Ambush: Reflections on My Friend Jim Webb

January 3, 2007. Washington, D.C.

The day dawns crisp and shiny, an unseasonably warm 50 degrees and climbing. The cherry blossom trees are barren, awaiting an early spring as the nation anticipates the new Congress. Signs of rebirth are seen all over Washington. Other signs as well: a placard in front of the Russell Senate Office Building reads, "America is Dying. Bush Be Gone."

My wife Sherry and I have been invited to attend Jim Webb's swearing-in as the new senator from Virginia, the result of an unexpected, come-from behind victory over the Republican incumbent -- and former potential presidential candidate -- George Allen. We've known Jim since 1999 when he wrote an original screenplay called Rules of Engagement, which I directed. We remained friends in spite of numerous "creative differences" -- often heated, sometimes bitter.

I came away from that experience feeling that Jim Webb is the most complex, principled man I've ever known. He came away feeling good about what I had done with the finished film -- though he still refers to me as the only man in the country with a temper worse than his. I accept this as a compliment.

In 1969, at the age of 23, as a First Lieutenant and Company Commander in Vietnam, he led 170 men. When he came home two years later, he had received two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star, a Navy Cross, two Purple Hearts, and numerous other combat medals. Webb's war was as fierce as it got. Along with the medals, he brought home shrapnel in a knee, arm, kidney, and at the back of his head.

I had no idea how idea how difficult it must have been for Jim as we walked for several miles in South Beach, Florida, drenched in sweat in the summer of 1999. We were about to meet with Sylvester Stallone at his palatial estate to try to convince him to do either of the two leading roles in Rules of Engagement. But Sly was more interested in talking about the new Rodin-like sculpture he had just bought. It was our good fortune some weeks later to come up with a dream cast led by Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson.

We talked about Vietnam on that long, hot walk in South Beach, passing the house where Gianni Versace lived and, a short distance away, the house where his killer, Andrew Cunanan, hid until he killed himself. It was impossible to talk to Jim about Vietnam without opening old wounds.

James Henry Webb, Jr. returned from Vietnam in 1970 and went to work in the Pentagon on the staff of Navy Secretary John Chafee. By April of '72, his chosen career of leading men in combat was over. He had no idea what he would do next. "I want to serve my country," he said then. "I don't know how civilians do that, but that's what I'd like to do." He enrolled at Georgetown Law School, and though we didn't meet then, I was directing The Exorcist on the Georgetown campus.

Webb's first novel, Fields of Fire, was published in 1978. It dealt eloquently with his combat years and was followed by several more books, picking up two Pulitzer Prize nominations.

Later, as assistant counsel to the House Veteran Affairs Committee, Webb worked to obtain recognition for Vietnam vets. And he opposed the idea of women in combat so strongly that he was banished from the Naval Academy for several years. When he returned to Annapolis in 1987, the female midshipmen threw their underwear in protest onto the trees around Tecumseh Court, where he was to be sworn in as Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Navy.

In February of 1988, Webb resigned as Navy Secretary over budgetary and philosophical differences, and was excoriated by the press as a willful, petulant sorehead.

Two years later, in testimony before Congress, he opposed President George H. W. Bush's involvement in the Persian Gulf War, then led a protest march on the Capitol. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, he wrote: one must go back to the Mexican War "to find a president so avidly desirous of putting the nation at risk when it has not been attacked." He was among the first to denounce Bush 43 for the war in Iraq.

Jan. 3; 12 Noon

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville described the U.S. Senate as "a body of eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates and statesmen of note, whose language would at times do honor to the most remarkable Parliamentary debates in Europe." In the Senate at that time were Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun.

Today, from the semi-circular gallery above the Senate floor, we can see the eloquent advocates and wise magistrates of the 110th Senate. Harry Reid. Orrin Hatch. John Kerry. The two Joes -- Lieberman and Biden.

Entering crisp as the new day is the freshly-minted Minority Leader Trent Lott ("I'm the son of a shipyard worker and a schoolteacher"). Hillary Clinton, in a bright red jacket, floats past a wave of black suits. Above, in the gallery, under the large antique clock that faces the presiding officer's rostrum, President Clinton and his daughter Chelsea listen patiently as the swearing-in begins. He leans forward, chin in hand -- the white fox, red-faced and alert, eternally youthful.

Thirty-three senators file up four at a time, alphabetically, accompanied by the incumbent Senators from their states. The oath of office is administered by Vice President Cheney, polite and affable, while the Senators not involved continue to chat and circulate freely. Barack Obama is everywhere at once, shaking hands and patting the backs of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He wraps both arms around Joe Lieberman.

