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Senator Jim Webb, Choosing His Battles

U.S. Senator Jim Webb, a onetime Republican who won his Senate seat as a Democrat, has stayed clear of endorsing a candidate in the Democratic primaries. The retired Marine explains why — and talks about his disagreements with the Bush administration, the legislation he's introduced to expand benefits for Iraq War veterans, and his new book, A Time to Fight.

44:41

Other segments from the episode on May 20, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 20, 2008: Interview with Jim Webb; Review of DVD collections of British shows.

Transcript

DATE May 20, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Senator Jim Webb on his new book, "A Time To Fight" and his career
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Jim Webb, the junior senator from Virginia. Webb was elected in
2006 and soon after got a lot of attention for delivering the Democratic
response to President Bush's 2007 State of the Union address. Webb will
become the senior senator from Virginia in 2009 with the retirement of Senator
John Warner. Webb currently sits on the Senate Committees on Foreign
Relations, Armed Services and Veterans Affairs. He's one of the people being
talked about as a possible vice presidential candidate on the Democratic
ticket. Webb has described himself as a Reagan Democrat. He served in the
Reagan administration as assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the
Navy. He's one of four men currently in the Senate who fought in Vietnam.
Webb was a Marine company commander. He's also the author of six novels. His
new book is part memoir, part political analysis. It's called "A Time to
Fight: Reclaiming a Just and Fair America."

Senator Webb, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the Veterans bill that
you co-sponsored to increase the benefits of soldiers serving in Iraq and
Afghanistan to the equivalent of what they were for World War II veterans.
Give us a brief overview of why you wanted this to be your first piece of
legislation when you were elected to the Senate, and what you hope to
accomplish with it.

Senator JIM WEBB: Well, this benefit arguably should have been in place
before I arrived at the Senate, and I had been thinking about that even before
I decided to run, that the present Montgomery GI Bill for the people serving
was designed in the 1980s as a recruiting incentive for peacetime military
people, and it's not a reward for service or a transitional benefit that is
the equivalent of what these people have earned and what they need in order to
readjust back to civilian life after they have served.

So what I decided to do is a very simple concept. People keep talking about
how much they appreciate the service of everyone who's been stepping forward
since 9/11. We ought to give them the same shot at a first-class future that
we gave to people who came back from World War II. When people came back from
World War II, we paid for their tuition, we bought their books, and we gave
them a monthly stipend. And so I designed this legislation to do that. So
now we have a very comprehensive, fair bill that will be the approximate
equivalent of what people received when they came back from World War II. We
got 58 sponsors in the Senate, more than 300 sponsors in the House of
Representatives. And we need to get this done this year.

GROSS: John McCain and Lindsey Graham are two sponsors of an alternate
veterans bill, and they say, you know, and critics of your bill say that the
financial incentives should be going to keep the volunteers in the military.
They say that your bill, after three years, maximizes the benefits and that
would mean that a lot of people would have an incentive to leave the service
after three years and cash in on the benefits. So what's your response to
that?

Sen. WEBB: They're not looking at reality. No one wants to interrupt the
retention of people who desire to make the military a career. I grew up in
the military. My dad made the military a career. But the reality is that by
the time our soldiers in the Army and our Marines have finished their first
enlistment, 70 percent of those in the Marine Corps have left, 75 percent of
those in the Army have left the Army, and we're not taking care of those
people. There are a lot of people in this county who come into the military
not because they want to make it a career, but because they want to honor a
family tradition, serve their country, to do a hitch and then move on. And
given the operational tempo here, we have a strong duty to make sure that they
have a proper readjustment benefit and a good shot at a first-class future.
It is a totally separate question from the way that this has been portrayed by
Senator Graham and some others.

And with respect to retention inside the military, that other group, the 25
percent of the Army and the 30 percent of the Marine Corps who at, you know,
at least re-enlist for another term, if not making it a career, the military
itself is doing a really good job managing benefits packages for those folks.
I don't think this GI bill is going to affect retention. What it will do is
it will expand the pool of people that Department of Defense is trying to
reach for recruiting in the first place.

GROSS: Now, President Bush has made it clear he would veto the bill if it
passes. Do you think there's any chance you can override it?

