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Jim Webb Says No Greater Responsibility than being Commander in Chief

Jim Webb official 110th Congress photo

These are the remarks, as delivered, by former US Secretary of the Navy, and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb at the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Dinner, July 17, 2015.

Thank you very much. Well, I have to say I had the pleasure of serving with Bernie. We were elected on the same, in the same campaign cycle, and I’ve followed him many times on the Senate floor. Bernie you always fire me up. So, I’m here to turn the lights out tonight, folks. And I appreciate the opportunity, invitation to be here, and this is the center of where we need to change America, right here in the Democratic Party. It’s been amazing to see the energy here tonight. After what was just said, I would like to ask those who’ve served our country to stand and be recognized, if we might? One of the great moments in my life, in my professional life, [was] when we were able to pass the post 9-11 GI Bill. I wrote it with legislative counsel before I was sworn-in in the Senate. I introduced it on the first day I was a senator. There were a lot of people who thought we would not be able to pass this, actually the most comprehensive veteran’s legislation since World War II. But we built a prototype. And I would like people to consider this when we’re talking about those of us who would like to be your President. We built a prototype, a leadership prototype, in the Senate, on a bi-partisan commission, within 16 months, over the objection of the Bush Administration, to the last day of our vote. We passed this bill. And since that time, more than a million of our post 9-11 veterans have been able to have the kind of education that Bernie Sanders just talked about. Get your tuition paid for. Buy your books. Pay your fees. Give you a monthly stipend, and give you a true first class shot at the future.

I also was noticing when I was looking at the program tonight that on the supporters mentioned on the back page, I think about ten of them are from organized labor. And I know there are a lot of people who are here tonight from organized labor. I’d like to say, I’m very proud of the fact that, I believe I’m the only statewide candidate in the history of Virginia, who walked a union picket line during the campaign. Those of you who know Virginia know the risk that was involved in that. I’m also the only statewide candidate ever elected to office with a union card, two purple hearts and three tattoos. We see so much demonizing of organized labor these days. And when I look at what we would probably consider the most successful economic system today in the world, if you want to measure it by the balance of payment and the strength of the industries is Germany. Germany actually has higher balance of trade, on average, than China does. And if you look at their corporate boards they have for many, many years had organized labor as members of their corporate boards. We need to get the message out to America that organized labor is not the enemy. It is the friend of the working people. It is the voice. It is the way to start turning these economic fairness issues around.

You know, we’ve got a lot of problems. We got a lot of problems in our country. We’ve heard eloquent remarks tonight about those problems. And I would like to ask you to consider here tonight, what would you want in a President in order to start turning these issues around again? And I would suggest that first of all, we should have a President who can articulate the values of the Democratic Party and work at the same time across party lines, achieving bipartisan solutions and moving the country forward in a way that we govern. We’ve had it in the past. We can have it again. I believe that I can do that. Bernie Sanders just mentioned criminal justice, and the fact that the President this week visited a federal prison and actually had an amnesty program for some people who had been convicted of, unfairly in terms of sentencing, long sentences. I would like to say when I ran for the Senate I started talking about the need for this country to solve our broken criminal justice system. I had political advisors at that time were telling me that I was committing suicide, political suicide in Virginia. We stuck on those issues. We held two years of hearings when I got to the Senate on how to fix the system holistically. We put a piece of legislation forward in terms of creating a commission that would examine all of the different intersecting holistic issues that have affected our criminal justice system. We worked from our office. We got buy-in from a hundred different stakeholders across the country in supporting this, including also Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, and the American Bar Association, and organizations all the way from the National Sheriffs’ Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police to the ACLU, and the Marijuana Project. I think it’s probably the only bill in the history of the Senate where the Marijuana Project and the National Sheriffs’ Association both were on it. We lost on the Senate floor. We got 57 votes. It was filibustered. But I also raised this issue with our President in 2011 after we lost on the Senate floor. And I suggested that for an 18 month commission for $14 million he could put that in an Executive Order and we could truly bring the best minds of America together to put together the right kind of solutions that will affect these kinds of things that the President is talking about today, and Bernie Sanders was just talking about. And I would say tonight it’s now been nine years since we started working on this issue. And I would ask that the President consider taking one day, writing this Executive Order, getting this commission together, and let’s really move forward to fix the whole criminal justice system not just one piece of it or another.

