Remembering Rep. Walter B. Jones, Jr.
by Patrick O’Neill
It may be have been unprecedented on the U.S. political landscape — a Catholic U.S. Congressman who was invited to be the keynote speaker at both an anti-abortion rally and an anti-war rally — in the South.
Yet, that’s what happened when Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., an Eastern North Carolina Congressman who lived out his adopted Catholic faith like an Old Testament prophet, came to podiums a few blocks and a few years apart to address audiences that hold few shared values. Jones died Sunday in his hometown of Farmville, on his 76th birthday after a short stint in hospice care.
Far removed from the self-survival mindset of most Catholic Democrats who fearfully abandoned their Church when it came to protecting the unborn, Jones sounded every bit like Jerry Falwell when he spoke in Raleigh at the North Carolina Right-to-Life Rally railing against “baby killing.”
In Raleigh again, at the invitation of Veterans for Peace, Jones received a standing ovation from a room full of lefties the likes of which you’d expect to see for Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
Christina Cowger of North Carolina Stop Torture Now, said Jones was one of the few politicians who gave an ear to a group that has been calling for U.S. accountability for its role in torture for more than decade.
“Before he became ill, Jones told us he would appear in public and make a statement about torture and North Carolina’s role,” Cowger said. “It’s too bad we didn’t have a chance to make that happen. He was a remarkable man.”
Jones spent most of his House career essentially on a mission to atone for his vote in support of sending troops to Iraq following the 9-11 war hysteria. It was Jones’s contention that he had been lied to by Pres. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others that led to his vote in favor of preemptive war.
So enthusiastic was Jones in initially backing the war effort that he is credited with coining the term “freedom fries” to replace “French” fries in the U.S. House cafeteria when France refused to join the pro-war-with-Iraq U.S.-led coalition.
“Jones was driven by his principles,” wrote the News & Observer editorial board on February 11: ‘Don’t just praise Rep. Walter Jones — emulate him.’) “He voted with Donald Trump only about 50 percent of the time.”
Jones voted against Trump’s tax cuts and against repealing the Affordable Care Act, and he supported overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. Jones called on Trump to release his tax returns and he called for an independent investigation into claims Russia influenced the 2016 election. He was against feeding the national debt and wanted money out of politics.
However, Jones paid dearly for his maverick positions. The February 11 News & Observer editorial board noted the consequences Jones endured for his moral independence.
Jones “won few friends with his courageous stands. In fact, he was rewarded by being stripped of committee memberships, was never named a committee chairman and was banished to the Republicans’ back bench.
“That’s the price to be paid these days by a politician, from either side, who does not come to attention and salute the party line. Independence should be a trait that is celebrated, not punished, but Jones knew that’s not the case in 21st century America.
“Jones’s colleagues could better honor him not by heaping praise on him but by emulating him. Where has their respect for his nonaligned nature been up to now?”
Jones made national headlines for his change of heart over his Iraq War vote. An early supporter of the war, Jones eventually regretted his pro-war vote.
“I did not do what I should have done to read and find out whether Bush was telling us the truth about Saddam (Hussein) being responsible for 9/11 and having weapons of mass destruction,” Jones is quoted as saying in a 2015 radio interview. “Because I did not do my job then, I helped kill 4,000 Americans, and I will go to my grave regretting that.”
As part of his self-imposed “penance,” Jones began sending personal letters — more than 11,000 in total since 2003 — to families of dead troops. Jones began sending the letters after attending the funeral of Marine Sgt. Michael Bitz, who died in Iraq in 2003.
“I want them to know that my heart aches as their heart aches,” Jones told the Associated Press.
Jones posted photos on the wall outside of his House office, of “anybody that’s been sent and died from Camp Lejeune,” he told The News & Observer. To date, Jones’ memorial had grown to more than 500 photos of troops that died.
In a tribute to Jones by Raleigh News & Observer political writer, Rob Christensen, published February 3 while Jones was under hospice care, Christensen called Jones “an American original.”
Christensen wrote that Jones:
has been a social conservative: a leading abortion opponent . . . He has been a special favorite of the Religious Right, and when he visits the small towns and country churches that dot Eastern North Carolina, he speaks a language that is more likely to come from the Bible than from a political consultant or poll. . . .
Although his colleagues do not regard him as a deep thinker, there has always been a ideological consistency to his positions. Jones believes in protecting life — whether it is the unborn or young men sent into battle for optional wars.
Christensen also wrote, Jones’ “spigot of campaign funds out of Washington was long ago cut off, and he is sometimes seen sitting alone at the Capital Hill Club, a GOP social club, two blocks from the Capital.”
Jones was born Feb. 10, 1943, in Farmville. He is survived by his wife, Joe Ann, and daughter, Ashley.
An email statement from Jones’ congressional office was issued following his death Sunday: “Congressman Jones will long be remembered for his honesty, faith and integrity. He was never afraid to take a principled stand. He was known for his independence, and widely admired across the political spectrum. Some may not have agreed with him, but all recognized that he did what he thought was right.”
Editor’s Note: When Christenson says Jones “believes in protecting life,” this doesn’t include opposition to the death penalty, nor does it imply that Jones followed the consistent life ethic. It’s the juxtaposition of opposition to both abortion and war, using the same principle, which interests us.