Sen. WEBB: If President Bush vetoes this legislation in the form that we
have it, he will become the first president in history to veto a benefits
package for veterans. So I would say to this president that he has a very
clear choice here. He has said that this is the newest greatest generation.
He doesn't seem to have a problem when we push them so hard that many of them
are spending more time in Iraq and Afghanistan than they are at home. He
doesn't seem to have a problem when we are stop-lossing a lot of these people,
not letting them leave the military after their enlistment is complete. He
doesn't have a problem putting those kinds of demands on these people and he
should think twice before he keeps them from having the kind of benefit that
can allow them to have the future they deserve.

GROSS: At a ceremony in 2006, in which President Bush was shaking the hands
of new lawmakers, you refused to shake his hand at the ceremony. Why?

Sen. WEBB: That's not true.

GROSS: That's not true? That's what I'd read.

Sen. WEBB: No. What happened was, about a week after the election--and if
you'll recall, this was one of the most vicious, negative election campaigns
probably in history, and certainly in the history of Virginia--there were a
lot of raw emotions in the air; and they brought--during an orientation period
for a new senators they brought us to the White House. Someone came over, it
was the beginning of a reception. There was no receiving line, by the way, so
there was no situation there where we were supposed to go through and say
hello and shake the president's hand. When I was in the room, a White House
aide came over and asked if I wanted to have my picture taken with the
president, and I declined. I did it gracefully, but I declined. And then
after a speech, the president came up to me and he said some things to me, and
I said some things to him, and let's just say that we both had a bad day.

GROSS: Were these the things when he asked about your son in Iraq?

Sen. WEBB: It was a little more complicated than that. I think the--you
know, I don't need to go through this again, but the best thing that was said
about this was written by Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal when she
said that there was a discourtesy in that exchange, but it wasn't from me. At
the same time, look, I have done everything I can to patch that up in the
right sort of way, without backing away from my own views during the incident.
When my son returned from Iraq, I was invited to go over to a meeting in the
White House on national security issues, and I called the president's liaison
to the Senate, who I've known for a long time, and I said, `He wanted to know
about my son. Well, I'd like him to meet my son.' And so I brought my son to
the White House while I was going to one of these meetings. We all said
hello. We got a picture taken, and end of story.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Senator Jim Webb, Democratic
senator from Virginia. He has a new book called "A Time To Fight: Reclaiming
a Fair and Just America."

You were, in the Reagan administration, the first ever assistant secretary of
defense for reserve affairs, and you oversaw the National Guard and the
reserve programs. I read that the National Guard has only about 60 percent of
its equipment because the rest of it is overseas. Are you concerned about the
National Guard's ability to protect Americans against either natural disaster
or a terrorist attack?

Sen. WEBB: Well, the first thing to say is that when I was running the
National Guard programs in the 1980s, no one expected that they would be used
for such extensive deployments and repeated deployments as they have been
since 9/11. So it has put a great burden on the National Guard and the
Reserve.

The second thing that I would say is that, in terms of equipment, you're
seeing difficulties across the board, on the active services as well as the
Guard and the Reserve, because of the continuous operational environment and
the way that that degrades your equipment, and in many cases because of combat
actions and other accidents, you know, causes it to be destroyed. So the
equipment issue is one that cuts across a lot of different areas.

And then the third thing that I would say is that one of the reasons that I
put this new GI bill in is that I wanted to modify the entitlement provisions
for the GI bill to expand the eligibility for these Guard and Reserve people
so that they also can join in getting a better future.

GROSS: You know, we talked about your new GI bill that you introduced. You
also introduced a bill, that failed, to require congressional approval before
any military action in Iran. Do you think the Bush administration is
considering a military strike against Iran before President Bush leaves
office?

Sen. WEBB: Well, it certainly seems that it's on the table, that there are
people in the administration who would like to see that happen. The
legislation that I introduced basically said that any unilateral action
against Iran could not be justified by the congressional authority that was
given in 2002 to take military action against Iraq, that it should be
considered as a separate issue, and as a result should come to the Congress
properly as a function of the constitutional responsibilities of the Congress.

