How Walter Jones Grew a Conscience

In the heady atmosphere of war lust and post-9/11 New Patriotism that subsumed Washington in March 2003, GOP House Representative of North Carolina Walter B. Jones made a stand. Jones told the press that he hoped his effort to rename French fries, "Freedom Fries," in the House cafeterias would prompt visitors "to think of the thousands of military members overseas who are there for you, for me, and for the freedom of millions of people they never know personally."

It was the high-water mark in the Campaign to Hate France, a key splinter project of the Let's Get Iraq effort.

Two years later, Rep. Jones told North Carolina's big daily, the Raleigh News & Observer, that he wished the Freedom Fries incident "had never happened" and that Congress "must be told the truth" about the Iraq war.

Soon after, Jones stood with two of the most liberal Democratic representatives in Congress -- Dennis Kucinich and Neil Abercrombie -- and the Republican isolationist and libertarian Ron Paul to introduce legislation calling for the president to announce a withdrawal timetable by the end of this year. In other words, Walter Jones made one of the most staggering about-faces seen in Washington since George W. Bush took office.

What happened?

Mainstream newspapers and cable television's take on Jones' declaration so far has not gone much deeper than a kind of mild bewilderment. The surface-level political analysis on Jones that has made the progressive rounds goes something like this: shrewd, canny Republican realizes that calling for Iraq pullout is means of political survival in upcoming tumultuous 2006 elections, gets headstart against primary challengers. That analysis applies to the new posture Republican Senator Chuck Hagel struck, when he said a few days ago that the United States was "losing" in Iraq. Hagel intends to run for president and wants to distinguish himself from the pack.

But if re-election was the motivating principle behind Walter Jones' change of heart, you'd expect to find that his district -- North Carolina's 3rd -- was a swing district that narrowly went for Bush in November; that it was at the vanguard of dropping public opinion on Iraq; and that the county chairs, party activists and local residents had all been pressuring him to make a stand and call for withdrawal of the troops.

Nothing of the sort.

Jones' district is one of the most militarized in the country, if not the most. Sixty thousand veterans live in the 17 counties that make up his constituency, which on average voted at a mid-60s percentage level for Bush last November. There are three Marine bases that house thousands of active servicemen and their families; about 43,000 military and 5,000 civilians at Camp Lejeune in Onslow County; Cherry Point, the world's largest Marine Corp air station and Craven County's largest employer, which pumps $500 million annually into the economy; and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base which employs around 4,000 military and 500 civilians in Wayne County.

You can't be pro-military spending or patriotic enough for a congressional district like this. So no surprise then, that Walter Jones has a spot on the House Armed Services Committee or that he waded neck-deep in the propaganda effort to go to war in Iraq. Beside his Freedom Fries stunt, Jones has brilliantly shepherded his three garrisons out of Rumsfeld's massive base closure plans, presented to Congress this year.

Until recently, Jones was well-liked and respected by local Republican officials. The Republican county chairs I spoke with in his district told me they were caught flat-footed by his transformation. Steve Tyson, chair of Craven County (home of Cherry Point), told me he thought "it was more surprise than anything else for residents," whose reaction was this made him look "weak" on the military.

Bob Pruett, chair of neighboring Carteret County, and a 25-year veteran of the Marine Corps, said he was overwhelmed by the number of people who called him after Jones made his remarks. He said the general reaction wasn't that Jones called for the withdrawal of troops -- "which all of us of course want as soon as possible" -- but that it "sent the wrong message to the enemy" and worried veterans there might be a return to the Vietnam situation. "Some veterans were incensed," he said.  

Marty Orgonis, the Republican chair of Onslow County -- which hosts Camp Lejeune -- said that no one in the local party's 57-person committee wanted a vendetta with Jones, but they felt on the whole that his judgment was "misguided and premature." One of Onslow County's commissioners last week went on local television and fumed, calling for Jones to resign. He later withdrew the request. Orgonis told me that if Jones continued down the track he'd taken, things "could get out of hand."

Johnny Rouse, the Democratic chair of Pitt County -- which gave Kerry the closest margin over Bush in last November, 53-47 -- said the local reaction of Republican officials and area residents was more about supporting the president in a time of war. Rouse, himself a veteran, said while about half the residents of his county were against the war, the issue "goes beyond politics in a way. Everyone here believes that the duty of a congressman is to support the president in a time of war, and that's what the troops need to hear."

This was the consensus of every political official I spoke to, and the substance of remarks from troops quoted in local media reports in the aftermath of Jones' statements.

So if it wasn't local political pressure, what made Jones change his mind about the war?

For most of us, Iraq is at worst an unpleasant reality TV show. Even for most politicians in Washington, it's a problem they've so far been able to throw public funds at with the hope it will go away or improve, muttering out the sides of their mouths in public about the "lack of progress," and in private, despairing like the rest of us.

But it's become too much for Jones. Iraq has subsumed Jones' political and private life on the Hill and in his district, a consequence of the ubiquitous military presence there. Perhaps more than any other politician in Washington, Jones has witnessed exactly what the Iraq policy he helped shape has done to the lives of the people he's supposed to represent.

A congressional staffer who works closely with Walter Jones' office right now told me that Jones changed his mind about Iraq after some "difficult soul searching," and that the "growing gap" between the truth about Iraq that plays out in his district and the Republican party line he's supposed to toe in committee hearings has taken a "terrible toll on him." When I asked Jones' press secretary what led to the shift, she told me it was a combination of "the top-secret briefings, researching the issues, and talking to families."

In every single direction, Iraq is staring at Walter Jones in the face, and it's turned him into an emotional wreck. Jones hangs photographs of the fallen soldiers from his district at the entrance to his congressional offices, and their eyes meet his every time he enters the offices. More than 100 Marines from Camp Lejeune have lost their lives; Jones has written letters to the 1,300 family members who survive them. Mix in the closed-door sessions he attends with generals and intelligence experts telling him every single thing is going wrong, the despair of wives and children on the bases who have seen tours of duty extended, and the disquiet, misery and injuries of the returned combat veterans. Jones still talks about the funeral he attended two years ago of Sgt. Michael Bitz, who never saw the birth of his twin sons.  

The Raleigh News and Observer article that broke the story in May about Jones' switch on Iraq also reveals that he "is quicker to tears than to laughter" and that he's been trying to build a memorial to the dogs that have helped U.S. servicemen in war:

He flips through a book dog handlers gave him, leafing past stylized drawings of animals leading their masters through danger. He starts to read, then catches himself. "I better not read this now," he says. "I never get through it without crying."
It isn't just the book about war dogs, it's anything at all. This isn't about politics; it's personal, and utterly emotional. Walter Jones can't lie about Iraq anymore. He's worked in the beating heart of this rotten American war effort for almost three years, and he's complicit in all of it. It's enough to make a congressman cry.
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