Jim Webb Is No Historian (but so what)

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The Politico has a feature on Senator Jim Webb’s Confederate Heritage roots that is worth reading
.  I guess this is what happens when you become a potential vice-presidential candidate.  There is nothing particularly new in terms of the views expressed, especially for those of you who are familiar with Webb’s heritage studies.  We learn that Webb admires Robert E. Lee and has some choice words for those who would besmirch his good name:

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…. 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.

And it wouldn’t be complete without the standard account justifying secession:

The states that had joined the Union after the Revolution considered themselves independent political entities, much like the countries of Europe do today…. 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

Yada, Yada, Yada, Yada… O.K…I get it.  There is nothing surprising about such views as they are the standard stock phrases that emanate from certain quarters.  The website also tried to make political hay out of a 1990 speech that Webb presented at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.  Again, there is nothing surprising in it:

And so I am here, with you today, to remember. And to honor an army that rose like a sudden wind out of the little towns and scattered farms of a yet unconquered wilderness. That drew 750,000 soldiers from a population base of only five million-less than the current population of Virginia alone. That fought with squirrel rifles and cold steel against a much larger and more modern force. That saw 60 percent of its soldiers become casualties, some 256,000 of them dead. That gave every ounce of courage and loyalty to a leadership it trusted and respected, and then laid down its arms in an instant when that leadership decided that enough was enough. That returned to a devastated land and a military occupation. That endured the bitter humiliation of Reconstruction and an economic alienation from the rest of this nation which continued for fully a century, affecting white and black alike.

Open up Webb’s high school history text and I guarantee that you will find a sentence that reflects his referencing of Reconstruction as “bitter humiliation”.  As in the case with his earlier comments they are standard stock.  It’s a shame that Webb reduces further inquiry as stemming from nefarious motives.  I assume Webb is an intelligent man; what does he see when he looks closely at the Confederate Memorial’s friezes?  Is this really just a monument to the common Confederate soldier? Is there really nothing more to think about given that it was Woodrow Wilson who addressed the audience at the unveiling of the monument in 1914 and who ordered federal office buildings to segregate employees along racial lines.

We could allow Politico to suck us into a silly debate about Webb’s views on history, but I am not going to make too much about the fact that he is not a historian and has little to teach me about how we as Americans remember the past.  To tell you the truth, I am much more interested in his proposed legislation that would offer full college tuition to those military personnel who serve three years and which is being resisted by the Bush administration and other Republicans in Congress.

4 comments… add one

  • Heather Jun 11, 2008

    I just saw Webb being interviewed on CNN this morning, and when he was pressed on the same issue, his defense was that he *was* a historian and was only going by the “facts.” I agree that it’s ultimately kind of a “so what.” It is, however, sad that if there’s even a rumor that a politician might be offered a high-ranking Executive post, all of the sudden its open season on everything that person ever said or wrote. I don’t want Jim Webb to be VP (we need all the Democrats we can get in the Virginia delegation!), but I wouldn’t want him to be bumped just because he’s held some retro views on Confederate history or women in the military.

  • John Maass Jun 11, 2008

    Kevin: you are being too kind to Webb. “The Nazification of the Confederacy???” Wow. JM

  • toby Jun 11, 2008

    As a European who lives in a European Union, I could tell Mr Webb that the American States were nothing like “the European States of today”. So Pennsylvania and Maryland were as different and divergent as France and Spain or Germany and Poland?

    This is nonsense, and Mr Webb will be a poor choice as a VP if his grasp on historical and current reality is that poor.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 11, 2008

    Heather, — I agree that we have become overly sensitive of late. It’s important to keep in mind that Webb is not doing history; rather, he is regurgitating the standard lines from within the heritage culture. We can interpret it for its racial overtones, but to what end? I received an email this morning from someone who suggested that the title of his last book, _Born Fighting_ is meant to point out the inferiority of other groups.

    John, — I assume that Webb is making the standard point that certain groups intend to demonize all things Confederate.

    Toby, — It’s a tortured comparison indeed.

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