I also introduced a bill, by the way, on dwell time, going to this issue of
how hard our troops have been pushed in these deployments, basically saying
you can't send anybody back until they've had at least as long at home as they
were previously deployed, and that the historical ratio has always been two to
one. You know, I've spent all of my life around the military one way or the
other, including five years in the Pentagon, and what we are doing to these
young people right now is going to have some real downstream impact on their
lives if we don't step forward and take care of them right.

GROSS: In your book "A Time to Fight," you say that you think the career
military has been politicized along party lines, despite having prided itself
on its apolitical posture through American history. Explain what you mean.

Sen. WEBB: The United States military traditionally has stayed out of overt
politics, the active duty military. When I was growing up in the military, my
father was a career military man, he would never even tell me who he voted
for. Now, I could sometimes try to figure it out because he was a very
opinionated man, but he would--he said it was his duty as a military officer
to keep that separate, that it was his duty to be serving the political system
and so that shouldn't be on the table.

Today, because of a complicated series of events that began with the attacks
on the military during the Vietnam War, the military has become more overtly
politicized along party lines than ever before in our history. The United
States military today in its career officer ranks is probably eight to one
Republican. And, you know, I think when they're as overt as they are, it's
not particularly healthy for us.

GROSS: Yet you write that your father and his military friends felt betrayed
by the Democrats because of the naive yet arrogant way that McNamara, the
secretary of defense then, and his "wiz kids" ignored military advice as they
conducted the war in Vietnam. And you say now you think the Republican Party
has populated the Defense Department with a cast of unseemly true believers
who propelled American into an unnecessary and strategically unsound war. So
do you think that the military itself has become politicized in a way that it
hasn't been before?

Sen. WEBB: The active duty military is much more overt in its political
participation than it ever has been at any other time in my life. And as I
said, part of that is because of the unwarranted attacks on the integrity of
the military culture during the Vietnam War, which goes beyond your quote
about McNamara. You know, it's fair to say that the Democratic Party went
from being the anti-war party to being the anti-military party for a very long
time, and it lost a lot of people. It lost a lot of veterans, not just active
duty military people.

But what has happened since 9/11 in terms of the perspectives on the use of
military force and the best way to show an affirmative respect for those who
served, it's started to turn around the other way.

GROSS: Does this describe why you switched parties? You served as a
Republican in the Reagan administration, secretary of the Navy. And in 2006,
you ran and won as a Democrat representing Virginia in the Senate.

Sen. WEBB: Well, I'm basically a Reagan Democrat. I was never involved in
organized political party politics ever. I was invited to run as a Republican
for the United States Senate in 1988 when I resigned as secretary of the Navy.
I was asked to run by the Republican Senate Campaign Committee. I declined.
A year later I helped the United Mine Workers in their landmark strike down in
southwest Virginia against the Pittston Coal Company, which is not a very
traditional Republican venture.

But there are a lot of people like myself who grew up with instincts that were
more aligned with the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party, up until the
1970s, was the party of the working person. More than anything else, it was
the party of the working person in this country. And when the Democratic
Party in the 1970s moved so virulently anti-war and against the people who had
served--a lot of them, not the whole party, but a lot of the party activists
moved in that direction--and into interest group politics more than working
people politics, it lost a lot of people. And Ronald Reagan was able to bring
a lot of those people over to his side, people who wanted a strong national
defense and other sorts of things. So I was very proud to work in the Reagan
administration.

But what you saw over a period of time was the Republican Party moving into an
odd coalition between sort of the monarchists at the top and the people from
this other group, the Reagan Democrats and others, who over time simply became
manipulated by these emotional issues. And Karl Rove became sort of the
master at this, finding these divisive emotional issues that had nothing to do
with economic well-being, really. You know, the issues as well as I do.

GROSS: Just so we're all on the same page.

Sen. WEBB: When that happened...

GROSS: The issues you're talking about is, what? Gay marriage, gay rights.

Sen. WEBB: You know, God, guns, guts, gays, abortion and the flag.

GROSS: Right.

