Rep. Jones was a man of convictions, principle
Sunday, February 17, 2019
U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., who died Sunday on his 76th birthday, was a fascinating lawmaker.
He was a man who held strong convictions but who was willing to listen to the other side and could be moved when the argument was particularly persuasive. He was the rare official who wasn’t afraid to reach across the aisle when the cause was just.
It was a quality his constituents in the 3rd Congressional District, which covered all or part of 17 counties in eastern North Carolina, obviously appreciated. They continued to send Jones to Washington because they knew him, they liked him and they trusted he would stand up for them — trust that was repeatedly rewarded.
Jones came to federal office following time in the N.C. General Assembly, where he was a member of the Democratic Party. His father, who represented North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District for 26 years, was also a Democrat and when Jones Sr. announced he would retire in 1992, the younger Jones campaigned to replace him.
Jones Sr. died before that election, and Jones Jr. lost in the primary to Eva Clayton, a Democrat who would spend a decade representing the 1st District. A change of party registration followed as did passage of a redistricting plan that landed Jones’ home of Farmville in the 3rd District.
Elected to Congress as part of the “Contract with America” class of Republicans mobilized by then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich in 1994, Jones spent many of his first years in Washington as a reliable and unobtrusive vote for the GOP agenda.
Jones was a man of faith, a convert to Catholicism who spoke easily about deeply held religious beliefs. Those principles helped guide his time in public office, where he supported conservative positions on issues such as abortion and a less stringent separation of church and state.
They also instilled in him a kindness toward his fellow man that was a defining feature of his public persona. In fact, the only time his anger was on display was during his most notorious folly.
In 2003, the United States was careening toward war with Iraq. The Bush administration was making its case to federal lawmakers and international delegations, finding more support among the former than the latter as it sought to mobilize public support for military intervention.
France, a NATO member and long-standing ally, emerged as a leading opponent, and its government, led by President Jacques Chirac, refused to support a United Nations resolution backing American action.
Jones, along with fellow Republican Rep. Rob Ney of Ohio, made their resentment clear by petitioning for a change at the House cafeteria, renaming French fries and French toast as “Freedom fries” and “Freedom toast.” Both men seemed surprised by the attention that change received, and Jones in particular was taken aback by the withering criticism that followed.
Always an introspective man, Jones spent considerable time since the start of the Iraq war concerned about his vote to put troops in harm’s way. He listened to the war’s opponents and came to believe evidence that the Bush administration had based its case on manipulated intelligence.
And so Jones, in a high profile about-face, announced in 2005 his opposition to the war and called for a full troop withdrawal. He began writing letters to the family members of every fallen soldier, expressing his condolences — more than 11,000 letters in all.
The Republican Party punished him for breaking ranks, stripping him of a plum committee assignment. But he continued to speak his mind, standing up for his rural eastern North Carolina district and advocating for reducing the national debt and strengthening campaign finance rules.
"It's absolutely about principle," he told the Associated Press last year. "When I leave Congress, I would rather have one thing said about me: 'I will never question Walter Jones' integrity.'"
His integrity remained beyond reproach to the end, something few lawmakers can say. Jones was an excellent representative for the 3rd District. But more than that, he was good man and he’ll be missed.