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 dramatic change of heart and emerged as a prominent Republican critic of the war, died Sunday, on his 76th birthday.
His office confirmed the death in a statement. It had announced on Jan. 26 that the 13-term lawmaker had entered hospice care, 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-year-old 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.
In 2012, responding to his rebellious streak, GOP leaders moved to strip him of his position on the Financial Services Committee. But while some considered him a gadfly, others viewed him as a principled legislator – including many of his constituents, who continually returned him to office.
“What Jones showed is that you can be a very conservative guy, you can be a libertarian, but you can find all kinds of ways to work with members from across the aisle,” said Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar. “Being conservative doesn’t mean you need to march in lock-step.”
“Maybe you’re shut out of power because you don’t conform, but you get recognized the right way,” Ornstein added.
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 with a territory that included North Carolina and Virginia. 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.
In explaining one of his votes against his party – his opposition to the sweeping GOP tax bill in 2017 – Jones told The Washington Post that he believed the measure would not help the middle class, describing his decision as a matter of conscience.
“You always run concerned; nobody should, and I don’t, take (the seat) for granted,” Jones said. “But I don’t think anyone can question my integrity.”