Senator Allen of Virginia attempted one of the oddest, clumsiest, and least effective political tactics in recent years distributing excerpts from various books of his opponent, James Webb, that are replete with graphic sexual imagery and rude language.
The books were novels. Voters, recognizing the passages as works of fiction, dismissed the allegations. Mr. Webb won and delivered the Senate to the Democrats.
Mr. Allen focused on the wrong writings. Even as Mr. Webb trumpeted his most recent book, a 2004 work of nonfiction, "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America," Mr. Webb's critics largely left the book untouched. While both David Brooks of the New York Times and Andrew Ferguson of Bloomberg News and the Weekly Standard say the book articulates Mr. Webb's sense of grievance on the part of his ethnic group, the Scots-Irish, the book escaped serious scrutiny. This is remarkable given that Mr. Webb won the election as a Democrat and now will stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Senator Obama, Senators Kerry and Kennedy, Senators Boxer and Feinstein, and, of course, Senator Clinton.
As a work of popular history, "Born Fighting" is a rousing and informative window on the influence an often forgotten ethnic group had on our nation. It tells the story of the feisty Scotsmen who immigrated to the north of Ireland in the 17th century at the behest of English overlords and then made their way to America. They first settled throughout Appalachia, in Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and then spread southward and westward. The book jacket pictures Ronald Reagan, George Patton, and Andrew Jackson, among others, as prominent Scots-Irish.
As a window on the mind of a rising politician in the Democratic Party, it is illuminating and perplexing. Mr. Webb refers to "bloodlines" and ethnic "DNA." Such talk is more in keeping with the Old World, where the character of an individual rested in the volkish notion of blood. He writes in broad ethnic stereotype, reminiscent of 19th-century readers that elucidated the nature of the Irish, the British, the French, and the Jew. He has words of praise for the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. He rationalizes the position of the Confederate soldier and places the history of the Confederate flag in a heroic context. There's no ideological litmus test in the Senate, of course, and senatorial campaign contests should not be reduced to the politically correct absurdities of the American college campus. None of the excerpts demands an immediate call to the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Even so, they represent thinking most liberals would have already denounced if uttered by a supporter of the Iraq war. Having said all that, it is notable that the usual suspects most of them within the Democratic Party are all so silent on their new colleague whose statements include the following:
"The problem was as old as the issues that brought about the creation of the Presbyterian Kirk. The refusal to be intimidated from above was by now in the Scots-Irish DNA."
"The Scots-Irish emphasis on soldiering builds military leaders with the same focus and intensity that Talmudic tradition creates legal scholars."
"That warrior ethic, which would carry the outnumbered and outgunned Confederacy a very long way, came from the long traditions of service that had begun so many centuries before in Scotland and the north of Britain. The Confederate battle flag itself was drawn from the St. Andrew's Cross of Scotland and the unbending spirit of the Southern soldier found its energies in the deeds of the past just as strongly as it looked up to the leaders of the present. These were the direct descendants of William Wallace's loyal followers of five centuries before."
Scots-Irish "suffered 70 percent killed or wounded in the Civil War and were still standing proud in the ranks at Appomattox when General Lee surrendered but in today's politically correct environment this means that they were the racist' soldiers of the Nazi-like Confederacy."
"Among others [Scots-Irish Confederate generals] included the unparalleled Nathan Bedford Forrest, a semiliterate who proved to be a master of maneuver and improvisation, and who defeated every West Point general he faced."
In his breathless praise of Forrest, Mr. Webb is paying tribute to the Confederate general in charge at the Fort Pillow massacre. In that incident, Forrest's troops overwhelmed a Union garrison defended by former slaves, and Forrest's men slaughtered the enemy. Historians still wrangle over the degree of Forrest's culpability. Forrest is the same Confederate general who later helped found the Ku Klux Klan. While Forrest subsequently denied ordering the massacre and disavowed violence within the KKK and purportedly broke with the group, none of that nuance is included in Mr. Webb's book. Moreover, supporters of Mr. Webb attacked Mr. Allen during the campaign for purported Confederate sympathies, but failed to address Mr. Webb's own Confederate apologia. A long, unsubstantiated thread on the Daily Kos, a liberal blog, charged that Mr. Allen admired Forrest.
But the book has admirers in the heavily populated Scots-Irish territory in Virginia. One such resident, who is a fan of Mr. Webb and "Born Fighting," is Patrick Buchanan. Mr. Buchanan, a conservative commentator, fawned over both last week on television. Appearing on MSNBC's "Tucker" on November 9, Mr. Buchanan said,"Jim Webb is someone who is a deeply rooted individual. He comes from a clan, Scotch-Irish warrior clan, in effect. He is enormously proud of the battles in which his ancestors fought. And the book goes all the way back into this Scotch-Irish history. And I'm part Scotch-Irish myself."
It's possible to see Mr. Webb's election as a sign that Democrats recognize they need to be ideologically diverse if they're going to succeed. And, in a sense, Mr. Webb's views conveyed in "Born Fighting" are consistent with the Democratic Party as it existed before the South turned Republican. Senator Byrd of West Virginia was a product of that Democratic Party.
But it's just as likely that Mr. Webb's election foreshadows a powerful impulse against not just the Iraq war, but also against future cases of military action and support for the stands of allies against terror, such as Israel, sure to be adjudged as warmongering by the anti-war gang. After all, that is the common thread between liberal bloggers, such as Daily Kos and Arianna Huffington, Mr. Webb and Mr. Buchanan. As a decorated Marine officer in Vietnam, Mr. Webb, after all, lends the current anti-war movement military legitimacy in a way that Mr. Kerry and General Wesley Clark could not. MSNBC's Chris Matthews last week called Mr. Webb the "biggest straight-arrow military guy you've seen since GI Joe." It is an open question how far this impulse will restrict America's options in foreign policy and bring us more in line with the Europeans.
Near the end of "Born Fighting," Mr. Webb provides a clue of where his intentions for the Scots-Irish might lie. "And thus the final question in this age of diversity and political correctness is whether they can learn to play the modern game of group politics. For if they do, they hold the future direction of America in their collective hands. "The era of Democratic dominance on Capitol Hill was forged on an alliance between Southern conservatives and Northern urban ethnics. A good measure of how badly the Democrats want to create a new and long-lasting national majority and not just for the most recent election will be the extent to which they embrace Mr. Webb's Scots-Irish as another item on the buffet of identity politics.
Democrats are apparently willing to embrace Mr. Webb and his bellicose Scots-Irish because they are in agreement over the big picture issue of the war. The unknown is whether Mr. Webb and his fighting folk will change the Democratic Party or whether the party will change him.
Mr. Gitell (www.gitell.com) is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.