Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb is used to standing alone.
On the issue of the Confederate battle flag in the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre, the potential Democratic presidential candidate is going his own way once again.
Bucking the bipartisan trend of politicians and corporations coming out against the flag, including South Carolina’s Republican governor and senators, Webb instead is calling for “mutual respect” when considering the symbol.
“This is an emotional time and we all need to think through these issues with a care that recognizes the need for change but also respects the complicated history of the Civil War,” Webb said in a statement posted to his Facebook page. “This is a time for us to come together, and to recognize once more that our complex multicultural society is founded on the principle of mutual respect.”
The flag, which many view as a symbol of hate, became a flashpoint after Dylann Roof, who had been photographed displaying the flag, allegedly killed nine people at a historic black church in an apparently racially motivated attack. The flag flies on the grounds of the state capitol building, but Gov. Nikki Haley and many others have called for its removal.
On Wednesday, Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley ordered the flag’s removed from the grounds of his state’s capitol building. On Tuesday, Strom Thurmond’s grandson, South Carolina state Sen. Paul Thurmond, called the flag a “symbol of racism and bigotry.”
Speaking to a black church Tuesday in Missouri, Hillary Clinton – Webb’s would-be Democratic presidential rival – called the flag “a symbol from our racist past that has no place in our present nor in our future.”
But Webb suggested people are jumping to conclusions too quickly.
“The Confederate battle flag has wrongly been used for racist and other purposes in recent decades. It should not be used in any way as a political symbol that divides us,” he said of the flag displayed by Robert E. Lee’s army as they marched into battle against the army of the United States.
“[W]e should also remember that honorable Americans fought on both sides in the Civil War,” Webb, a former Marine, continued. “It was in recognition of the character of soldiers on both sides that the federal government authorized the construction of the Confederate Memorial 100 years ago, on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.”
Defenders of the flag say it has been hijacked by racists like the Ku Klux Klan to represent something it is not. In his 2004 book, Webb lamented “the Nazification of the Confederacy.”
The former senator, who was a Republican for much of his career, announced an exploratory committee in November, but has yet to declare formally if he will challenge Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination. Webb has said his campaign will focus on winning over white men, a demographic where the Democratic Party has lost ground in recent years.
Webb was elected to Senate in 2006 in large part thanks to the apparent bigotry of his opponent, Republican incumbent Sen. George Allen. Allen called a Democratic tracker by an obscure racial slur, sported a Confederate flag (including in a campaign TV ad) and reportedly kept a noose in his law office.
In a 1990 speech commemorating the Confederate Memorial, Webb spoke of the “collective gallantry” of Southern soldiers that is “to this day still misunderstood by most Americans.” But he also said, “Americans of African ancestry are the people with whom our history in this country most closely intertwines, whose struggles in an odd but compelling way most resemble our own, and whose rights as full citizens we above all should celebrate and insist upon.”
Webb, a successful author, left the Senate after one term, suggesting his writerly temperament was not well suited for politics.