I would also say, and I hope you will consider this, that of all the responsibilities of the President, none is greater than that of being your Commander in Chief. I’ve spent my entire life in and around the United States military. I grew up in the military. I served in Vietnam as a Marine. I spent five years in the Pentagon, four of them as an executive sitting on the Defense Resources Board. I’ve served as a journalist around the world covering the United States military, including in Beirut in 1983 when the Marines were in Beirut. Some will remember the horrible explosion in the Beirut airport that killed more than 200 of our American military people in one day. I was in Afghanistan as an embed journalist. I understand how our American military works. I understand foreign policy issues. And I will assure you by the way, that if I were your President, I would have never urged an invasion of Iraq. And as a Senator, I would never have voted to authorize that proposal. In fact, five months before the invasion I wrote a piece in the Washington Post warning that this would be a disastrous strategic failure of historic proportions, that we do not belong as an occupying power in that part of the world - that would empower Iran. In long run also China, particularly economically. And it would unleash sectarian violence inside Iraq and turn our soldiers into terrorist targets. If I were your President I would not have authorized the use of military force in Libya during what was called the Arab Spring. I warned repeatedly that use of military force in Libya did not meet the test of a grave national security danger and that it would have negative impacts in the entire region. And I have to say, I am still looking with some concern, some great concern, about the agreement that was just signed with respect to Iran. I would not as President sign any executive agreement establishing a long term relationship with Iran if it in any way tips the balance of power in that vital region of our world, and particularly if it accepts Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. And I will say that again. I will never accept directly or indirectly Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. At the same time, I’d make it clear that we have strong national security interests and that we need to address them.

We’ve talked a lot about these other issues that everyone is in strong agreement with tonight. Let me speak just for a few minutes about my view of what the American Dream really means. I call it the American trifecta. And what I mean by that is when our system works right we have a safety net under people who need it, who’ve fallen into hard times or who have retired. We have absolute fairness in the middle. And then, if you can truly make it, you can go all the way in this country. And that is the American Dream. What does it look like when it doesn’t work and what does it look like when it does work? When I think about a time when it didn’t work, I would never forget the experiences that my mother had growing up in utter poverty in eastern Arkansas. She was one of eight kids, three of whom died in childhood, not childbirth, childhood. Her father died when she was ten. There was no educational opportunity. There was no medical. There wasn’t Social Security at that time. She chopped cotton, picked strawberries, chopped wood. When my dad met her at the age of 17 he said her hands felt like the bark off of a tree from having worked so hard. She gave me the energy that I have today to be standing in front of you today. But it was Franklin Roosevelt’s programs and the Democratic Party’s programs that gave people in that part of America the safety net under them and the chance for true fairness. And I also, when it works, when it works, I think of the journey of my wife Hong. In 1975, when the Communists took over South Vietnam, Hong’s family, entire extended family, got on a boat, went out on the South China Sea like hundreds of thousands of other Vietnamese at that time. They did not know whether they were going to live or die. And if you think about our obligations as a country, we had no legal obligation to go out and save hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and take them to refugee camps and then bring them into this country. But we had a moral obligation. It’s the greatness of our country that we did that. They took her family off the ocean, where they didn’t know whether they were going to live or not. She went to two different refugee camps. She grew up in New Orleans, started working in a shrimp factory when she was 11 years old. Neither of her parents ever spoke fluent English. We could’ve said, as we hear some people saying right now, well wait a minute, we don’t have any obligation to these Vietnamese. You know, they are not our kind or whatever language people use. But we didn’t do that. And guess what? They make some of the greatest Americans in this country today. She worked. She studied. She ended up at the University of Michigan and Cornell Law School. We had the safety net under them. She had the fair shot, and she has lived the American Dream. That is what I’m hoping for when I tell you that I would like to be your President. That is the vision that I have for this country, and I have been able to put that vision into specific actions in a way that I think I can guarantee you we will do, if you will give us your support, and help us in this journey.

Thank you very much. I am one minute and twenty second under schedule for you. Thank you for being here, all of you.

Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk
Julie Englander was the local host of Weekend Edition on Iowa Public Radio and substitute host for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Midday breaks until her retirement on Dec. 31, 2022.