Webb Embraces Heritage as Documentary Host

Posted April 6, 2011 at 6:34pm

Sen. Jim Webb is moving up the dial from C-SPAN 2.

The Virginia Democrat will host a television special Sunday night on the Smithsonian Channel. The documentary, “Born Fighting,” shares its name and subject with his history of the Scots-Irish published in 2004.

Webb, who is descended on both sides of his family from Scots-Irish, first started researching the topic when he was in law school three decades ago. He holds the topic close to his heart.

“I always thought that it would be my epic novel,” Webb said in an interview. “Then, the more I researched it over the years, the more I realized I had more facts than could ever be used in a novel.”

Ever an author, the Senator followed a writing process for his nonfiction book that was similar to the one he used to write his six best-selling books.

“I [treated] the culture itself as something akin to the main character in a novel, watching it grow and evolve over the centuries, from the first moments of its spiritual, collective birth in the crags and hollows just north of Hadrian’s Wall,” Webb writes in the book’s foreword.

The story that he tells is a tangled one, tracing the history of one people from their early beginnings as ragtag bands of Celtic warriors in Scotland to the Ulster plantations and then to the mountains of Appalachia as America became a nation.

His book is one of the few to tell the ethnic group’s story on both sides of the Atlantic. Its grand narrative prompted Scottish Television’s director of content, Alan Clements, to approach Webb last year.

“He asked if I would be interested in hosting, if he put together a TV show,” Webb said. “I said, ‘Of course.’”

The entire two-hour special was filmed on location in Scotland over the August recess last year. With only a few weeks to film and a host of locations to visit, the cast and crew were often working 16-hour days on little sleep.

“It wasn’t like an American crew. There was no teleprompter, no makeup. … I would stand up and give [the speech] and move on,” Webb said. “We’d do seven or eight of those a day. It was really exhausting.”

In the documentary as in the book, Webb goes on a personal journey to trace the story of his ancestors. In doing so, he details the contributions of a cultural group that had an outsized effect on America.

The Scots-Irish played a critical role in winning the American Revolution, according to Webb. The group also gave America the religious fundamentalism still present in the Bible Belt and the “play hard” culture of whiskey and country music, he said. The contributions of the Scots-Irish to our political system, however, outstrip even the best of the whiskey recipes that they brought with them to America.

“The greatest contribution of this culture was the creation of populist-style democracy,” Webb said. “It’s almost a given today in a lot of our debates, but they brought it.”

Despite its many contributions, however, the group’s story is not often told. Webb aimed to change that by writing a more readable account that he hopes will spark further interest. He thinks the documentary could take it even further.

“I thought it was a tremendous chance to try to get this down in a way that is more accessible,” he said. “A two-hour documentary is easier to go through than a whole book.”

The concept fit well with the Smithsonian Institution’s goal to spread knowledge and the channel’s goal to “tell America’s stories,” according to Tom Hayden, Smithsonian Channel’s general manager.

“It was one of the easier ones for us to see as a natural fit,” he said. “It was the perfect story for us.”

“Born Fighting” will air at 9 p.m. Sunday.