Whatever the spinmeisters are making of this speech, it was far more than a military man stating clear opposition to the debacle in Iraq. It was a refutation of the entire Bush Presidency; and of the direction the country has been moving in for some time with bipartisan complicity. What none of the pundits seem to want to talk about is Jim Webb's populism. He speaks like a man of the people and about the issues that effect all of us, with an empathy that comes from having lived the life of an average American.
When Jim Webb spoke about taking the picture of his active-duty father to bed with him every night, I don't think there was a parent listening who didn't feel a visceral pang. I know I did. I know my husband did. We thought of our own daughter staring mystified from her car seat as he boarded a plane to Iraq. Said Webb:
I want to share with all of you a picture that I have carried with me for more than 50 years. This is my father, when he was a young Air Force captain, flying cargo planes during the Berlin Airlift. He sent us the picture from Germany, as we waited for him, back here at home. When I was a small boy, I used to take the picture to bed with me every night, because for more than three years my father was deployed, unable to live with us full-time, serving overseas or in bases where there was no family housing. I still keep it, to remind me of the sacrifices that my mother and others had to make, over and over again, as my father gladly served our country. I was proud to follow in his footsteps, serving as a Marine in Vietnam. My brother did as well, serving as a Marine helicopter pilot. My son has joined the tradition, now serving as an infantry Marine in Iraq.
But in Bush's tiny little mind, Americans sacrifice when they see that icky, old war on television.
LEHRER: Let me ask you a bottom-line question, Mr. President. If it is as important as you’ve just said - and you’ve said it many times - as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it’s that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military - the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They’re the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.
BUSH: Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we’ve got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.
Now, here in Washington when I say, “What do you mean by that?,” they say, “Well, why don’t you raise their taxes; that’ll cause there to be a sacrifice.” I strongly oppose that. If that’s the kind of sacrifice people are talking about, I’m not for it because raising taxes will hurt this growing economy. And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life’s moving on, that they’re able to make a living and send their kids to college and put more money on the table. And you know, I am interested and open-minded to the suggestion, but this is going to be -
LEHRER: Well -
BUSH: — this is like saying why don’t you make sacrifices in the Cold War? I mean, Iraq is only a part of a larger ideological struggle. But it’s a totally different kind of war, than ones we’re used to.
No, Mr. Bush. Because in this particular "ideological struggle" men and women are being killed or maimed every day in open combat, while the majority of Americans shop, watch television, and demonstrate their patriotism by slapping yellow ribbons on their SUVs. This is what it looks like when a nation sacrifices for a war effort:
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But it was not just the difference between a man who knows what it means to put your life on the line for your country and one who couldn't be bothered to show up to a "Champagne" unit stateside, while his countrymen were sinking in the big muddy. Where Webb has really distinguished himself, not only from all things Bush, but from the trend of American politics in general, is that he is a true economic populist. Last night he took on the modern-day robber barons who are transferring the nation's wealth into their pockets, with here-to-fore bipartisan support. Said Webb:
When one looks at the health of our economy, it's almost as if we are living in two different countries. Some say that things have never been better. The stock market is at an all-time high, and so are corporate profits. But these benefits are not being fairly shared. When I graduated from college, the average corporate CEO made 20 times what the average worker did; today, it's nearly 400 times. In other words, it takes the average worker more than a year to make the money that his or her boss makes in one day.
Wages and salaries for our workers are at all-time lows as a percentage of national wealth, even though the productivity of American workers is the highest in the world. Medical costs have skyrocketed. College tuition rates are off the charts. Our manufacturing base is being dismantled and sent overseas. Good American jobs are being sent along with them.
In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table. Our workers know this, through painful experience. Our white-collar professionals are beginning to understand it, as their jobs start disappearing also. And they expect, rightly, that in this age of globalization, their government has a duty to insist that their concerns be dealt with fairly in the international marketplace.
In the early days of our republic, President Andrew Jackson established an important principle of American-style democracy - that we should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street. We must recapture that spirit today.
Later in his speech he said:
Regarding the economic imbalance in our country, I am reminded of the situation President Theodore Roosevelt faced in the early days of the 20th century. America was then, as now, drifting apart along class lines. The so-called robber barons were unapologetically raking in a huge percentage of the national wealth. The dispossessed workers at the bottom were threatening revolt.
Roosevelt spoke strongly against these divisions. He told his fellow Republicans that they must set themselves "as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other." And he did something about it.
At some point, amidst the post SOTU blather, I heard Chris Matthews say something about how the three Presidents invoked by Webb were Republicans. I would point out that none of the three would likely have been comfortable in today's GOP. Not Ike who warned so presciently of the dangers of the military-industrial complex, and certainly not Roosevelt, who was first and foremost a member of the Progressive Movement. Webb, who has been both a Republican and Democrat, appears to be first and foremost a progressive populist.
Webb spoke boldly about an economy that is not serving the majority of Americans, and hinted at an agenda of bold reform, while a sitting President promised to do nothing more than rob Peter to pay Paul; offering schemes like a health care plan that will raise taxes on some working Americans and offer tax breaks to people who can't afford to take advantage of them.
Last night Jim Webb showed us the difference between a morally stunted elitist and a man who knows what life is like for people who work and serve and struggle. And he may just have shown us a glimpse of the way forward.
Tonight we are calling on this President to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way.