UPDATE: I first posted this on Jan. 28 after learning that U.S. Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina was placed in Hospice care. Today he passed away, his family announced. Rest in peace Walter. My condolences to the family and friends of Rep. Jones. Peace to you all.
I saw over the weekend that U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones has been placed into hospice care after a recent litany of health issues, including a broken hip. I first met Walter in 1994 when I was managing editor of the Jacksonville Daily News and he was making his second bid for Congress in eastern North Carolina — this time as one of the Republican politicians running under the “Contract with America” authored by Newt Gingrich. They rolled into Washington with a head of steam during the mid-term election of President Bill Clinton’s first term not unlike what the Democrats did this past November during President Donald Trump’s first term. Walter, who first ran for Congress as a Democrat and lost, kept winning every election cycle after changing parties in a reconfigured district in what has added up to 24 years in Washington. When he won re-election in November this was to be his last term. I believe his father, Walter B. Jones Sr., served 26. By any standard an incredible stretch of family longevity in a pressure cooker that has evolved into Instant Pot intensity.
As usual with people in politics, I didn’t always agree with Walter (Freedom fries!?!). But we saw eye to eye often enough. He was a quiet maverick in the House. He often disagreed with his party and when that occurred he voted his conscience. I always respected that. He was usually accessible, accommodating and polite. There was no bluster to Walter Jones. Always measured in his speaking, when in the spotlight — as happened every so often — he was visibly uncomfortable. He represented his district with distinction and met the needs of his constituents.
Today I will share a column I wrote for the Jacksonville Daily News in around 2004 or 2005 concerning an unpopular stance Walter took about the war in Iraq. It speaks volumes about what politicians could be. I will be sad to see Walter go. Peace to his family in the days ahead.
Walter Jones looked thin and tired. His hair was a shade grayer than I remembered. Of course the latter I could say about myself. It’s a natural process, aging. No one is excluded.
But this seemed different.
I saw Jones, Onslow County’s representative to Congress for the last decade and change, a couple of weeks back on a visit to the Jacksonville Daily News just after he absorbed another round of body punches from some in this military community who question his complicity in a resolution that asks the Bush Administration to define what might constitute a theoretical end to the war in Iraq. Some thought at first that Jones, a Republican, was calling for the president of his own party to set a locked in date for U.S. troops to vacate the premises there — a move critics said would put troops in danger and harm America‘s foreign policy.
That’s flat wrong, Jones said, adding of the resolution, “Most people didn’t read it correctly.”
He’s been trying to modify the perception ever since. It‘s Part II of a head-spinning publicity storm generated since Jones took a position in direct opposition to many in his own party.
In the spotlight isn’t where Jones seems most comfortable but these are fast times for the modest son of a famous eastern North Carolina congressman who then became a congressman himself. Since he started questioning the war Jones has become a fixture on TV outlets like C-SPAN. He took a seat opposite former Clinton Administration aide and now ABC pundit George Stephanopoulos for an interview. He was even profiled in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
“You saw that, huh?” he asked and chuckled. “I didn’t read it. I never read things like that (about myself). … I just don’t, you know.”
He admitted to being a little flummoxed by his national TV experience. That appearance on “ABC This Week” with George Stephanopoulos is where the “date-certain” part of the resolution got started, the part that riled many in Onslow County. It was Stephanopoulos who inserted the words “date certain” into the conversation. Jones’ resolution asks for what the end strategy might be and some vague MapQuest version of how to get there.
“I should have stopped him (when he said it). I just didn’t pick up on it,” Jones said. “But I was somewhat in awe.”
Jones is still learning how to find shade in the media’s glare in much the same way he’s become educated in the ways of Washington over the last 11 years. To some, the Walter Jones of today stands in sharp contrast to the one elected in 1994. That was when the former state lawmaker, then running as Walter Jones Jr., captured 54 percent of the vote in what was mainly a congressional district his father ruled as a Democrat for more than 20 years. Born and raised a Democrat, Jones changed parties in 1993, filed to run in the 3rd District and quickly inked his name on Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. He was swept into office with the rest of the Gingrichites then spent his first 100 days in Congress working to put the Contract into law.
Jones has walked a lot of political miles since, watched some of his pet bills go to congressional dry stack and witnessed actions that tested the patience of a devout Christian like himself.
“Christ was a man of humility but I work in a town of arrogance,” he said.
So how could he not be changed?
“Even though I was 51 when I entered Congress and had experience in the (state) legislature, I think you do grow and mature,” he said. “… The Congress is different.
“I think about how much wiser I am now, not smarter but wiser,” he added. “I think I learn from listening. I think I’m wiser than I was in ’94.”
That perhaps played a part in his shifting views on Iraq. He said he was hesitant to vote for the war in 2003 and thought then that something didn‘t feel right. He’s studied the issue with intensity since.
“The days when I make snap decisions are gone and have been for years now,” he said. “I do my own research. Then I decide based on what I think is the best thing.”
That’s how Jones wound up where he is now, asking questions, pursuing information, looking for an answer to how U.S. troops can come safely home after winning the peace in Iraq.
If it means making a few folks angry then that’s OK.
“I have a lot of passion for what I believe is right,” Jones said. “You can look me in the eye and say ’Walter you’re wrong, you’re crazy’ but that’s fine. That’s how America’s supposed to work.”
That’s how politics should work, too.