"Freedom Fries" guy says: Pass the Heinz!
Like Vietnam all over again, our latter-day LBJ is now seeing members of his own party jettison support for the war. Given the latest polls, where support for the war in all polls across the board now have fallen to the 40% mark, these politicians are just being smart, as they will soon have to face the rath of the voters back home, voters stuck in the most lackluster economy in history, who may be getting damned tired of billions going down the Iraq rat hole. But one truly surprising defection has got to be this guy:
Conservative congressman scolds Bush, bucks GOP leaders
By VALERIE BAUERLEIN, Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- The words "freedom fries" are still on the menu in the U.S. House cafeteria, and are likely to appear in the first line of Walter Jones' obituary, perhaps with their lesser-known cousin, freedom toast.
The words came to Jones, as so many things do, by a combination of God's hand and a constituent's request.
They made him famous, for a moment, after 10 years in the U.S. House. Jones led the fight to rename fries and toast at the Capitol in protest of the French leading opposition to the war in Iraq.
Ask him about it now, and he lays his cheek in his left hand, a habit he repeats dozens of times a day when lost in thought or sadness.
Walter B. Jones Jr.
"I wish it had never happened," Jones said.
Like many things about Jones, freedom fries lend themselves to caricature. They are an emotional response to a complex problem, easily reduced to a ticker line on CNN.
But Jones now says we went to war "with no justification." He has challenged the Bush administration, quizzing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other presidential advisers in public hearings. He has lined the hallway outside his office with "the faces of the fallen."
Jones represents the state's most military congressional district, running from Camp Lejeune along the coast through Cherry Point, up to the Outer Banks.
"If we were given misinformation intentionally by people in this administration, to commit the authority to send boys, and in some instances girls, to go into Iraq, that is wrong," Jones said. "Congress must be told the truth."
Jones is no favorite of the White House these days, or of his fellow Republicans, particularly those in leadership roles. The same impulse that prompted him to get mad at the French now makes Jones criticize the war and, lately, House ethics rules. Jones accepts that his emotions cost him influence, but he insists he can live with the consequences.
Jones essentially inherited his seat from his father, Walter B. Jones Sr., who held it for 26 years and who campaigned for his son before he died. His dad was an old-school Democrat known for his sense of humor and ability to use his committee chairmanship to steer projects to his district.
The son is a different man, a conservative Republican who disavows pork projects, tours churches more than social clubs, is quicker to tears than to laughter.
The younger Jones is a position-taker rather than a policy-writer or deal-maker.
Jones shared the stage recently with the Minutemen, the volunteer militia that recently conducted patrols along the Arizona-Mexico border in response to illegal immigration. Some criticized the Minutemen as out for publicity, but Jones describes them as heroes. Jones is a member of the Immigration Caucus opposing illegal immigrants, but has not been involved in legislation to curb immigration. He accepts that farmers back home -- and his father was one -- rely heavily on immigrant labor.
He is a founding member of a congressional caucus that opposes the Central American Free Trade Agreement, but does little to affect trade policy.
His choices reflect his personality: Jones sees what comes across his desk or through his door as indicators of God's will.
Jones has picked unusual battles lately. Or, he says, unusual battles have picked him -- championing an accused murderer and, separately, challenging House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
First, Ilario Pantano, the so-called preppy Marine lieutenant charged with shooting and killing two Iraqis during a search operation. Jones has said he'd be proud to call Pantano his son, even though the two hadn't met until April, when they shared double billing at a Wilmington fish fry. Their goal: to raise money for Pantano's defense on charges of premeditated murder.
Pantano has been the subject of a preliminary hearing that could have led to a court-martial at Camp Lejeune. However, the officer presiding over the hearing recommended Friday that all charges against Pantano be dismissed.
Early this year, Jones heard Pantano's mother interviewed on the radio. He asked his staff to find her. He talked with her, thought she sounded like a sweet person and agreed to call Pantano's attorneys.
"God just put it in my heart," Jones said. "I told her, if I believe your son is innocent, I will do everything that I can to make sure the people of this country know about your son."
He never called the Marines. He never called Pantano. He just took up his cause, introducing legislation whereby Congress would exonerate the lieutenant.
Jones has made speeches on the House floor every week for a month on behalf of Pantano. He speaks after Congress' day is done, at 7:30 p.m. or so, to an often-empty chamber. But he points out that as many as 2 million people may flip by C-SPAN in that five minutes.
Out of step with GOP
Jones has often put himself at odds with the Republican leadership of the House.
Jones has challenged DeLay, as a lonely Republican co-sponsor of a Democratic bill asking the House to undo a rules change. The change was enacted in January to protect DeLay as he faced ethics questions about accepting trips and gifts from lobbyists.
Jones voted against the House budget because it contained cuts in veterans' benefits. The compromise version of the budget now has more money, but Jones was reluctant to sign on.
He votes "no" more often than just about anyone, especially on programs he sees as unwarranted increases in federal spending, such as No Child Left Behind and last year's prescription-drug benefit bill.
