James Webb says that growing up in a military family during the Cold War instilled in him a sense of obligation to give back to society. And he did, from his decorated combat service in Vietnam to serving as secretary of the Navy under President Reagan to his single term in the U.S. Senate. 

In between, he managed to write a few best-selling books, and now he’s out with a new memoir, “I Heard My Country Calling.”  

Read an excerpt from chapter one:

The Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol was completed in 1800, renovated in 1811, burned by British troops during their rampage of Washington in 1814, and reconstructed for the first time in 1826. In 1850 Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi introduced legislation to significantly enlarge the Capitol.

This enlargement was finally finished in 1868, following the Civil War, during which then former senator Jefferson Davis rather ironically had become president of the Confederacy. As the country has grown and evolved from that time, so has the Capitol, as well as the sprawling grounds that surround it. A series of modernizations moved the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court out of the Capitol building into their own mammoth neoclassical structures. These modernizations also brought about a vast complex of six separate office buildings where the members of the House and Senate and their ever-growing staffs now carry out their obligations, and where, every now and then, one of them becomes forever remembered for some embarrassing personal escapade or political scheme.

The building and the grounds that surround it are a wonder to behold, extending eastward beyond the Supreme Court building and westward past the Washington Monument, all the way across the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial and the very edge of the Potomac River. There are few places in the world that can match the quiet splendor of these landmarks, especially when they are lit up in the dark of night for the world to see. This is not a craven political statement; rather it is the frank, almost unwilling admission of one who was raised from his earliest days to mistrust any form of elitism and to make fun of pretentious symbols.

Even the deepest cynic cannot deny the transcendent power of this place. It is almost as if those who designed and built the Capitol had opened up their hearts in a form of romantic innocence, risking the chance that they would be rejected by future generations for having been corny Harlequin-romancers if they were proved wrong, in the gamble that they might remake the world’s comprehension of American-style democracy if they were shown to be right. And they were not wrong.

If you are a thinking American, it is a humbling experience to spend time inside the dark, cool confines of the building itself. During my time in the Senate I walked through this building every day, indeed sometimes a half-dozen times a day, and still after all those years its majesty overwhelms me. No matter how many times I traversed its passages, no matter how burdened I felt under the weight of the laborious or silly issues of day-to-day politics, the history that lives inside this building always rescued me from the temptation to feel as though we in the Senate were mindlessly treading water rather than working to solve the problems of the country. History was being made here, whether or not we felt the truth of that as we barked and quibbled among ourselves on any given day.

From I HEARD MY COUNTRY CALLING by James Webb. Copyright  © 2014 by James H. Webb, Jr. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.