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Era of civility off to rude start
Scripps Howard News Service


November 30, 2006
Thursday PM

In the spirit of cooperation pledged by both sides to tackle Iraq and other major problems, the newly elected senator from Virginia already has "dissed" the president of the United States in the White House and made it clear he will be his own man no matter what his Democratic colleagues want.

That's about the only way to interpret James Webb's reported disrespectful remarks to President Bush at a White House reception and his boorish behavior leading up to their brief encounter. The former Marine and Navy secretary made it abundantly clear that he wanted no part of having his picture taken with the president although that is the protocol at these affairs and he punctuated that by avoiding the chief executive until Bush caught up with him and asked about his son, a Marine serving in Iraq.

According to press reports, Webb answered the president's polite inquiry by stating that the U.S. has to get out of Iraq. Bush then said that he wasn't asking about that but about the welfare of his son. It was then he was told "that's between me and my boy." Talk about no class. Even cowboy George Allen had more couth than that. Well, so much for the spirit of civility subscribed to by Webb's new colleagues.

It isn't that the good citizens of Virginia didn't know what they were getting when they gave Webb a mandate of a few hundred votes to take over from Allen. Webb, after all, has a well-honed reputation of being acerbic and has made more than a few politically incorrect statements, including the disparagement of a woman's right to attend the Naval Academy and to serve in many jobs in the military.

In fact, throughout most of his public career, Webb has been a discordant figure in clodhoppers who seems to have difficulty getting along with most people. Although he said he had not meant to be disrespectful to the office of the presidency, he didn't need a picture of him with Bush hanging on his office wall. Well, it is one thing to disagree with the president but it is quite another to lift one's leg to the institution. The rest of the world must have loved it.

Many of us disagree with the way the war has been conducted and even whether it should have been undertaken in the first place. But even the most ardent critics of the Bush administration, including the newly elected heads of the House and Senate majorities, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reed, had the good sense not to so befoul the atmosphere. Both have made exceptional gestures to try to stimulate bipartisan discussion with the White House about Iraq and other matters.

If Webb wanted nothing to do with the president, he should not have accepted the invitation to attend the reception. If he felt that being in the presence of the nation's chief executive was demeaning, but believed it was politically necessary to drink the White House punch, he should have gone through the motions politely and moved on, discarding the picture when it arrived. Perhaps his Marine son, who serves under Bush, might have liked the photo of his father with his commander-in-chief. Which brings up another question: What does his son think of his father's actions? I guarantee that my sons would have been extremely embarrassed under the circumstances. I would be disappointed if they weren't.

This situation should embarrass the voters of Virginia who should have paid more attention to the reputation of the man they were electing. There was plenty of evidence. But then they once elected a senator who, when he was labeled the dumbest man in the Senate by an obscure magazine, held a press conference to deny it. The Democrats and Virginians face some tough times with this new guy, who probably can count on being ignored by the White House for the next two years.

It certainly wasn't a propitious start for the new era of political civility. Too bad. If the nation is to meet both its domestic and foreign crises, it must start by reestablishing a respectful approach in settling differences. Most of those in the new majority seem to understand this.


Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.
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