Sen. WEBB: And so I think a lot of people who had made that migration and
were not really naturally aligned with the Republican Party in terms of
economic fairness and issues of social justice kind of had a hard time, and
particularly after 9/11 when the Bush administration made such incredible
strategic blunders in moving into Iraq and how they dealt with international
terrorism. And when their ability to manage even your most basic crises like
the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people just started saying, `You know
something? They don't have anything over there.' And I finally said, `Well, I
think that it's time for me to step up and do something about the health of
our country rather than sitting back and complaining about it. And if I were
to run, then I should run as a Democrat, which is sort of where I began when I
was a young man, and try to bring some strength and health back into the
Democratic Party.'

GROSS: You think the Democratic Party should be emphasizing economic
inequities and trying to get a better deal for working people, for the middle
class. And you're critical of people within the Democratic Party who want to
emphasize things like global warming and the environment. You think that's a
more difficult...

Sen. WEBB: I don't think that's a fair thing to say. I'm not...

GROSS: Am I misinterpreting?

Sen. WEBB: I'm not critical of them because they want to emphasize that.
What I'm saying is there are people who believe that you can build a party's
platform around those issues, and the data shows otherwise. They are
important issues. I think I say it three or four times in the book. But the
gut issue that is going to bring people back to the Democratic Party is having
the courage to address the enormous disparities in income that have evolved
over the last 20 years. When I graduated from college, the average corporate
CEO made 20 times what the average worker makes. Today the average corporate
CEO makes 400 times what the average worker makes. And that's only happening
in the United States. In Japan the number is, I think, 10 times. In Germany
I think it's 11. So we have a situation here were the people who are doing
the hard work of society are seeing their way of life recede, and they need an
advocate.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Democratic Senator Jim
Webb of Virginia. He served in the Reagan administration as under secretary
of defense and secretary of the Navy. He's from a military family and was a
Marine company commander in Vietnam. He's introduced a bill in Congress that
would increase GI benefits. Webb has written several novels, as well as
nonfiction books. His new book is part memoir, part political analysis. It's
called "A Time To Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America."

You've been against the war in Iraq from the start. Your son fought in Iraq
and you served in Vietnam. When your son went to Iraq and you were opposed to
the war, how did you feel about your son risking his life to serve in a war
that you thought shouldn't have been fought in the first place?

Sen. WEBB: My family has a tradition of military service, and I said many
times when my son went, which obviously was a very difficult period, in the
middle of running for office when everyone was trying to get me to personalize
my feelings about the war based on my son, but our family's always served.
And I'm proud of him for stepping forward to serve, and I don't think his
views about Iraq were any different than mine.

GROSS: You say in your book that when you went to Vietnam in 1968, your
father, a military man, was getting disillusioned with the war in Vietnam.
Did his disillusionment affect your response to serving in Vietnam?

Sen. WEBB: No, because it's basically the same premise, that, in our family,
for many generations, when there's a war we followed a citizen soldier
tradition, and the most important thing that I could do when I went into the
Marine Corps was to provide the kind of leadership that was expected in order
to lead people who were being sent into harm's way. And that's not politics.
That's exactly what we've been talking about. The military, particularly at
that level in the military, you are implementing your country's policy. And
the war wasn't going to go away, no matter what I thought of it, just as the
Iraq war wasn't going to go away in any short period of time, no matter what
my son thought about it.

GROSS: You were opposed to the war in Iraq before it even, you know, there
was even an official discussion of it. You were asked to write an op-ed for
The Wall Street Journal, and on September 12th, you wrote an op-ed that was
never published in The Wall Street Journal in which you warned, "Do not occupy
territory. We already have terrain to defend: the US and our outposts
overseas. And we cannot afford to expand this territory in a manner that
would simply give the enemy more targets." What made you think on September
11th that the Bush administration might be heading toward occupying territory?

Sen. WEBB: I've been working on military strategy and military policy since
I was 17 years old. The first book I wrote when I was 28 years old was a book
on national strategy. With respect to the Middle East, I was a journalist in
Beirut in 1983. I saw how difficult it is to articulate your national policy
when you're on the ground in the middle five-sided, long, historical argument.
I warned against the tilt toward Iraq in 1987 when I was Secretary of the
Navy, during the Iran/Iraq war when we, through a kind of weird series of
events, tilted towards Iraq. I warned against going into Baghdad in Gulf War
I. All for the same reasons, that the United States should not be an
occupying power in that part of the world. It's just too volatile. There are
too many agendas that, you know, take over one after another.

