- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 29, 2006

In this age of political cynicism, it is unremarkable that a politician would change his position on an issue, or even take conflicting positions. But Jim Webb’s transformation from the nominally conservative Republican who served as the Reagan administration’s secretary of the Navy to a left-wing Democratic Senate candidate rivals St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Divine intervention, of course, is one possibility. A more likely explanation, however, is that the public persona Mr. Webb presents is actually a fabrication, as carefully crafted as any character in the novels he has penned.

The shift is truly remarkable. He once refused to shake John Kerry’s hand, and in a 2004 USA Today editorial wrote that his 1971 Senate testimony had “defamed a generation of honorable men.” Now he trumpets Mr. Kerry’s endorsement. He once called the Clinton Administration among “the most corrupt” in modern history in one of many attacks aimed at the former president. Now he has Bill Clinton host a fundraiser. Mr. Webb served in one of the most conservative administrations in American history. Today, he has embraced the entire agenda of the Democratic Party’s far-left wing.

In fairness, Mr. Webb has remained extremely consistent on some issues. One example is his disdain for women in military service. When his 1979 article “Women Can’t Fight” and its impact on the treatment of women at the United States Naval Academy became a major campaign issue, Mr. Webb quickly countered with claims that when serving as Secretary of the Navy he “opened up more billets” (e.g. military specialties) to women than any of his predecessors. What he fails to note in heralding this accomplishment was that it occurred under duress.

The truth is that Sens. William Proxmire, William Cohen and John McCain had all informed Mr. Webb that legislation forcing the Navy to open more billets to women would be forthcoming if the action was not taken independently. Moreover, Maryland Rep. Beverly Byron had already introduced legislation (H.R. 3786) that would mandate just such changes. So, the expansion of opportunities for women was not the result of some epiphany, but rather an instance of Mr. Webb simply yielding to congressional pressure.

A perhaps more revealing indication of his true feelings at that time was his attempt to forestall construction of a Vietnam Women’s Memorial. In 1987, the addition to the existing memorial of a statue to recognize the service of women in Vietnam had become a matter of controversy. Jim Webb, then Secretary of the Navy, contacted Interior Secretary Don Hodel, saying that as a member of the administration, he wanted to discuss the proposed change. A Hodel undersecretary, Earl Gjelde, was given the job of responding to the query.

I found out about this when Mr. Hodel, who was inclined to approve the addition, called me to ask my opinion. He also asked that I call Mr. Gjelde about Mr. Webb’s call. I explained that since my mother had held ID card #1008 in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps in World War II, and my mother-in-law had been in the nurse cadet corps, I could hardly object to recognizing the wartime service of any woman. Besides, having spent several years in military hospitals, I deeply appreciated the contribution of women in uniform, particularly nurses.

When I reached Mr. Gjelde, I understood why I had been asked to make the call. He was appalled at Mr. Webb’s attitude and comments. First, Mr. Webb was incensed that Mr. Hodel had not called him back personally, arguing that since he was a service secretary, the secretary of the interior, not his deputy, should have responded. After mollifying Mr. Webb, they got to the real issue. Mr. Webb listed his reasons for opposing the change.

First, he argued, “only” (his characterization) 10,000 women served in Vietnam. Moreover, “Only” eight died. Finally, women did not serve in combat. In his typically understated fashion, Mr. Gjelde said he found the comments “inappropriate.” The question on both our minds was: Where was Mr. Webb’s arbitrary line? Would it be 25,000 serving? Or would it be 50,000 or 100,000? Would it require that at least 50 have been killed, or 100 or 1,000? While it was true that women did not carry rifles in the jungle, they dealt daily with the carnage that came with combat. This included broken and torn 19-, 20- and 21-year-old bodies, some of which would never again be whole. Further, the field hospitals and bases they served in were just as vulnerable to rocket attack as any other post. Perhaps in the macho world according to Jim Webb that sort of stress didn’t warrant recognition, but in mine it certainly did.

Ironically, Mr. Webb often noted that his second wife, a remarkable and accomplished woman, had been a military nurse in order to refute charges that he was disdainful of women in uniform. This fact makes his opposition to the women’s memorial even more revealing, and even more shameful.

Milton R. Copulos served as one of the four members of the sculpture selection panel that chose the statue added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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