serving in Iraq, and who grew up in a Republican household - is as opposed to the Iraq incursion as the Senator-elect or his supporters? Not very, in my opinion. Moreover, "I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," is not the same thing as "He and his buddies would like to get out of Iraq, Mr. President." And the ultimate response of Mr. Webb père, "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," suggests that father and son may not see eye-to-eye. (According to an anonymous source in The Hill, Mr. Webb confessed that he was tempted to slug the President.) Similarly, another high profile war critic, Cindy Sheehan, has never been deterred by the fact that her son, now-deceased Charlie, re-enlisted after the launch of the Iraq incursion, knowing that his unit would be sent to Iraq. Of course, we don't (yet) know the opinion of Mr. Webb fils, and one would expect him to decline public comment if he does forcefully disagree with his father (although the son's marine buddies may be willing to say more than he would if some enterprising reporter were to ask them). This entire line of thought may therefore be validly criticised as "mere speculation" or "just a guess," at best speculation or guessing supported by general evidence of no great substance. But then, the many other commenters on this "icy exchange" are speculating and guessing no less where they pronounce on what the elder Webb was thinking at the time, or how the President might react in the long run, or how other Senators might take to someone apparently so out of sync with their long established ways (or "gentlemanly games") or how the public might or should respond. The line of thought presented here has at least as much supporting it as do any of those pronouncements.

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