Wal­ter Jones, the ‘free­dom fries’ con­gress­man who then be­came Iraq War critic, dies

Texarkana Gazette - - RECORDS/ADVICE - By Feli­cia Son­mez

Wal­ter B. Jones Jr., a North Carolina con­gress­man who so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally sup­ported the 2003 in­va­sion of Iraq that he ar­gued for the french fries and French toast served in House cafe­te­rias to be called “free­dom fries” and “free­dom toast”—a jab at France for its op­po­si­tion to the war—but who later un­der­went a big change of heart and emerged as a prom­i­nent Repub­li­can critic of the war, died Sun­day, on his 76th birth­day.

His of­fice con­firmed his health hav­ing de­clined af­ter a fall in which he broke his hip. Jones had been granted a leave of ab­sence in late 2018 for an un­spec­i­fied ill­ness.

Jones first ran for Congress in 1992, cam­paign­ing un­suc­cess­fully as a con­ser­va­tive Democrat­for the north­east­ern North Carolina dis­trict that his fa­ther had rep­re­sented for 26 years. A South­ern Baptist from child­hood, Jones had con­verted to Catholi­cism in his early 30s and cited his op­po­si­tion to abor­tion among the fac­tors that led to his dis­en­chant­ment with his fam­ily’s long­time po­lit­i­cal party.

Two years later, amid the “Repub­li­can revo­lu­tion” that swept the House, he joined the GOP and won a seat in a neigh­bor­ing dis­trict that presently in­cludes the Ma­rine Corps’ Camp Le­je­une and Cherry Point air sta­tion.

Dur­ing his early ten­ure on Capi­tol Hill, he was a re­li­able Repub­li­can vote and, in 2002, joined most Repub­li­cans and many Democrats in vot­ing in fa­vor of a res­o­lu­tion au­tho­riz­ing Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush to use mil­i­tary force in Iraq af­ter Bush ac­cused Iraqi leader Sad­dam Hus­sein of hid­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

Rus­sia and France threat­ened to veto a United Na­tions res­o­lu­tion au­tho­riz­ing the war, but the French were the most vo­cal in their op­po­si­tion. In re­sponse, Jones and Rep. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, led a suc­cess­ful cam­paign to oust the word “French” from House cafe­te­ria items.

They were act­ing in an Amer­i­can tra­di­tion that dated at least to World War I, when sauer­kraut was rechris­tened “lib­erty cab­bage.” Jones called his ef­fort a re­sponse to France’s “self-serv­ing pol­i­tics of pas­sive ag­gres­sion,” while lib­er­als lam­pooned it as knee-jerk jin­go­ism.

The U.S.-led in­va­sion be­gan in March 2003 and has led to more than 4,000 U.S. deaths and more than 100,000 Iraqi ca­su­al­ties. No weapons of mass de­struc­tion were found, and the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the in­va­sion was soon re­vealed to have been based on faulty in­for­ma­tion. (“The peo­ple around Bush ma­nip­u­lated the in­tel­li­gence,” Jones later said.)

Jones, who came to deeply re­gret his cham­pi­oning of the war, traced his trans­for­ma­tion to a fu­neral held at Camp Le­je­une for a 31-yearold Ma­rine sergeant and am­phib­ian as­sault ve­hi­cle driver who had been killed in March 2003 while help­ing evac­u­ate wounded com­rades. In the pres­ence of their three young chil­dren, in­clud­ing new­born twins, his wi­dow read from the man’s fi­nal let­ter home.

“I had tears run­ning from my eyes,” the con­gress­man told Mother Jones mag­a­zine.

He watched as the older boy dropped a toy and a Ma­rine picked it up and handed it back. “And the boy looked up at him,” the con­gress­man said, “and the Ma­rine looked down, and then it hit me: This lit­tle boy would never know his daddy.”

“This was a spir­i­tual hap­pen­ing for me,” he told the mag­a­zine. “I think at that point I fully un­der­stood the loss that a fam­ily feels.” He added of his drive home: “The whole way, 72 miles, I was think­ing about what I just wit­nessed. I think God in­tended for me to be there.”

He be­gan writ­ing to rel­a­tives of ev­ery U.S. ser­vice mem­ber killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, one wrench­ing let­ter at a time.

“I have signed over 12,000 let­ters to fam­i­lies and ex­tended fam­i­lies who’ve lost loved ones in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and that was for me ask­ing God to for­give me for my mis­take,” Jones told NPR in 2017. He also hung posters dis­play­ing the faces of the war dead along the hall­way lead­ing to his of­fice on Capi­tol Hill.

In 2005, Jones pub­licly re­nounced his vote and called on Bush to set a time­line for with­drawal from Iraq.

He be­came a scathing critic of U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion un­der Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic pres­i­dents. But he held Bush’s vice pres­i­dent, Dick Cheney, in par­tic­u­lar con­tempt for his role ad­vo­cat­ing the Iraq in­va­sion.

“Lyn­don John­son’s prob­a­bly rot­ting in hell right now be­cause of the Viet­nam War, and he prob­a­bly needs to move over for Dick Cheney,” Jones said in 2013 dur­ing re­marks at a meet­ing of the lib­er­tar­ian group Young Amer­i­cans for Lib­erty in Raleigh, North Carolina.

While Jones held fast to core Repub­li­can tenets, in­clud­ing op­po­si­tion to abor­tion rights, on other is­sues he found him­self a lonely voice within the GOP. He backed cam­paign fi­nance re­form and in­creas­ing the min­i­mum wage. He twice op­posed his party’s leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, for House speaker. And he voted against Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s sig­na­ture tax bill in 2017 in part be­cause it raised the deficit.

Wal­ter Bea­man Jones Jr. was born in Far­mville, North Carolina, on Feb. 10, 1943. He grad­u­ated in 1961 from Har­grave Mil­i­tary Academy in Chatham, Vir­ginia, where he was a star bas­ket­ball player, and in 1966 with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in his­tory from At­lantic Chris­tian Col­lege (now Bar­ton Col­lege) in Wil­son, North Carolina.

Af­ter ser­vice in the North Carolina Na­tional Guard, he worked as a wine bro­ker w. Be­cause of his po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions, he was ap­proached in 1982 by a lo­cal Demo­cratic Party of­fi­cial to com­plete the term of a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive who had died in of­fice. He re­mained in the State­house un­til 1992.

In 1966, he mar­ried Joe Anne White­hurst. In ad­di­tion to his wife, sur­vivors in­clude a daugh­ter, Ash­ley.

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