James Webb’s Stars and Stripes

Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) arrived a little bit late to a Beverly Hilton on Sunday, tardy enough to be able to stand in relative obscurity near the back of the ballroom, where a parade of celebrities were pitching the new G.I. Bill, one of his signature issues.

He didn’t seem to look around to identify the notables who were in the audience, an eclectic mix of liberal legends, socialites and stars, including Robin Williams, Lisa Kudrow, Bob Balaban, Swoosie Kurtz, Judith Balaban Quine, Stanley and Betty Sheinbaum, James Whitmore and Frank Gehry along with two dozen war veterans from WWII to Iraq, the most famous among them being 82-year-old Gore Vidal.

Instead, Webb fixed his serious gaze at the woman at the podium, Sally Field.

In almost quixotic terms, Field described the 17-month path that the bill took from Webb’s first day as a freshman senator to now, attached to an Iraq war supplemental funding bill expected to be passed in the Senate with President Bush pledging not to veto it. The legislation would dramatically increase the education benefits to returning veterans.

Then, Field introduced him as a “real-life Mr. Smith.”

To a standing ovation, he took the microphone and quipped, “Thank you very much for that Sally. I’d like to think I’m a little bit shrewder than Mr. Smith.”

There were a few chuckles in the crowd.

Then he apologized for his casual attire, blue polo shirt and khaki cargo pants, noting that he didn’t have time to change but didn’t want to show “disrespect” to the well-dressed crowd.

The event was planned by the Campaign for a New GI Bill at a time when the prospects of the bill’s passage looked more iffy, and was designed to be non-partisan. But it was all but impossible for politics not to enter the proceedings, not the least of which was the fact that Webb is an oft mentioned running mate for Barack Obama.

Noting the original opposition to the bill, co-sponsored with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), on the grounds that it would hurt recruitment or would be too expensive, Webb said, “The thing that surprised me was that the administration would oppose this concept, including some of the top Senate Republicans, including one running for president.”

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