By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 17, 2005
It started at a military funeral about two years ago, this heartache that Republican Walter B. Jones says has gripped him and won't let go.
It's the kind of pain that gnaws and prods. So much so that it pushed the North Carolina congressman to begin writing to other families of dead servicemen and women. (He's up to at least 1,300.)
And to collect pictures of the fallen. (There are rows of posters bearing them outside his Capitol Hill office.)
And just yesterday, that heartache pushed him to stand in the House press gallery with three colleagues, including two Democrats, and call for President Bush to set up a plan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by October 2006.
"What we all agree on is that it is time for a public discussion of our goals and the future of our military involvement in Iraq," Jones, 62, told the reporters packed shoulder to shoulder to witness this bipartisan effort. There he was, a proudly conservative Republican co-sponsoring a resolution with Reps. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). You know Kucinich, that hard-core antiwar Democrat who ran for president.
You know Jones, too. If not his name, then certainly his Freedom Fries. He's the guy largely responsible for the rechristening of the House cafeteria fries, so angry was he a few years back that the French wouldn't get with the war program.
But heartache has a way of changing a man's mind. And Jones, a man of deep Catholic faith, talks openly about listening to his heart.
It's time now, Jones says, "to take a fresh look at where we are and where we are going," not to focus on the past, on those silly fries or even those serious and now unfounded stories about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Too many lives have been lost, too many people have been wounded. He spent much of yesterday quoting the numbers over and over -- 1,700 dead, 12,000 wounded.
"I just believe that we have done as much as we can do in Iraq," he says, an intensity in his voice as he repeatedly outlined his argument about why he's broken ranks with his party. We've toppled Saddam Hussein, he says. We've put Iraq on the road to democracy. And we've trained its military. "What else should our goals be?"
Calls from his constituents have been running about 50-50, says the congressman, who has three military bases in his district, including Camp Lejeune.
Jones's stance, though, is not popular among members of his party. Robin Hayes, a fellow North Carolina Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told him this week he was just flat wrong, Hayes said yesterday.
"It's ill-timed, poorly thought out," says Hayes, who took a trip to Iraq in May.
And House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who's certainly got a lot of other things on his mind these days, issued a statement: "I think setting a time schedule for withdrawal from Iraq undermines our efforts to fight the war on terror. Why would you give your enemies a timetable? It never has worked; it won't work. We are fighting this war on terror to win."
Early yesterday afternoon, Jones said he hadn't directly heard from the White House and didn't expect to. He's used to being ignored by the administration.
But White House spokesman Scott McClellan did respond, saying setting a withdrawal would send the wrong message to Iraqi insurgents.
"This message would say to the terrorists: All you have to do is wait until that day when our troops leave and then you can start carrying out those attacks and just hold out," McClellan says.
Jones believes other Republicans will swing his way down the line, others, he says, who have privately told him as much.
"If doing what's right means I don't return to Congress, then it's God's will," he says. "And God knows my heart."
He's the son of Walter B. Jones Sr., a well-respected Democrat who served nearly 30 years in the House representing North Carolina. His son ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat and then switched parties, winning office with the Newt Gingrich revolution.
He's been in Congress for 11 years now, and in all that time, this has been one of the most intense weeks. There's been quite a bit of media attention for someone who describes himself as a nobody on the Hill. That description is rooted in humility, he says. "I'm just a foot soldier."
Still, the week started with an interview Sunday on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos, who flew down to North Carolina to see Jones.
"He's a very nice person," Jones says of Stephanopoulos. "He said, 'I remember your father. He was a very nice man.' And that was kind of him to do."
"He's not normally as high-profile," says press aide Kristen Quigley. "He never seeks out media attention and he's not now, but it's the nature of the issue that's drawing attention."
And the issue, Jones says, is all he cares about.
He is exceptionally polite through all the questions, repeating himself often, thanking each person he encounters, including the peace activists from Code Pink who catch him for a few words, despite the best efforts of Jones's aides to run interference. Jones has made it clear that he remains supportive of keeping the troops in Afghanistan. He's nowhere near becoming a peace activist, just a man who believes he's following his conscience, the way his father taught him.
He worries that the U.S. military is overextended, that our borders are in danger and that there are so many other countries to worry about, from North Korea's nuclear ambitions to China's growing economic power.
The first step, he says, is coming home from Iraq.
It compels him to sign those letters and make those calls to the families, and sometimes to simply break down in tears.
Doing a TV interview yesterday, he makes sure to position himself in front of a picture of a 6-year-old boy at the funeral of his father, who was killed in Iraq. The boy clings to the folded flag from his father's coffin.
The posters of the dead, each with rows of small snapshots, line the fourth-floor corridor leading to Jones's office. He asked his colleagues to each take a poster after the building superintendents complained about access in the hallway. As he walks down the hall, he points out visitors who have stopped to look at the faces.
"You see that?" he says. "I wanted people to remember that somebody has given their life each and every day for this country. These people who have given their lives, somebody is looking at them and remembering that people are dying."
The posters continue around the corner, he adds, and there are more coming.