And on 9/11 when I immediately started seeing some of the rhetoric on the
other side, I sensed that, just as in Gulf War I, this might turn into a push
to invade Iraq. And I thought, with everything that we needed to do and still
need to do in terms of bringing the world along with us on the war against
international terrorism, that we should not be moving into Iraq.

GROSS: When you ran for the Senate in 2006, you ran against George Allen.
And his campaign had leaked to the Drudge Report, to Matt Drudge, excerpts of
your novels, out of context, and then Drudge accused you of being a
pornographer and a pedophile. When you won the election, you called on
President Bush to denounce Rove-ian tactics. And I'll read your description
of the tactics from your book: "Damaging an opponent's reputation is more
important than contradicting him on the issues. Hit the other candidate where
he's perceived to be strong, cancel out his positive. Sow the seeds of
doubt." I don't think President Bush ever renounced Karl Rove's tactics. Are
you concerned that those tactics are just becoming part of the American
political playbook, that both sides are starting to use them?

Sen. WEBB: I think that those kinds of tactics are threatening to destroy
the environment in which government is supposed to function because campaigns
become so vicious that it's very hard to reach out and work across the aisle
after they're over. And also I think that, from what I'm hearing, you're
probably going to hear more of it rather than less, which is unfortunate.
I've seen John McCain stand up and say that he does not want to see these
sorts of tactics in the campaign, but you saw George Bush sort of say those
same words, too. And politics is a contact sport. There's to be expected a
lot of give and take. But the politics of deliberate personal destruction
are, I think, keeping a lot of good people from stepping forward and running.

GROSS: My guest is Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. He's written a
new book called "A Time To Fight." We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Democratic Senator Jim Webb from Virginia. He served as
secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. He opposed the war in
Iraq from the start and introduced a bill to expand GI benefits. He's written
several novels and nonfiction books. His new book is called "A Time To Fight:
Reclaiming a Just and Fair America."

Now, you're in an interesting position as a politician now because you've been
a writer. I mean, your first novel was published in 1978. You've written
several novels and nonfiction books. And as a novelist, you sometimes write
about the darker sides of life. In fact, you write in your book, "My
curiosities have taken me down some rather strange alleyways to some of the
darker, meaner corners of the world. And in that respect, when it comes to
examining any of the issues of the day, I've brought to the Senate a different
set of experiences from my colleagues." So let me start by asking you, why
have you wanted to explore those darker, meaner corners of the world?

Sen. WEBB: Well, why shouldn't I?

GROSS: Sure, I mean, and that's...

Sen. WEBB: The duty of a novelist, depending on what you write about, or the
duty of a writer is to render to your audience things that perhaps they
haven't seen in order to examine the human condition, in order to help
illuminate their understanding of how we should live our lives and how they
are living their lives and how they might be having to live their life if they
weren't tucked up reading a book in some comfortable place in a safe country.
So the great writers in history, in my view, have been the ones who have gone
out and actually lived.

I remember when I was in school--I had a mandatory engineering degree at the
naval academy, but we're allowed to pick a minor. And I took literature as my
minor. And I started reading the people that I thought were the greats,
people like Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner, and one of the things that
really jumped out at me was how few of them had a real formal education, that
if, you know, you were going to go get a PhD in literature, you basically
become an expert on a theme or on a person. But if you're going to create, if
you're going to write, you have to get out and experience life.

But human conduct, how people live, I mean, that's always fascinated me since
I was a kid. I moved so many times--I moved 30 times by the time I finished
college, and how cultures interact, how they define value systems among
themselves, how, you know, what standard of living that they have, these are
the kind of things that we don't see enough of anymore in novels.

GROSS: You know, I think for novelists it's just kind of understood that part
of what you're doing is exploring the dark recesses of the heart and the dark
things that people do and think. But in politics, you're not supposed to be
going there, you know? And it's going to be used against you in some way, in
a way that it wouldn't for a novelist that wasn't in politics.