Republicans do not usually need his vote. Their margin in the House (231 votes to Democrats' 202) is comfortable; but they say his contrariness marginalizes him.
"His father was more of a bargainer," said former U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger, a Hickory Republican. "Walter may bargain, but I've never run into it."
Jones is a member of the big class of Republicans first elected to the House in the 1994 GOP sweep; five are now in the Senate, including North Carolina's Richard Burr. Other Tar Heel Republicans, such as Charlotte's Sue Myrick and Asheville's Charlie Taylor, lead key House committees.
Jones does not aspire to be a chairman. "I have goals, but I don't have any burning desire for this or that," he said.
Jones hates to be rude, hates to appear hurried, says, "God bless you" to the elevator operators and security guards. In an annual survey by the Washingtonian magazine, Hill staffers voted him the kindest of the 435 House members.
"I work in a city of arrogance," Jones said, "Yet Christ is a man of humility."
Jones, a Catholic, anticipates a "time of purification" in Washington. He hopes it comes soon.
"The money up here is power," Jones said. "Power is money. It's true for both sides. That's what creates problems."
Jones, 62, came to Congress as an eager cop in Newt Gingrich's force bringing order to the ways of Washington.
He remains close to some members of his 1994 class, particularly Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Minnesota Republican, a fellow contrarian who said recently that Bush had no credibility on Social Security. As they hurried to the Senate floor last week, Gutknecht slapped his friend on the shoulder. "Walter and I came here to shake up Washington," Gutknecht said. "Washington has proved more resilient than we thought."
Jones was not always a Republican. He was a Democratic state legislator noted for his advocacy of campaign finance and lobbying reform. In Washington, he has championed no such single issue.
It's harder here, he said, because everything's so much bigger and more complicated.
Jones has carved out two niches -- constituent service and issues important to conservative Christians.
Jones grew up Southern Baptist, but converted to Catholicism 32 years ago. He has introduced legislation twice to allow preachers to endorse candidates from the pulpit.
This session, he has the support of black ministers and the interest of powerful Republican senators, such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sam Brownback of Kansas, both peers from Jones' early House days.
Jones' bill is the subject of a book, "Gag Order," by Gary Cass. Jones went on a book tour of sorts, signing hundreds of copies at Christian conferences. He delivered a petition with 60,000 signatures supporting his proposal to House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Jones is also working on a bill prompted by his discovery of "King & King," a Norwegian children's book that tells the story of two kings who fall in love, marry and live happily ever after. Jones carries a copy checked out from the Library of Congress.
The book is not in any school in his district; he does not know whether it's in any school in the state. Nonetheless he wants parents to monitor the kinds of books their children might be reading, and he proposes creating local boards to review books in school and public libraries.
Jones conducts as many meetings with constituents as he can, choosing to spend time with them over committee meetings or social functions. Jones sits in front of the desk, beneath a picture of himself and his father, beside a silver bust of Mother Teresa.
Each group wants to tell him something. Before they leave he always tells them something as well, whatever his passion of the moment happens to be: a handout on foreign debt; a reading from a letter he sends to the families of all fallen soldiers; excerpts from the book "A Pretext for War," which alleges an administration conspiracy behind the war in Iraq.
Jones tells one group how he's trying to find a piece of land in Washington for a memorial to war dogs. 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."
Jones is pushing legislation that would raise the threshold of Shackleford horses permitted to run wild on an island near Cape Lookout from 110 to as many as 130. Jones testified recently in the Senate, a courtesy afforded the sponsor of legislation. It was a courtesy Jones had so rarely used that he got lost in the hallway on the way.
He won't sell his soul
Jones says he is like his mother, an animal lover who would rather give credit than take it. His father had power, but when he joined the House leadership, he lost some of his independence. He said he remembers the worst day of his father's career, when he had to vote for a financial bailout of New York City in the 1970s.
"He had to vote it that way," Jones said. "I would rather do what I think is right than to sell my political soul."
Even if it costs his district and constituents, Jones said the people he represents know him and how he operates; they have elected him repeatedly, by 61 percent in 2000, his last competitive race.
Jones came to Washington with a generation that embraced term limits. Now he has become what he once demonized, a career politician.
The first question of politics -- Why did you run?-- stumps Jones. His cheek disappears again into his hand. He grimaces, the press-release regular who does not enjoy interviews, who is hurt, really, that his hometown paper, The Daily Reflector of Greenville, never endorses him, especially by the charge that his religious advocacy gets in the way of his work.
He ran, in part, because his name is Walter B. Jones Jr., a name with a long history.
He continues to run, in part, because an object in motion tends to stay in motion, a little disillusionment notwithstanding.
"We were going to do all these things to empower the people," he said of the Class of '94. "Too many times, we have expanded the government."
Yes, Washington tires him. Yes, he feels pain in his heart for the soldiers who have died, who have lost legs and arms. Yes, he knows some of his peers, especially Republicans, question his choices.
He points upward with one hand, and outward with another. "I've tried to do the best for Him," he says, "and the best for them."
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
-President Barack Obama, 1st Inaugural address