Barack Obama’s vice presidential vetting team will undoubtedly run across some quirky and potentially troublesome issues as it goes about the business of scouring the backgrounds of possible running mates. But it’s unlikely they’ll find one so curious as Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb’s affinity for the cause of the Confederacy.
Webb is no mere student of the Civil War era. He’s an author, too, and he’s left a trail of writings and statements about one of the rawest and most sensitive topics in American history.
He has suggested many times that while the Confederacy is a symbol to many of the racist legacy of slavery and segregation, for others it simply reflects Southern pride. In a June 1990 speech in front of the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, posted on his personal website, he lauded the rebels’ “gallantry,” which he said “is still misunderstood by most Americans.”
Webb, a descendant of Confederate officers, also voiced sympathy for the notion of state sovereignty as it was understood in the early 1860s, and seemed to suggest that states were justified in trying to secede.
“Most Southern soldiers viewed the driving issue to be sovereignty rather than slavery,” he said. “Love of the Union was palpably stronger in the South than in the North before the war — just as overt patriotism is today — but it was tempered by a strong belief that state sovereignty existed prior to the Constitution and that it had never been surrendered.”
Webb expanded on his sentiments in his well-received 2004 book, “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,” which portrays the Southern cause as at least understandable, if not wholly laudable.
“The venerable Robert E. Lee has taken some vicious hits, as dishonest or misinformed advocates among political interest groups and in academia attempt to twist yesterday’s America into a fantasy that might better service the political issues of today,” he wrote. “The greatest disservice on this count has been the attempt by these revisionist politicians and academics to defame the entire Confederate Army in a move that can only be termed the Nazification of the Confederacy.” As in the Confederate Memorial speech, Webb suggests in his book that relatively few Southerners were slaveholders and that the war was fought over state sovereignty, which in the eyes of many at the time included the right to secede from the national government.
“The states that had joined the Union after the Revolution considered themselves independent political entities, much like the countries of Europe do today,” Webb wrote. “The 10th Amendment to the Constitution reserved to the states all rights not specially granted to the federal government, and in their view the states had thus retained their right to dissolve the federal relationship.”
There’s nothing scandalous in the paper trail, nothing that on its face would disqualify Webb from consideration for national office. Yet it veers into perilous waters since the slightest sign of support or statement of understanding of the Confederate cause has the potential to alienate African-Americans who are acutely sensitive to the topic.
Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland and a professor of political science there, said Webb’s past writings and comments on the Confederacy could dampen enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket, should he appear on it.
“Unless he is able to explain it, it would raise some questions,” Walters said.
Edward H. Sebesta, co-author of the forthcoming “Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction” (University of Texas Press), said Webb’s views express an unhealthy regard for a political system that propped up and defended slavery.
His book, in fact, will cite Webb as an example of the mainstreaming of neo-Confederacy ideas into politics, said Sebesta, a widely cited independent historical researcher and author of the Anti-Neo-Confederate blog.
“I don’t think people have thought through the implications of how his ideas have racial overtones, even if they are inadvertent,” Sebesta said.
Webb’s office declined to comment for this story.
Kristian Denny Todd, who served as communications director in Webb’s 2006 Senate campaign, said his remarks about the Confederacy should be viewed in the context of paying tribute to his Scots-Irish Southern forbears and his military sense of duty.
“He doesn’t defend the war at all or the practice of slavery. He does make arguments about why the South seceded,” said Denny Todd. “The individual Confederate soldier, for the most part, did not own slaves. They weren’t wealthy landowners. Webb simply talks about why these men — mostly poor and white — stepped up and answered the call to serve.”
The distinctions Webb makes, however, tend not to receive a full airing in the heat of political debate.
Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s praise for Southern Partisan magazine, a journal sympathetic to the Confederate cause, helped delay his confirmation early in the Bush administration.
Other issues related to the Confederate legacy have proved equally thorny for politicians on both sides of the aisle. Questions surrounding the Confederate flag contributed to the defeat of Gov. David Beasley (R-S.C.) in 1998 and Gov. Roy Barnes (D-Ga.) in 2002.
In the 2004 Democratic presidential primary campaign, Democratic candidates awkwardly struggled with an NAACP-led economic boycott of South Carolina that was designed to force the removal of a Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds. Later in the campaign, Democrat Howard Dean drew criticism for claiming that he wanted to be the “candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.”
Four years earlier, in his first presidential run, Sen. John McCain wavered about the Confederate flag removal issue in South Carolina but later apologized for his equivocation. In advance of the South Carolina primary this year, he issued a full-throated call to take down the divisive symbol, joining the Democratic presidential candidates who took the same position.
Webb’s comments about the Confederacy already received some airing during his successful 2006 upset victory over then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), when a smattering of news outlets and blogs noted his past statements and writing about the Civil War era.
Most prominent was a May 2006 Richmond Times-Dispatch article revisiting Webb’s Confederate Memorial speech, which ran about a month before Webb’s Democratic primary victory and proved to be a one-day story.
In a different context, Webb’s record might very well have made a bigger splash. But it was largely overshadowed by other developments. At the time, it was widely perceived that Webb had more damaging exposure from his 1979 Washingtonian magazine article titled “Women Can’t Fight,” in which Webb, an ex-Marine, described one of the Naval Academy’s coed dorms as “a horny woman’s dream” and argued against allowing women to take combat roles.
Then the New Republic and other news organizations ran stories suggesting that Allen had his own racial insensitivity problems, featuring recollections by long-ago acquaintances of racial slurs, a noose that hung in his law office and a high school fascination with Confederate paraphernalia that continued into adulthood.
Webb generally remained silent during Allen’s Confederacy controversy, focusing instead on the Republican’s support for the Iraq war and other issues. Three months later, Allen’s caught-on-vieo reference to a Webb campaign volunteer as “macaca” took center stage and set in place a campaign narrative that dominated media coverage until his narrow defeat.
Webb won overwhelming support from black voters — 85 percent — which accounted for 16 percent of the total vote, according to exit polls.