Sen. WEBB: Well, I think what happened in my campaign is an example of that.
"Fields of Fire" is widely regarded as the classic novel of the Vietnam War,
it was the most taught piece of American literature, in college courses on
Vietnam for many years, and yet you can pull four or five sentences and
mischaracterize that as some erotic novel, etc., etc. You can pull three
sentences out of the Bible and characterize it as an erotic book. So to your
point, what you see is that if you had lived a life that is not along the
normally accepted career pathways, then you're obviously going to have these
kinds of bombs thrown at you.

GROSS: I'm not sure how many of our listeners have read your novel, so I
thought I'd ask you to read the first paragraph of chapter one from "Fields of
Fire," which is a novel largely set in Vietnam. This is your first novel,
isn't it? From 1978?

Sen. WEBB: Right.

GROSS: Would you just read the opening paragraph for us?

Sen. WEBB: OK. This was about a character named Snake getting ready to roll
a heroin addict who has staggered into a men's room--or maybe it's a woman's
room--that he's cleaning when he's working at a theater. And this is stream
of consciousness from Snake's perspective where he says, (Reading) "There he
went again. Smack man came unfocused in the middle of a word, the unformed
syllable a dribble of bubbly spit along his chin, and leaned forward, that
sudden rush of ecstasy so slow and deep it put him out. His knees bent just a
little and he stood there, motionless, styled out in a violet suit and
turquoise high-heeled shoes. He had the wave, and his hair was so perfectly
frozen into place that he seemed a mimicked sculpture of himself, standing
there all still with skag."

GROSS: I mean, I think that's pretty good writing. And let me just ask you,
that expression, "styled out," I hadn't heard that before. Is that like an
expression that you came up with or is that an expression that was used then?

Sen. WEBB: That was an expression--you know, the thing about--in every
dialect in "Fields of Fire"--there's probably about eight different ones--is
very correct to the different cultural groups and to the time. You know,
getting styled out was a term back then.

GROSS: And having written about this character who's a heroin addict, having
been exposed to that and thought about it as a novelist, has that affected
your political views about how we should handle drugs and drug addicts,
compared to how we are doing it?

Sen. WEBB: Well, I started work when I was 12 years old. I had a lot of
different jobs, I've been in a lot of different environments, moving around.
I think I've been in and out of as many different cultural and professional
areas as just about anyone in this country. And all of those experiences and
the friends and associates that I've made inform how I look at political
issues. I'm a bottom-up politician, in the sense that I view the well being
of this country from the bottom up. And so there are basic fairness issues
that come to my mind that perhaps you don't see as often as with some others.
I mean, I don't want to judge others. And I think that our incarceration
system in this country right now is just totally out of kilter.

I also say that, by the way, having been the first American journalist that
I've ever heard of that was able to get inside the Japanese prison system.
Twenty-five years ago, I spent a month going through the Japanese prison
system. And at that time, I think they had a country half our size and they
had 40,000 people in jail. We had 780,000 at that time. We now have 2.38
million people in jail.

We're doing something wrong here, and I, as much as anyone, I want to put, you
know, lock bad people up and go after the excesses that we have in terms of,
particularly, gang activity in our country. But the way we've approached some
of these other issues, I think is not healthy to our society. I've held
hearings on it in the Joint Economic Committee, I'm holding another hearing in
June, specifically on the issue of drugs in America. And I think we need to
try to find answers.

GROSS: Give us one example of what you'd like to change in terms of how the
judicial system treats drugs now.

Sen. WEBB: Well, I think we're locking way too many people up for
possession. We've got good numbers on that in the book. I think we need to
move more toward drugs courts. I think we need to come to the realization
that drug addiction itself isn't a crime anymore than alcoholism is a crime.
It's a problem that we need to approach and we need to solve. And so there's
a whole universe of issues that have to be addressed before I would come up
and say `this is exactly the way that I want to go with it in terms of
imprisonment,' but we are on the wrong track. I think we need to agree on
that.

GROSS: My guest is Senator Jim Webb, Democrat from Virginia. His new book is
called "A Time To Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America."

A lot of people are talking, as you know, that you're a possible contender for
the vice presidential running mate in the Democratic Party, so--I know you've
said that if you were asked, it'd be a mistake. It's not something you want
to do. But if you were asked, would you accept?

