Monday, December 04, 2006


It's a stylised Washington, DC, ritual closer to the 'we-are-not-worthy' bows and curtsies extended to British royalty by the common folk than it should be for a country that won its independence from the English monarchy more than 230 years ago.

The president invites the new senators who will be filling the seats of Congress for the next two years to the White House for a meet-and-greet. The mid-term elections are over, and bad feelings are expected to be put aside for the day. After all, the office of the president is the highest in the land and respect is not only demanded, it is compulsory.

Senators are expected to take part in a 'receiving line' where they are then greeted by the president, and then photo sessions allow the new senators to stand with their president for a happy, or not so happy, snap. You might be a Democratic senator disgusted by the arrogant and misinformed choices made by your Republican president, but you still stand in line and you still get your photo taken. It's just the way things are done in the White House, they way they have been for over a century.

But the meet-and-greet this year did not go as planned. The fiery new senator for Virginia, Democrat Jim Webb, blasted President Bush, and his appalling 'War On Iraq' all the way through his election campaign. He won a surprising victory and not every voter, then, would have expected him to keep true to his word, on everything he promised to do, including getting American troops out of Iraq as soon as possible and refusing to pay President Bush respect Webb had loudly proclaimed the president did not deserve. At least, not from him.

But Webb did not back down, he did not betray his mission, once he found himself at the recieving party at the White House two weeks back.

Webb refused to stand in line before the president, and he also refused to be photographed with or near him. This is not the done thing. And it caused the first scandal of the new Congress.

Jim Webb is a decorated and (within the US military) a highly respected former Marine officer.

His son is now serving in Iraq and Webb wore a pair of his combat boots throughout the election campaign. Webb's son narrowly avoided death recently, when an IED exploded and killed three of his fellow Marines. Jim Webb, then, was not a happy man when he tromped up to The Hill two weeks ago for the welcome party by the president.

President Bush is not used to hearing dissent within his ranks. Bob Woodward's notorious book 'State Of Denial' detailed literally dozens of meetings with senior military figures, intelligence experts, the head of the CIA and a host of advisors who went out of their way to tell Bush only the good news about Iraq.

Bush sees himself as 'The Chosen One'; a true believer cast into the role of the leader of the world's most powerful nation by God himself. He demands and expects respect, from enemies and supplicants alike, and Bush usually gets what he wants. He doesn't like criticism, and reacts angrily to news he is either not expecting, or simply doesn't want to hear.

So when Jim Webb and President Bush came face to face at the welcoming party in the White House, many of those gathered expected fireworks. And that's exactly what they got.

According to two accounts, here and here, President Bush sought out Jim Webb and aggressively attempted to engage him in a conversation about his son, still serving in Iraq.

"How's your boy?" Bush asked, referring to Webb's son, a Marine serving in Iraq.

"I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," Webb responded, echoing a campaign theme.

"That's not what I asked you," Bush said. "How's your boy?"

"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," Webb said...

The conversation was over.

Webb would later confess that the confrontation, and the aggressive questioning by the president, had left him so angry he had been tempted to punch Bush in the face.

From :

“Jim did have a conversation with Bush at that dinner,” said Webb’s spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd. “Basically, he asked about Jim’s son, Jim expressed the fact that he wanted to have him home.”

Todd did not want to escalate matters by commenting on Bush’s response, saying, “It was a private conversation.”

From the Washington Post :

If the exchange with Bush two weeks ago is any indication, Webb won't be a wallflower, especially when it comes to the war in Iraq. And he won't stick to a script drafted by top Democrats.

"I'm not particularly interested in having a picture of me and George W. Bush on my wall," Webb said in an interview yesterday in which he confirmed the exchange between him and Bush.

In the days after the election, Webb's Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill went out of their way to make nice with Bush and be seen by his side. House Republican Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sat down for a lunch and photo opportunity with Bush, as did Democratic leaders in the Senate.

Not Webb, who said he tried to avoid a confrontation with Bush at the White House reception but did not shy away from one when the president approached.

Webb said he has "strong ideas," but he also insisted that -- as a former Marine in Vietnam -- he knows how to work in a place such as the Senate, where being part of a team is important.

One senior Democratic staff member on Capitol Hill, who spoke on condition that he not be identified so he could speak freely about the new senator, said that Webb's lack of political polish was part of his charm as a candidate but could be a problem as a senator.

"I think he's going to be a total pain. He is going to do things his own way. That's a good thing and a bad thing," the staff member said. But he said that Webb's personality may be just what the Senate needs. "You need a little of everything. Some element of that personality is helpful."

Few on Capitol Hill expect this to be the last time the president and Jim Webb clash, in private, or public.