This book would have been better entitled “A Time to Think.”  It contains some good thinking but not much fight.  Doubtless the author and publisher knew that Fighting is a better sell than Thinking.

Barack Obama will have chosen his running mate by the time this review reaches readers.  At the time of writing there has been some speculation that James Webb, the maverick new Democratic senator from Virginia, might be Obama’s choice.  If so, and if he were to accept, Webb would betray himself and everything that his life has meant.

Webb is a man of Southern pioneer stock (the only kind of Old American left these days).  A Marine officer combat veteran.  A Republican Defense Department official who resigned on a matter of principle and who, instead of taking the normal gravy train to the industry side of the military-industrial complex, became a writer of books, including a Vietnam War novel of high merit.  A politician who can actually think unprefabricated thoughts and express them with clarity rather than obfuscation, whose first impulse incredibly appears to be to search out what is right and true and in the interests of the people rather than what is personally profitable.

Ticket balancing would be stretched beyond credibility with Webb and Obama, the latter being the epitome of affirmative action, imperial chic, hot marketing, and Wall Street respectability, even though Webb believes—and it is so tempting to grasp at the delusion that he might be on to something—that there is potential for the Democratic Party to adapt to meet the real problems of the day.  The Republican or Stupid Party has never had much honesty, vision, or adaptability (except as to packaging).  The Democrats, as Webb puts it, are in thrall to the social issues and have abandoned their historic representation of us plain folks as well as seriously offended us.  The plain folks have thus presented the Republican Party with a great marketing target, changing its sales pitch though not its agenda, which has always been the respectable servicing of corporations and the less intelligent political aspirants.  Somehow, the Democrats are to be persuaded to abandon their embrace of moral degeneracy and once more become champions of the workers.

Webb’s description of the present unprecedented and perilous condition of the American polity is original (for a politician), right on target, argued with conviction, and convincing in chapter and verse: the ongoing proletarianization of the American middle class; the canonization of greed and routine government capitulation to the desires of international capital (privatization of profit and socialization of risk); the puerile failure to develop a genuine foreign policy since the end of the Cold War; the failure of courage and honor among the high military brass resulting in senseless military adventures in “a no-win region.”  And, worst of all, these critical matters are not even mentioned in the canned discourse of the noble leaders of our two parties so dedicated to the welfare of We the People.

Senator Webb has as fine a diagnosis of our ills as we can hope for.  Unfortunately, he comes up lame in the matter of a cure.  All he has to offer is a Reaganesque, Marine Corps pep talk.  He harbors the quaint belief that the Constitution is still operative.  He thinks that “our problems are not systemic,” that we can-do Americans just need to “find good leaders and hold them accountable.”  As to how this is to be accomplished, he does not say.   In other words, he thinks our ills result from wrong attitudes and decisions.  He gives no credit to the evidence that they reflect a condition of mind and soul that must inexorably lead to the imperialization of a formerly republican society.

Webb is the author of a popular (and rather misguided) history book on the Scots-Irish contribution to America.  Let me therefore quote the wisdom of another fighting Scots-Irishman, John C. Calhoun, who in 1844 wrote Orestes Brownson about the two-party system:

The first step, towards any effectual reform, is to put down and disgrace party machinery & management.  No devise ever was adopted better calculated to gull the community; to put down all individuality & manliness of feeling, & keep the people in ignorance.

It is good to know that there is one senator who can’t be bought, but one is not nearly enough.


[A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America, by Sen. Jim Webb (New York: Broadway Books) 255 pp., $24.95]