STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The other day, we stood at the door of one of the many politicians thinking of running for president. Former Senator Jim Webb led us into his office in Arlington, Va., just across the river from Washington.
JIM WEBB: Hey, how are you?
INSKEEP: Senator, hi, Steve Inskeep.
A rifle and other mementos of his military career hang on the walls, though you don't notice at first because your eyes are riveted on the windows.
WEBB: Down the steps, I'll show you the view.
INSKEEP: It's a spectacular view of the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and, just downstairs, the Marine Corps Memorial. It shows five Americans hoisting the flag over Iwo Jima. Consider this a view of Webb's career. He served in the Marines until he was wounded in Vietnam. Then he became a best-selling novelist. He served as President Reagan's secretary of the Navy then came to this office to write. He later became a senator over at the Capitol before returning here to write again. Now he's working on a cable TV series on Vietnam.
Why not just focus on that instead of politics?
WEBB: That's been my dilemma since I left the Marine Corps. You know, I just wanted to be a good Marine, you know? Then I got blown up. When I went to law school over here I discovered that I loved to write. So on the one hand, I was raised to lead. And I would get out and write and miss, you know, the leadership environment.
INSKEEP: Which he's missing again. That is why he is exploring a run for president, even though the Democrat would be a huge underdog to Hillary Clinton.
WEBB: The Democratic Party could do very well by returning to its Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson roots, where the focus of the party was making sure that all people who lack a voice in the corridors of power could have one through their elected representatives.
INSKEEP: When you say all people, who's lacking? Who's missing?
WEBB: Well, I think they can do a better job with white working people. I think this last election clearly showed that. If you look at the candidates that were getting beaten in areas where traditionally they had won, they were getting well less than 40 percent of the white vote. And that doesn't need to happen.
INSKEEP: Is there something about President Obama that's driven people away?
WEBB: No, this was happening before President Obama, you know. And I think that there's a lot of misunderstanding about the motives of people in this group.
INSKEEP: You're saying white voters are misunderstood as being racist in some ways. Is that what you're hinting at here?
WEBB: In many cases, yes.
INSKEEP: But you think it's something different?
WEBB: I think it is different. I think it was going on well before Barack Obama was elected president. You know, and this was not something that was a reaction to Barack Obama. I think that it's true that when you look at 270 electoral votes and how to get there, there were different calculations that took place in terms of how to do that. And I believe that the Democratic Party should reach out to all people...
INSKEEP: Are you...
WEBB: ...Regardless of their background.
INSKEEP: Help me understand what you're saying there. You're saying that President Obama's two campaigns, in trying to assemble a coalition to win presidential elections, reached out to certain groups, often marginalized groups - African Americans, Latinos and others - but somehow lost some broader picture of the country?
WEBB: I think that - what I'm saying is that you're not going to have a situation again where you have 96 percent of the African-American vote turning out for a presidential candidate. We need to get back to the message that was being developed - a return to the principles of the Democratic Party, that we are going to give everyone who needs access to the corridors of power that kind of access regardless of any of your antecedents. I think that's a fair concept. I think it worked when my mother was growing up in east Arkansas in a completely impoverished area, and there was really very little hope. And among other things, the Roosevelt administration built an ammunition factory north of Little Rock. And my grandmother got a job making artillery shells and actually had some income, and the family started being able to have a future. Those are the kinds of things that the Democratic Party's always stood for.
INSKEEP: Some people will know that one of your many books was a history of the Scots-Irish people in America. Listening to you, I'm wondering if that is part of your political thinking, the knowledge of that history. How does one relate to the other?
WEBB: I took a lot of time putting together the cultural journey of the people who largely ended up in the Appalachian Mountains and then spread out and became the dominant culture of the non-slaveholding South. And I think of blue-collar America. And from their migration here came what we have come to call Jacksonian Democracy.
INSKEEP: Named for Andrew Jackson, who was Scots-Irish.
WEBB: Andrew Jackson was the first American president who was not of the English aristocratic descent. He established the principle that you measure the health of your society at the base, you know, not at the apex. He enabled that political philosophy to sort of become the American philosophy, the way that we have looked at political issues since. And it largely grew out of this culture that I wrote the history about.
INSKEEP: You must know, of course, President Obama laid out a number of economic and other proposals in a State of the Union address the other day. How well, if at all, did that list of priorities match up with where you think your party and your country need to be?
WEBB: He laid out a lot of different proposals. And I don't want to sit here and react to every single one of them proposal by proposal. I believe that if you look at our recovery, you will see that if you hold stocks - I hold stocks - you're doing fairly well under this recovery. The stock market has almost tripled since April of 2009. If you are simply a typical wage-earning American, you haven't really done that well. Wages actually are flat and a little down. Loans to small businesses actually have been down since that period. And those are the issues that I think need to be addressed. And we have to find ways to protect the working people.
INSKEEP: If you run for president, there will be a point during the primary season when you would have to say to Hillary Clinton - assuming she runs - here's why it shouldn't be you. Here's why it should be me. What's the answer to that?
WEBB: I really don't have an answer for you on that. She has not announced that she's running. I have not announced that I'm running. If I were to run, it would not be sort of as a counterpoint to her. I have issues that I care about. I want to put them on the table, and we'll see.
INSKEEP: That's as committed as one-time Virginia Senator Jim Webb is for now. He says his big challenge would be raising money to promote his ideas. It's a job he says he doesn't like, though it would be essential if he were ever to reach the White House, hidden somewhere down there in his spectacular office view of Washington.
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