Wednesday, January 17, 2007

William Friedkin on James Webb

Great article by William Friedkin on Jim Webb as he knows him.

Ambush: Reflections on My Friend Jim Webb


We've known Jim since 1999 when he wrote an original screenplay called Rules of Engagement, which I directed. We remained friends in spite of numerous "creative differences" -- often heated, sometimes bitter.

I came away from that experience feeling that Jim Webb is the most complex, principled man I've ever known. He came away feeling good about what I had done with the finished film -- though he still refers to me as the only man in the country with a temper worse than his. I accept this as a compliment.

Mr. Friedkin went on to describe Webb's swearing-in, and the private party that took place that evening:
Later, in a small private room in a chic new restaurant ten blocks from Georgetown, 20 guests have gathered to celebrate, including ex-marines who served in Vietnam, and Sen. Robb and his wife Lynda.

When Sherry and I arrive we're greeted by one of Jim's legislative aides and by Lynda Robb who says, "You must be those Hollywood moguls George Allen said are Webb's real friends." "That's us," I answer, "and proud of it."

I'm introduced to Mac McGarvey, Webb's radio operator in Vietnam. Mac lost his right arm in combat. A proud, balding man with a mustache and deep Southern drawl, he was Webb's driver in the recent Senate campaign and is now his legislative liaison for Veteran Affairs.

The term "legislative liaison" is too polite a description for Mac. Tattooed above the stump that was his right arm is the phrase, "Cut along the dotted line." "He's the only man now working in the Congress who has a nipple ring," Webb says, beaming. Mac smiles and nods. When he gets up to toast Jim, words fail him. He tears up and so do we. "I love this man. I just love him..." He sits down to a round of applause.

Seated next to us is Col. Mike Wyly, a short, wiry man who was Webb's Company Commander in DELTA Company, fifth Marines. Webb was a second Lt. in the 1st Battalion.

"First thing I did with a new second 'louie,'" says Col. Wyly, "was send him out on night patrol -- wanted to see right away what he was made of. This was in May of 1969, in the An Hoa Basin. Webb's squad was ambushed by a larger North Vietnamese squad. They came under machine gun fire and I thought for sure they were gone. Next thing I hear is Lt. Webb, on this 2-way radio, reporting the exact amount of rounds his squad had expended and 'no friendly casualties.' This guy was for real."

Wyly went on: "The mistake people make with Jim -- George Allen made it, and so did George Bush -- is when they try to ambush him. Jim fights harder when he's ambushed. In the Senate campaign, every time Allen's people tried to put Jim in a hole, he fought his way out and left Allen bleeding. At the White House reception, when President Bush confronted him about his son, that was an ambush. It was a set-up, and the Bush folks made the story public, trying to make Jim out to be a hothead."

"I wasn't surprised by Jim's victory," adds Wyly. "I've long ago stopped being surprised by anything he accomplishes. I wrote him up for the Silver Star and the Navy Cross. There are a lot of men alive today because of Jim Webb."

I ask Col. Wyly what he does now.

"I'm retired but I run a ballet company up in Pittsfield, Maine. Bossov Ballet Theater -- more of a school than a performing company. We found this amazing choreographer from Russia and brought him to Maine. Last year he did a performance of The Red Shoes with these kids and it was sensational. Jim's on my board, you know."

I ask the Colonel how he went from commanding Delta Co. in Vietnam to the Bossov Ballet Co. in Pittsfield. "There are a lot of similarities between ballet and the Marine Corps," he replies. "You need discipline, dedication, and motivation to excel at either."

Tom Lehner, formerly Chuck Robb's campaign manager, now heading Webb's transition team, delivers a toast: "Two-and-a-half years ago, Jim called and said he was interested in running for the Senate against George Allen. I said, 'Okay, but it'll change your life. You'll have to do things you won't like 24/7 and the sad thing is you won't win.' He did everything opposite of what I advised him and now here he is."

Finally, Webb rises to thank everyone in the room, which he does modestly and graciously, ending with, "it will always be an honor to serve this country."

The mood of the nation is contentious, a perfect setting for Webb. "I know I'm a combative person" he says, "but what I learned in law school was how to fight with my brain." All his life he has had to re-channel his anger or be consumed by it.

I recall a passage from one of his novels, A Country Such as This: "There was a weakness in his country, in its leaders or maybe its system that had botched this thing badly, called on citizens to sacrifice then rebuked their efforts..." Webb wrote these words 7 years ago about the Korean and Vietnam wars. The old battles seem so far away, yet so near.

Ending his toast, Jim Webb smiles at his lifelong friend, Mac McGarvey. "Y'know, anyone can become a Senator. Not everyone can be a Marine."

Thank you Mr. Friedkin for this fascinating article.

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