Webb – Senator, Veteran, Writer and Filmmaker – To Be U.Va. Finals Speaker

Jim Webb headshot

Jim Webb, a former U.S. Senator (D-Va.) and Secretary of the Navy, decorated Vietnam veteran and successful journalist, filmmaker and author

Jim Webb, a former U.S. Senator (D-Va.) and Secretary of the Navy, decorated Vietnam veteran and successful journalist, filmmaker and author, will deliver the commencement address at the University's 184th Final Exercises on May 19. He will speak on the Lawn following the traditional academic procession, which begins at 10 a.m.

U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan made the selection from nominations forwarded by the Public Occasions Subcommittee of the Commencement and Convocations Committee, which is composed of students and faculty.

“In many respects, Sen. Webb personifies the commitment to public service and leadership that we strive to instill in our students, as he has demonstrated throughout his distinguished career,” President Sullivan said. “His participation as commencement speaker will make an already joyful Finals weekend even more meaningful for our students and their families.”

The trustees of the Class of 2013 previously announced that Stephen Colbert, the host, co-writer and executive producer of Comedy Central’s Emmy and Peabody Award-winning series, “The Colbert Report,” will speak at Valedictory Exercises on May 18.

Alexander “Sandy” Gilliam, U.Va.’s history and protocol officer who chairs the Public Occasions Subcommittee, said of Webb’s recommendation, “We were interested in him because of all that he’s done and because he’s sure to be a provocative speaker. It won’t be your typical ‘take up the torch and go forward’ speech to graduates. I’m sure he’ll say something interesting, and I’m delighted that he has accepted the President’s invitation.”

Webb said in an email, “I appreciate the invitation from President Sullivan and the entire community at the University of Virginia to participate in this spring’s commencement exercises. U.Va. is one of this nation’s pre-eminent universities, excelling across the spectrum in business, government, law and the arts and humanities. I look forward to celebrating this tradition with the Class of 2013.”


Webb arrived at the Senate in 2007, following his first run for political office, and with many years of experience in military and veterans affairs. On his first day in office, he introduced a comprehensive 21st-century GI Bill for those who have been serving in the military since 9/11, and within 16 months had guided the most significant veterans legislation since World War II through both houses of Congress.

Along with Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, he created the Wartime Contracting Commission to bring accountability for fraud, waste and abuse brought about by the often-unsupervised contract processes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Webb also designed and chaired a series of committee hearings and conferences to examine the issues of mass incarceration and policies toward drugs, and became one of the strongest voices in Congress on the need for a top-to-bottom restructuring of the criminal justice system.

Long a public servant, Webb decided not to seek re-election to the Senate. During his one six-year term, however, he accomplished a great deal, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article published Dec. 30. In it, Larry Sabato, a politics professor in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences, called Webb “the most apolitical senator I’ve ever met.”

“Many people run for the Senate to be something, rather than do something – but not Webb,” Sabato said. “He’s a restless, ‘been-there, done-that, close-the-door’ kind of guy. For a one-term senator, he’s got quite a legacy.”

Born in Missouri in 1946, James Henry “Jim” Webb graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in l968. First in his class of 243 at the Marine Corps Officers' Basic School in Quantico, Webb served with the Fifth Marine Regiment in Vietnam and was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star Medal, two Bronze Star Medals and two Purple Hearts during his active-duty service.

He has also received awards for community service and professional excellence, including the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Medal, the Medal of Honor Society's Patriot Award, the American Legion National Commander's Public Service Award, the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Media Service Award, the Marine Corps League's Military Order of the Iron Mike Award, the John Russell Leadership Award and the Robert L. Denig Distinguished Service Award. He was a Fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics in the fall of 1992.

Webb received his J.D. at Georgetown University Law Center in 1975. He served the U.S. Congress as counsel to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs from 1977 to 1981. In 1982, he led the fight for including an African-American soldier in the memorial statue that now graces the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, and wrote the inscription at the base of the flagpole. In 1984, he was appointed the inaugural assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. In 1987, he became the first Naval Academy graduate in history to serve in the military and then become Secretary of the Navy.

Webb speaks Vietnamese and has done extensive pro bono work with the Vietnamese community dating from the late 1970s.

In addition to his public service, Webb has enjoyed a long career as a writer. He has written nine books, including “Fields of Fire,” widely recognized as the classic novel of the Vietnam War, and “A Time to Fight,” his latest best-selling nonfiction book about reclaiming a fair and just America.

He has taught literature at the Naval Academy as its first visiting writer, traveled worldwide as a journalist and earned an Emmy Award for his PBS coverage of the U.S. Marines in Beirut. In 2004, Webb went into Afghanistan as a journalist, embedded with the U.S. military.

Webb has enjoyed success as a Hollywood screenwriter and producer. His original story, “Rules of Engagement,” which he executive-produced, was released in April 2000 and was the No. 1 film in the U.S. for two weeks. It starred Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson.

Webb has six children and lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Hong Le Webb.

Media Contact

Rebecca P. Arrington

Office of University Communications