Sen. WEBB: Well, you know, I think this is something people are having a lot
of fun with, with a lot of people other than myself. You know, the vice
presidential sweepstakes seem to be the next logical step after the
nominations are secured. But I like what I'm doing in the Senate. I really
haven't had a minute to think about this other stuff. I haven't had a
conversation with Barack Obama or with Hillary Clinton on anything like that,
and my political prototype, the way that I, in terms of recent experience,
anyway, is Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was able to combine an intellectual
career with a government career. And I'm principally a writer. That's one
reason that I decided to go ahead and write this book is that one of the great
contributions I think I can make in terms of how to solve our problems is
sitting down and participating in the votes and the rest of it, but trying to
show the nuance and the sort of concerns that should propel us into action.
And the Senate is a good place to do that.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting with all the things you've done in your
career from, you know, fighting in Vietnam, being secretary of the Navy,
heading the National Guard and the Reserves, being a senator, you still
consider yourself primarily a writer. Is that just like your orientation? Do
you know what I'm saying, like some people are just--they're writers.

Sen. WEBB: Well, I had never thought that...

GROSS: There's always part of their mind standing back and describing
something.

Sen. WEBB: Well, I had never thought that when I was young that I would end
up as a writer. But I think that my career really has been in writing, and
writing defines me, that the process of writing is the same analytical process
that I use in making decisions in the Senate. That's one reason, for
instance, when you asked me about drugs and incarceration, I'm able to take,
because there's six-year terms in the Senate, as opposed to two years in the
House, I'm able to take some of these complex issues and deal with them the
same way you do as a writer, which is you think about them, you interview
people, you take your time in terms of coming to a conclusion, but then when
you write it, you know you have to live with it. And so I basically am, in my
persona, a writer, somebody who likes to think deeply and, you know, go on the
record in as clear a way as I can.

GROSS: You're a superdelegate, but you haven't endorsed anybody yet. Will
you before the primaries end? Do you definitely plan on sending it in?

Sen. WEBB: I don't--no, I don't see anything useful. I declined to endorse
basically out of my respect for both of the candidates. I think that they
both could be strong presidents, and I think they both could be elected. So
once I declined to endorse in Virginia, you know, I just believe that both of
these candidates have put so much time, effort, and money into making their
case out there to the American people that, out of respect, I'm just not going
to endorse them until after the primaries are over.

GROSS: Well, Senator Webb, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Sen. WEBB: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Jim Webb is a Democratic senator from Virginia. His new book is
called "A Time To Fight: Reclaiming a Just and Fair America."

Coming up, British TV shows you can watch on DVD. Some of the programs have
made it to American television, others haven't. Our TV critic David Bianculli
will have a review. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: David Bianculli reviews DVD collections of British shows
TERRY GROSS, host:

When prime time television was interrupted by the writers' strike, our TV
critic David Bianculli filled the time by watching classic and recent series
on DVD. Now that the strike is over, he's still doing the same thing.

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: Viewing levels for most prime time broadcast TV series
have dropped significantly since the writers' strike began. And it's no
mystery why. When favorite shows disappeared, audiences turned elsewhere--to
cable, to the Internet, even to DVD. And once you begin digging deeply into
what's out there on home video, there's almost no reason to come up for air.
Lately, I've been indulging specific passions and entertaining myself by
programing my own sort of themed TV festivals. My latest kick, shows from
England. Some of them are DVD releases of programs that have been televised
here already, like "State of Play," the perfect, amazingly exciting miniseries
drama that was one of 2003's TV highlights. It's out on DVD now from BBC
Video, and its story of political intrigue, mysterious deaths and persistent
journalists is a nonstop thriller. David Morrissey and Bill Nighy star, and
it's now being remade into an American movie. But watch the original now.
Its depiction of a modern newspaper newsroom is better than anything I've seen
on TV, better than the last season of "The Wire," and even better than Lou
Grant.

Other DVD sets of programs that have been shown in America already include the
massive BBC natural history collection, a whopper of a set that features four
nature documentary series hosted by Sir David Attenborough. "Planet Earth" is
here and "The Blue Planet" and "The Life of Mammals" and a particular
favorite, "The Life of Birds."

