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."
He didn't have to mention McCain by name.
Then he addressed McCain's main reason for opposition: That it would affect retention, with more service members enticed to leave after completing the minimum level of commitment.
"There's no way that giving people a first class education is going to affect retention," he said.
"It's totally false. ...The vast majority sign up because they believe they are fighting for the American people," said Evan Aanerud, 24, of San Luis Obispo. After he gets his industrial technology degree from Cal Poly ---financed largely with his own sources after his GI Bill benefits ran out about midway through his education --- he wants to return to active duty, having served with the Marine Corps reserves in Iraq.
After his brief remarks, Webb got off stage and posed for photos, and then did a steady stream of interviews for the gathered press, including local stations and MTV News.
Asked how the new bill will be paid for, Webb said, "To me, this is the cost of war. We are going to be spending probably a trillion dollars on this war. The supplemental bill is spending more than 100 billion on things like the bases in Iraq, and other things that are the cost of war. If people are going to vote for that, you have got to vote for people who have been through it."
"It literally is the cost of war. When you are asking people to readjust their lives in this way, they need assistance readjusting to civilian life."
As he mingled a bit with the crowd, Webb appeared more relaxed, and certainly no longer self-conscious about what he was wearing. He noted that the celebrities would help the American people "hear about this issue" and that the Hollywood contingent didn't hesitate to turn out.
"People were calling me on this one, asking how they could help," he said.
Largely left unspoken, however, was that the Hollywood support for Webb and the GI Bill was about much more than rallying behind another political star and his major legislation.
Many in the room were unabashed opponents of the war in Iraq, even from the beginning, but were anxious to display their commitment to the troops. It's a distinction that has been obscured by the right's powerful painting of Hollywood as somehow unpatriotic, a notion that dates to the tumultuous days of the Vietnam war. The steady stream of movies about the Iraq war, many of which depict the soldiers in the field in a positive light, also has contributed to such a mindset.
In fact, when the Campaign for the New GI Bill, a non-partisan group seeking to enhance educational benefits for returning veterans, mobilized celebrity support for the bill at a Capitol Hill ceremony in April, led by Balaban, one of the Iraq veterans was said to have noted, "We didn't think you liked us."
In the ballroom, where veterans lined up to meet with the likes of Williams. "It's the idea of taking care of them," said Williams, who has been on seven USO tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. As always, he launched into a riff, noting that Rod Steiger went to acting school on the GI Bill. "If we didn't have the GI Bill, we wouldn't have Steiger."
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