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The Real Jim Webb

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"We're going to places all over Virginia, and he's having it on film and it's great to have you here," the senator said, singling out S.R. Sidarth, a Fairfax native of Asian-Indian ancestry, who was assigned by Democrat Jim Webb to record Allen's speech.

"And you show it to your opponent [sic]," urged Allen, referring to the video, "because he's never been there and probably will never come."

How's that? Say again?

Not only has Jim Webb, to whom Allen was apparently referring, been to the state's far southwest, Webb's ancestral roots run so deep there that he wrote the book on the region. I happened to be reading it, "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America," at the time of Allen's speech.

Either the good senator was astonishingly ill-informed about his opponent, or he'd fallen into a trap that's become all too common in today's political world — saying whatever's handy about a rival, whether or not it bears any particular resemblance to the truth.

If Allen hasn't corrected the omission already by sitting down with a copy of "Born Fighting," he should. He'll find within those 343 pages real insight to an opponent who is more than a caricature. The adjectives that come to mind after reading Webb's words are authentic, original and a little bit odd.

This is a complex man, a thinker whose thought processes take him down many roads, some straight, some as crooked as old Route 58 between Duffield and Jonesville, some dead ends. I'd wager most any reader would find something to delight and something to offend.

For starters, "Born Fighting" is the most sympathetic rendering of "redneck" whites — the kind with stickers of Confederate flags on their car bumpers and gun racks attached to their pickup cabs — I've seen on a campaign trail since Oliver North ran for the Senate in Virginia a decade ago.

Webb argues that intolerance for outside authority and personal honor in defending one's homeland — traits carried across the ocean from Berwick and Ulster — not a defense of slavery, motivated the huge contingent of Scots-Irish soldiers in the Confederate force.

He proudly describes picking out a Confederate headstone for his great-great-grandfather, David G. Webb, who is buried on a mountaintop in Scott County. (The marker was never installed because the terrain is so rough.)

At the same time, Webb views Martin Luther King Jr. as a man whose "equanimity was Lincolnesque in its breadth of vision," decries "the mind-boggling rate of incarceration in American prisons" and appeals for a politics that avoids "grand, useless speeches" on such topics as flag-waving, homosexual marriage and abortion.

Canonizing the hardscrabble independence of his Scots-Irish ancestors, Webb delivers a rhetorical punch at American elites that could have slipped from Allen's own mouth. "Even today, an individual and an issue at a time, it [the Scots-Irish culture] refuses to accept the politics of group privilege that have been foisted on America by its paternalistic, Ivy League-centered, media-connected, politically correct power centers," he writes.

Allen, who also boasts Scottish and Irish — as well as French Tunisian — blood, and who's had something of a romance with Confederate memorabilia, might detect further kinship with Webb. Both men practice a populist-tinged politics, symbolized by cowboy boots in Allen's case, combat boots in Webb's. Both cite Ronald Reagan as the former president they most admire.

But each man's choice of his second-favorite president reveals a deeper divide. Allen, a coach's son who grew up in California and honed his combative skills on a football field, prefers the Virginia patrician, Thomas Jefferson.

Webb, a military man's son who perfected his fighting skills on the battlefields of Vietnam, reveres Tennessee's Andrew Jackson. The seventh president shocked sophisticates by opening the White House to buckskins and boots, opposed a centralized bank and brought "a coarse but refreshing openness to the country's governing process," the candidate writes.

It's easy to see why Webb, a proud man whose campaign bank account seriously trails Allen's, might disdain courting wealthy donors. His book argues that the country-club whites who ran the South through much of the 20th century perpetuated class conflict between blacks and poor whites because it helped keep them in control.

Heading into the fall campaign, the chief rap on George Allen is that he supported the Bush administration on 97 percent of key votes. Reading "Born Fighting," it's hard to imagine Jim Webb agreeing with anyone, anywhere, 97 percent of the time. Skeptics might legitimately wonder how such independence would fit into the renowned (at least until recently) collegiality of the U.S. Senate.

Allen invited S.R. Sidarth to glimpse the "real Virginia." Virginians who take time to seek out the "real Jim Webb" have a novel experience in store. S



Margaret Edds is an editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.




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