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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Casting Credentials Away in the Old Dominion

Incumbent Sen. underplays challenger's service under Reagan.


An attack ad by Republican Sen. George Allen tries to portray his opponent, Democrat James Webb, as a lightweight, identifying the Marine-turned-novelist as a “fiction writer” who served under former President Ronald Reagan for only 10 months before quitting. It also criticizes Webb’s continued use, in his own ad, of a clip of Reagan praising him in a 1985 speech despite widow Nancy Reagan’s request that he stop using the footage.

The Allen ad is wrong about Webb’s service in the Reagan administration. It’s true Webb served only 10 months as Secretary of the Navy but he was an Assistant Secretary of Defense for three years under Reagan before that. And Webb is legally entitled to use the footage of Reagan’s speech, which did in fact praise the future Democratic candidate profusely.


Allen’s attempt to undermine Webb’s credentials comes as the race that the incumbent was favored to win has tightened.

Friends of George Allen Ad:

Announcer: Twenty years ago, fiction writer James Webb served in the Reagan Administration. After 10 months, he quit. Webb attacked Reagan policy. Now Webb wants you to believe the late President would support him. Nancy Reagan doesn’t.

(On Screen: News clipping and headline “Nancy Reagan tells Webb to pull footage of husband from ads,” The Virginian Pilot. Also a letter from Nancy Reagan’s office. )

Announcer: She called on Webb to  take down his ad, Webb refused. Would Ronald Reagan really endorse a candidate who hires people who call him a fool? And disrespects the wishes of his widowed wife? That’s just fiction.

Allen: “I’m George Allen and I approve this message.”

Multiply by Four

The announcer tells us that Webb “served in the Reagan administration. After 10 months, he quit.” This misstates Webb’s service. He actually joined the administration in 1984, when he was nominated and confirmed as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. The Vietnam veteran, who was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts for his military service, resigned to write another book in 1987, but almost immediately then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger asked him to become Secretary of the Navy.

Webb was confirmed to that post, but it was a short stay. He had conflicts with Weinberger’s successor, Frank Carlucci, and didn’t agree with the way Carlucci wanted to implement cuts in the Pentagon’s budget that had been mandated by Congressional and White House agreement. Specifically, Webb publicly objected to cutting the Navy fleet as Carlucci proposed. Webb’s leave-taking was indeed turbulent.

A small quibble: Webb became Secretary of the Navy 19 years ago, and resigned from the job 18 years ago – not 20. “Nearly 20 years ago” would have been correct.

Ouija Board Politics

Allen’s ad implies that Webb is engaging in “fiction” by using an old clip of President Reagan in one of his own ads. The GOP ad says, “Would Ronald Reagan really endorse a candidate who hires people who call him a fool? And disrespects the wishes of his widowed wife? That’s just fiction.” In fact, Webb never claimed the late President endorsed his current candidacy, and we find that the Webb ad is historically accurate, whatever Mrs. Reagan may think of it.

Political decisions are out of our bailiwick, so we won’t comment on the calculation by Webb, a former Republican who said he became a Democrat in part because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to use the 1985 clip of Reagan giving a speech at the Naval Academy. At the very least, it is an unusual tactic. Here’s what Reagan said in 1985:

Reagan: One man who sat where you do now and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968 is another member of our Administration–Assistant Secretary of Defense James Webb, the most decorated member of his class. James’ gallantry as a Marine officer in Vietnam won him the Navy Cross and other decorations, including two Purple Hearts. James wrote several books about American servicemen and women. In his book, a Sense of Honor, he describes the life that you have chosen.

Reagan then quotes from Webb’s book.

Disrespecting Mrs. Reagan?

Whether Webb “disrespected” Mrs. Reagan’s wishes, we can’t say. He certainly didn’t follow them.

Shortly after Webb began running the ad, Nancy Reagan’s chief-of-staff Joanne Drake wrote to him, stating in part:

Drake: The use of video footage of President Reagan, or the use of photographs, likenesses and/or quotes in this manner is neither authorized nor appropriate. Using the President’s name, image or likeness implies endorsement which is neither fair nor respectful of any candidate, certainly not after President Reagan’s death. At the direction of Mrs. Reagan, please refrain from the use of her husband’s name, video footage, photograph, likeness, and/or quotes in any further campaign materials, including television advertisements.

Nevertheless, Webb continued to air his ad, and Mrs. Reagan had no legal authority to “direct” Webb to do otherwise. Furthermore, we see no evidence that Webb in any way altered what Reagan said, or took his words out of context. While it is unlikely that Reagan would be praising any Democrat in like manner today, Webb’s ad is historically accurate.

Webb did indeed hire as consultants two Democratic strategists who, in a book published in March, called Reagan a “fool.” The book, “Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ’Em Out,” argues that Democrats can and must make themselves a viable party in the South again. The authors, strategists Steve Jarding and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, became luminaries when they helped Democrat Mark Warner win the Virginia governorship in 2001, in part by winning a slim majority of the traditionally conservative rural vote. Their book was not written in connection with the Webb campaign, but Allen’s right — they did call Reagan a “fool,” and worse.


Watch Allen Ad: “Fiction”


John H. Cushman, “James Webb’s New ‘Fields of Fire’,” The New York Times, 28 February 1988.

Letter to James Webb from Joanne Drake, 8 September 2006