RICHMOND "I'm a writer, I want to know where you're going with this," Jim Webb says suspiciously at the beginning of our chat. He has been so many things: tough guy, for sure; Ollie North's college boxing opponent, Vietnam War hero, Navy secretary, senator, Republican . . . Democrat.
But he seems most eager to define himself as a man of letters, or at least he does on this particular overcast day at his office, pausing to talk for a few minutes about what could be his greatest legislative legacy or a most uncharacteristic clunker. The Democratic senator -- er, writer -- is accustomed to controlling the narrative flow whether he's writing bestsellers or directing troops on the battlefield. Yet now, this commanding presence enters a less compliant arena, one in which he inevitably emerges as much as a protagonist as an author.
"I am, at bottom, a writer," he says, invoking his default response. "I start with a theme, rather than a plot." Webb wants to shape a plotline that, with each turn of the page, draws America closer to reinventing its criminal justice system. Questioning why the United States locks up so many of its youths, why its prisons swell with disease and atrocities while fundamental social problems persist in its streets, has earned Webb lavish praise as a politician unafraid to be smeared as soft on crime. And when a law-and-order type as rock-ribbed as Webb expresses willingness to consider legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, excitement follows.