It's hard to see Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) as much of a partisan. As he wraps up his first and only term in the Senate, the centrist Democrat hasn't developed a reputation for being especially ideological; he doesn't seem to care for the usual political games; and he's generally been a non-presence when it comes to hitting the campaign trail, even for his allies.
So when Webb appeared alongside President Obama in Virginia Beach yesterday, it raised eyebrows. When the senator delivered a blistering, almost angry critique of Mitt Romney, it was even more surprising.
Introducing President Obama in Virginia Beach, retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), condemned Mitt Romney for failing to mention veterans or the military in his GOP convention speech.
The omission was all the more damning, Webb suggested, because Romney is of an age where he might have served in Vietnam but did not.
"If nothing else, at least mention some word of thanks and respect when a presidential candidate who is their generational peer makes a speech," said Webb, a former Navy secretary and decorated Marine who served in Vietnam. Romney was exempted from the draft, first as a student and then as a missionary.
"This was a time when every American male was eligible to be drafted. People made choices," Webb said. "Those among us who stepped forward to face the harsh unknowns did so with the belief that their service would be honored."
Webb proceeded to connect Romney's indifference to national security to the Republican's infamous "47 percent" remarks, in which he indirectly suggested veterans who rely on benefits are lazy parasites, dependent on government handouts. "In receiving veterans benefits they are not takers -- they are givers," Webb said.
But it was of particular interest to see the senator reflect on the Vietnam War era, and the decisions made at the time. The Romney campaign released a photograph this week of Romney in 1968, laying on a French beach alongside a giant "I Love Ann" sign he'd drawn for his future wife in the sand. It's a nice photo, and some wondered why Team Romney hadn't released it sooner, perhaps to help "humanize" the widely-disliked candidate.
The answer, I suspect, is the historical context -- while Romney was writing love letters in French beaches in 1968, Jim Webb and a whole lot of other men were on a very different foreign soil, engaged in a very different activity.
And though it hasn't been a campaign issue, Webb seemed eager to remind folks' memories yesterday.
Though the emotion of the delivery may not come through in the transcript, take a look at these remarks Webb made yesterday -- in a part of Virginia home to large veteran population -- before introducing the president.
"Governor Romney and I are about the same age. Like millions of others in our generation we came to adulthood facing the harsh realities of the Vietnam War. 2.7 million in our age group went to Vietnam, a war which eventually took the lives of 58,000 young Americans and cost another 300,000 wounded. The Marine Corps lost 100,000 killed or wounded in that war. During the year I was in Vietnam, 1969, our country lost twice as many dead as we have lost in Iraq and Afghanistan combined over the past ten years of war. 1968 was worse. 1967 was about the same. Not a day goes by when I do not think about the young Marines I was privileged to lead.
"This was a time of conscription, where every American male was eligible to be drafted. People made choices about how to deal with the draft, and about military service. I have never envied or resented any of the choices that were made as long as they were done within the law. But those among us who stepped forward to face the harsh unknowns and the lifelong changes that can come from combat did so with the belief that their service would be honored, and that our leaders would, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, care for those who had borne the battle, and for their widows and their children.
"Those young Marines that I led have grown older now. They've lived lives of courage, both in combat and after their return, where many of them were derided by their own peers for having served. That was a long time ago. They are not bitter. They know what they did. But in receiving veterans' benefits, they are not takers. They were givers, in the ultimate sense of that word. There is a saying among war veterans: 'All gave some, some gave all.' This is not a culture of dependency. It is a part of a long tradition that gave this country its freedom and independence. They paid, some with their lives, some through wounds and disabilities, some through their emotional scars, some through the lost opportunities and delayed entry into civilian careers which had already begun for many of their peers who did not serve.
"And not only did they pay. They will not say this, so I will say it for them. They are owed, if nothing else, at least a mention, some word of thanks and respect, when a presidential candidate who is their generational peer makes a speech accepting his party's nomination to be Commander in Chief. And they are owed much more than that -- a guarantee that we will never betray the commitment that we made to them and to their loved ones."
To put it mildly, this was not a standard introduction to a presidential appearance.
We haven't talked about this since June, but there are legitimate, unanswered questions about Romney from that era, and there's some evidence to suggest the Republican has been far from honest with the public about his actions.