September 19, 2006
The Senate race in my home state of Virginia between incumbent Republican George Allen and his Democratic opponent, former Reagan Navy Secretary James Webb, has gotten ugly even by the rather low standards of American politics.
Unless you’ve been vacationing on Mars (or at least not reading the blogs or the Washington Post) you’re aware of the flap over the Macaca incident, which I discussed in these pages a month ago. The combination of a video and the careful currying of friendly blogs and a willing press corps by the Webb campaign and ineptitude at spin control on part of the Allen campaign turned a silly off-the-cuff remark into a scandal that might oust a Senator previously thought not only to be a shoe-in for re-election, but a serious contender for the presidency two years hence.
In addition to making inroads at defusing the incident, the Allen team has decided to fight fire with fire. Jon Henke, Allen’s New Media Coordinator, has a post at the campaign website detailing several comments made by Webb which are dismissive of women in the military:
- “And I have never met a woman, including the dozens of female midshipmen I encountered during my recent semester as a professor at the Naval Academy, whom I would trust to provide those men with combat leadership.”
- “Many women appear to be having problems with their sexuality…What kind of woman would seek out the Academy routine?”
- “What the whole world may not know is that women did not attain these positions in the same way that men historically have…Women will not be leading men inside the brigade this year. They will be managing them, buttressed by the officers who hurried them along. And the morale of the brigade will demonstrate this distinction far better than this article ever could.”
Outrageous, right? Surely, more serious than calling the opponent’s cameraman a funny name that’s a racial slur in some other country. And worse than wearing a Confederate pin as a high schooler?
The thing is, though, they’re all from a single interview given to the Washingtonian magazine. In November 1979. For the mathematically challenged, that’s almost 27 years ago.
As startling as they look in print now, those views were the norm among the male warrior class at the time. Indeed, a not insignificant number still hold them, although they’d be much more reticent about sharing them. The Naval Academy had, along with its counterparts in the other Services, been forced to admit women only in 1976. The move prompted the resignation of several senior officers, including the superintendent at West Point.
The Classes of 1979 at each of three service academies referred to themselves and were revered by their immediate successors as The Last Class with Balls and legend has it that they had those initials carved inside their class rings. They had just thrown their caps in the air a few months before Webb made those remarks and the first female graduates were still months away.
I can personally attest that such things were uttered routinely at West Point in the mid-1980s by officers and cadets alike. Indeed, I said things at least as stupid myself on more than one occasion. That’s just how things were in those days. The barracks, like a football looker room, was a macho culture and, indeed, perhaps even misogynistic by today’s standards.
My guess is that Webb has changed his views over time, just as I have, as the evidence has mounted that women have adapted to and excelled at the challenges of flying jets in combat, serving aboard aircraft carriers, and manning the posts as military police officers under hostile fire.
Perhaps more damning is a 1996 speech Webb gave to the Naval Institute, in which he declared, “Tailhook should have been a three or maybe five-day story.” Unfortunately, we are not provided context for that remark. Webb may have been talking tactics — it would have blown away if the Navy brass had shown better leadership in handling it. In any case, the Tailhook scandal, like Webb’s Washingtonian article, was a reflection of the extant culture.
Anyway, that is a particularly ironic quote for the Allen campaign to highlight given that their defenders — myself included — have said much the same thing about the Macaca nonsense.
Team Allen’s dredging up of these quotes to change the subject is understandable, especially given that it was Webb’s cameraman who caught the incident on video and the Webb campaign that put it on YouTube and did such an expert job of fanning the flames. And the Webb campaign doesn’t exactly get a lot of points for allowing supporters to put up videos implying that Allen is a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s also fair to point out that Webb’s Democratic primary opponent, Harris Miller made similar charges.
Still, enough is enough. Allen and Webb are honorable men who have devoted years to serving the public. I’m quite confident that neither is a racist or a misogynist.
Instead of trying to tear the other man down, why not try instead to campaign on doing what’s right for Virginia and the United States of America? Given their honest and legitimate disagreement on a whole range of issues, not least of which is the ongoing war in Iraq, that shouldn’t be too difficult.