There’s a lot to admire about Jim Webb. He’s a bonafide war hero who parlayed his wartime experiences into a successful career as a novelist and movie producer that made him millions. He even managed to wrangle a load of Republican political appointments to enhance his stature.
On paper he looks good. Among the accomplishments his campaign bio trumpets was that: “In 1982 he first proposed, then led the fight for, including an African American soldier in the memorial statue that now graces the Vietnam Veterans memorial on the National Mall.”
Impressive, if true, but it isn’t. I know, because I was there. Instead, like a crinoline-swathed antebellum debutant attending her first Cotillion, Mr. Webb came to the party late and left early. His claim to have “first proposed” an African American figure is made up of whole cloth.
It was the sculptor, Frederick Hart, who chose to include an African American figure, not Mr. Webb or anyone else. Moreover, there was no “fight” over placing an African American image on the Mall. Rather there was a brief dispute between Mr. Webb and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) Chairman Jack Wheeler about the number of figures in the sculpture. I was able to resolve the dispute with a call to the VVMF’s President and founder, Jan Scruggs who immediately overruled Mr. Wheeler. So if anyone other than Mr. Hart deserves credit, it was our erstwhile opponent, Mr. Scruggs who was the hero of the piece.
But it is not just in regard to the inclusion of an African American in the statue that Mr. Webb has misstated his role.
He speaks of his “leadership” in the fight to modify the memorial. This, too, doesn’t square with the facts.
The first person to raise the questions about the memorial was Tom Carhart, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran. His testimony at an October 13, 1981 Fine Arts Commission hearing was the first public expression of veterans’ concerns regarding the design.
Initially, Mr. Carhart’s effort seemed doomed. He had no particular political connections and was something of a political naif. But by luck, I encountered Mr. Carhart at a meeting on Capitol Hill where he raised the issue. I brought him back to my office at the Heritage Foundation and immediately obtained a carte blanche to help him.
In short order an ad hoc committee was organized to write editorials, lobby Congress and raise public awareness. We hoped VVMF would at least meet to discuss the design.
And where was Jim Webb during this critical period? Still on the advisory board of the VVMF, “working on the inside.”
It was two months before Mr. Webb finally joined the fight — sort of. He published an editorial critical of the design in the Wall Street Journal on December 18th, carefully distancing himself from the conservative opposition — us.
Meanwhile with the help of Sen. John Warner we arranged a series of meetings aimed at achieving a compromise. I invited Mr. Webb to attend, but he demurred, saying he was afraid his participation would hurt sales of an upcoming book and took an overseas writing assignment instead.
At this point, we also realized the VVMF was stalling us and needed some sort of leverage. But with all their permits in place, there seemed little to do. Fortunately I knew Interior Secretary James Watt, whose approval was required — but had been given. I called him at home to ask if he could find a way to reconsider. He called me back a few hours later saying he had found a loophole and would withdraw his approval. This act gave us the leverage we needed to reach an agreement to empanel a group to select a statue that would be added.
Mr. Webb says he instigated the call to Mr. Watt. But I was the one who made it and can say Mr. Webb had nothing to do with it.
There was one problem. VVMF was unwilling to have Mr. Carhart on the selection panel. Mr. Carhart suggested Mr. Webb as an acceptable alternative, and he was appointed.
Soon he was claiming to be the “leader” of the effort, never acknowledging the critical role of people like Mr. Carhart. Yet, although unresolved issues remained even after the statue was accepted, Mr. Webb jumped ship. He had gained what he wanted and was ready to move on.
While this is not the only example of Mr. Webb’s shameless self-promotion, more than any other, it shows his true nature. He tries to portray himself as another George Washington, but he’s really another Huey Long.
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.