Jim Webb leans against the back wall of the chamber, savoring the moment. Gone are his son's combat boots, replaced by shiny dress shoes, trim black suit, muted red tie. What battles won or lost as a warrior, husband, cabinet secretary, amateur boxer, and writer parade across his mind's eye? Do the ghosts of Vietnam continue to haunt and motivate him?

Now he's called up, part of the final group, accompanied by Sen. Chuck Robb. He's joined on the rostrum by a breathtakingly beautiful Vietnamese woman, his wife Hong Le, dressed in a traditional red ao dai dress. She carries their then-three-week old daughter Georgia over her shoulder. Cheney administers the oath and gives Webb a smile and warm handshake. Cheers rise up from the gallery as Webb signs the Senate registry, then holds aloft the pen that says "U.S. Senator". Obama and other senators congratulate him as he takes his new senate seat next to Hillary Clinton -- and another chapter begins in the epic that is Jim Webb.

Later, in a small private room in a chic new restaurant ten blocks from Georgetown, 20 guests have gathered to celebrate, including ex-marines who served in Vietnam, and Sen. Robb and his wife Lynda.

When Sherry and I arrive we're greeted by one of Jim's legislative aides and by Lynda Robb who says, "You must be those Hollywood moguls George Allen said are Webb's real friends." "That's us," I answer, "and proud of it."

I'm introduced to Mac McGarvey, Webb's radio operator in Vietnam. Mac lost his right arm in combat. A proud, balding man with a mustache and deep Southern drawl, he was Webb's driver in the recent Senate campaign and is now his legislative liaison for Veteran Affairs.

The term "legislative liaison" is too polite a description for Mac. Tattooed above the stump that was his right arm is the phrase, "Cut along the dotted line." "He's the only man now working in the Congress who has a nipple ring," Webb says, beaming. Mac smiles and nods. When he gets up to toast Jim, words fail him. He tears up and so do we. "I love this man. I just love him..." He sits down to a round of applause.

Seated next to us is Col. Mike Wyly, a short, wiry man who was Webb's Company Commander in DELTA Company, fifth Marines. Webb was a second Lt. in the 1st Battalion.

"First thing I did with a new second 'louie,'" says Col. Wyly, "was send him out on night patrol -- wanted to see right away what he was made of. This was in May of 1969, in the An Hoa Basin. Webb's squad was ambushed by a larger North Vietnamese squad. They came under machine gun fire and I thought for sure they were gone. Next thing I hear is Lt. Webb, on this 2-way radio, reporting the exact amount of rounds his squad had expended and 'no friendly casualties.' This guy was for real."

Wyly went on: "The mistake people make with Jim -- George Allen made it, and so did George Bush -- is when they try to ambush him. Jim fights harder when he's ambushed. In the Senate campaign, every time Allen's people tried to put Jim in a hole, he fought his way out and left Allen bleeding. At the White House reception, when President Bush confronted him about his son, that was an ambush. It was a set-up, and the Bush folks made the story public, trying to make Jim out to be a hothead."

"I wasn't surprised by Jim's victory," adds Wyly. "I've long ago stopped being surprised by anything he accomplishes. I wrote him up for the Silver Star and the Navy Cross. There are a lot of men alive today because of Jim Webb."

I ask Col. Wyly what he does now.

"I'm retired but I run a ballet company up in Pittsfield, Maine. Bossov Ballet Theater -- more of a school than a performing company. We found this amazing choreographer from Russia and brought him to Maine. Last year he did a performance of The Red Shoes with these kids and it was sensational. Jim's on my board, you know."

I ask the Colonel how he went from commanding Delta Co. in Vietnam to the Bossov Ballet Co. in Pittsfield. "There are a lot of similarities between ballet and the Marine Corps," he replies. "You need discipline, dedication, and motivation to excel at either."

Tom Lehner, formerly Chuck Robb's campaign manager, now heading Webb's transition team, delivers a toast: "Two-and-a-half years ago, Jim called and said he was interested in running for the Senate against George Allen. I said, 'Okay, but it'll change your life. You'll have to do things you won't like 24/7 and the sad thing is you won't win.' He did everything opposite of what I advised him and now here he is."

Finally, Webb rises to thank everyone in the room, which he does modestly and graciously, ending with, "it will always be an honor to serve this country."

The mood of the nation is contentious, a perfect setting for Webb. "I know I'm a combative person" he says, "but what I learned in law school was how to fight with my brain." All his life he has had to re-channel his anger or be consumed by it.

I recall a passage from one of his novels, A Country Such as This: "There was a weakness in his country, in its leaders or maybe its system that had botched this thing badly, called on citizens to sacrifice then rebuked their efforts..." Webb wrote these words 7 years ago about the Korean and Vietnam wars. The old battles seem so far away, yet so near.

Ending his toast, Jim Webb smiles at his lifelong friend, Mac McGarvey. "Y'know, anyone can become a Senator. Not everyone can be a Marine."