Then, from Acorn Media, there's "Suburban Shootout," a sort of a comedy cross
between "The Sopranos" and "Desperate Housewives." That was shown on cable's
Oxygen network, and it too is being remade with an American spin. But the
original is just fine, thanks.

But as a TV critic, I'm most excited about the stuff that has never been
televised here in the states and which gives us glimpses of favorite
performers at previous points in their career. And here's where I'm thrilled
to say that if you're a fan of Hugh Laurie or of Helen Mirren, you're really
in luck. Hugh Laurie is on view in another Acorn Media release,
"Fortysomething," which he made in 2003, just before crossing the Atlantic to
star in "House" for Fox. It's a six-part, six-hour comedy series in which he
plays Paul, a guy with a midlife crisis. His wife basically ignores him, his
grown sons are having a lot more sex than he is, and everything Paul touches
seem to go wrong.

In this scene, the parents of one of his son's girlfriends show up
unannounced, while the young woman in question is having sex upstairs with
another of Paul's sons. It's a farcical situation that reminds me a lot of
"Fawlty Towers," just as Laurie's portrayal reminds me a lot of John Cleese.

(Soundbite of "Fortysomething")

(Soundbite of door closing)

Mr. HUGH LAURIE: (As Paul) So what's the problem?

Ms. FENELLA NORMAN: (As Mrs. Proek) The problem is your other son, Daniel.

Mr. BOB MASON: (As Mr. Proek) We have grown very fond of Rory. Rory is a
gentleman, but Daniel...

Ms. NORMAN: (As Mrs. Proek) We think he may be toying with Laura's
affections.

Mr. LAURIE: (As Paul) Oh, I doubt that very much.

(Soundbite of woman wailing)

Ms. NORMAN: (As Mrs. Proek) What's that noise?

(Soundbite of woman grunting rhythmically)

Mr. LAURIE: (As Paul) Hot water pipes. Bloody nuisance. Why don't we go
through to the kitchen, hm?

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: And then, finally, there's the motherlode. "Helen Mirren at
the BBC," a BBC video collection of nine TV productions all featuring Mirren
from 1974 to 1982. Almost all of them are brand-new to US viewers, and just
watching Helen Mirren grow as an actress here is a thrill. In the first TV
play, 1974's "The Changeling," she's dressed and made up like a royal tart,
and she plays one, too, using her feminine wiles to persuade a detested
underling to commit murder on her behalf. In 1975's "The Apple Cart," based
on the play by George Bernard Shaw, she's a sexy, saucy mistress with a tongue
as sharp as her wardrobe. And so it goes, from playing the devoted mistress
of Benito Mussolini in 1975's "Caesar and Claretta" to the innocent bride in
1977's "The Country Wife."

But the most precious jewel of all here is something that is an unusual
delicate treasure, "Blue Remembered Hills," a daring 1979 teleplay by Dennis
Potter. Potter, who wrote "Pennies from Heaven" and "The Singing Detective,"
is my favorite TV writer of all time. In this play, he remembers his
childhood friends and fantasies in England's remote Forest of Dean and shows
both the charm and cruelty of childhood by having adult actors playing the
children's roles. The adults are playing at acting children, just as the
children they're playing are playing at acting adults, as in this scene, when
Helen Mirren as Angela puts her baby doll into its pretend crib while other
friends watch and join in.

(Soundbite of "Blue Remembered Hills")

Ms. HELEN MIRREN: (As Angela) Put your nightie on, and I'm going to give you
a new nappy, and then I'm going to put you to bed. So you've got to go to
sleep now. And don't wake me up. I've given you your supper. You've had
your supper. Just be a good girl and go to sleep. Now, now, no. Go a sleep.
Dinah! Oh, you are a naughty, naughty, naughty little bubby.

Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) Smack her one in the chops, Angela.
That'll keep her quiet.

Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) No. No, you can't do that. No
smacking. Not in my house.

Ms. MIRREN: (As Angela) There, there, there. Mummy is with you then.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: Weird? Sure. Different? Unquestionably. Fascinating? To
me, absolutely. And that's why, when regular TV lets me down, imported TV on
DVD brings me right back up.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for Broadcasting & Cable magazine and for
tvworthwatching.com.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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