The gesture at the Longworth Building cafeteria was supposed to be strictly symbolic of one ally’s choice not to support the United States’ war in Iraq. Instead, a little plaque with a wooden frame and capital letters created an international sideshow.
In early 2003, Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) sent a letter to Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) with a trite topic: renaming french fries to “freedom fries.” That January, France had announced its opposition to the proposed U.S.-led military action in Iraq. Around the same time, Jones, then a fervent supporter of the invasion, had heard from a constituent in Beaufort, N.C., who owned of a local diner that had renamed its fries and French toast in support of President George W. Bush’s war.
“Since the French are backing down, french fries and French everything needs to be banned,” Neal Rowland, the diner’s owner, told Fox News in 2003. “Fry sales have really gone up. People who eat them now say, ‘Freedom never tasted so good.’ ”
Jones, who died Sunday on his 76th birthday, didn’t know whether the suggestion was a good idea, but his chief of staff advised him to at least reach out to Ney, who, as chairman of the House Administration Committee, had oversight of the restaurants on that side of the Capitol.
“I wasn’t going to try to make an issue out of it, but my chief of staff said, ‘Just write Bob Ney, he’ll just throw it in the trash can,’ ” Jones, who did not eat fries, told the Russian news agency RT in 2011. “Well, it didn’t happen.”
Stepping inside the cafeteria on March 11, 2003, about a week before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Jones and Ney were shocked. What was supposed to be a small media showing attracted journalists from every major outlet and seemingly every corner of the world. Ney handed the plaque to Jones, in what he had envisioned as a “lighthearted gesture.” It read: “***Update*** Now Serving.... In All House Office Buildings... ‘FREEDOM FRIES.’ ”
“This action today is a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure many on Capitol Hill have with our so-called ally, France,” Ney said at the news conference at the cafeteria.
Added Jones: “Watching France’s self-serving politics of passive aggression in this effort has discouraged me more than I can say.”
"Freedom fries” did not remain small for long, lighting a renewed anti-French sentiment that percolated throughout some circles of U.S. culture during the early stages of the Iraq War. Sixty percent of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of France in 2003, worse than any other European nation and comparable to that of Saudi Arabia, according to the Pew Research Center. Republican congressmen proposed boycotting that year’s Paris Air Show, while J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), then House speaker, explored legislation against bottled mineral water and wine from France. French’s, the mustard maker, went so far as to put out a statement clarifying its roots, saying, “The only thing French about French’s Mustard is the name.”
But the “freedom fries” campaign also resulted in endless skewering for a couple years from the likes of restaurants, Democratic leaders, Anthony Bourdain, Tina Fey, Robert Plant and even the French government.
Jones would eventually come to share the views of those critics, evolving into one of the loudest voices against the Iraq invasion and expressing tremendous regret for supporting it. Despite 24 years in Congress working on issues that were both in line (opposition to abortion rights) and out of step (supporting an increased minimum wage and campaign finance reform) for the Republican Party, his name also became inextricably linked to “freedom fries.”
So, how did Jones become known as the champion of “freedom fries” in the first place?
It started in Beaufort, population about 4,000, where Rowland told Fox News that a conversation with a customer helped open his eyes to the small gesture he could offer as his way to support the troops, which he then shared with his congressman.
“We opened up our menu and the word ‘French’ just took us and grabbed us,” Rowland said to CNN. “So all of a sudden we decided, you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to change our french fries to ‘freedom fries’ in support of our president, also our troops.”
When Jones brought the idea to Ney, he wasn’t immediately convinced it was a priority worthy of Congress. In his 2013 memoir “Sideswiped: Lessons Learned Courtesy of the Hit Men of Capitol Hill,” Ney wrote that it was not until he returned from McConnelsville, Ohio, where troops were preparing for deployment to Iraq, that he realized how important Jones’s idea was in the short term.
“I returned to D.C. with these images in my mind, and coupled with French President Jacques Chirac’s refusal to vote for a United Nations’ resolution authorizing war in Iraq and the American anti-French sentiment and the rhetoric that went with that, I was ready to act on Walter’s request,” Ney said.
But the public response was something neither man anticipated. When he later spoke at a school in his congressional district in Ohio, Ney, according to his book, was greeted with a sign made by the students: “Only Freedom Fries Served Here.” CNN, Fox, international media and others came calling — a lot.
“We were getting more phone calls from the media than during the consideration of impeaching President Clinton,” Ney recalled. “It was completely overwhelming. Freedom fries was becoming iconic, going global.”
But Jones, who asked Ney to handle the press requests as he didn’t “do well with this much media,” saw the backlash that came as a result of “freedom fries.” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said it made “Congress look even sillier than it sometimes looks.” A Gallup poll that year found that 66 percent of polled Americans found “freedom fries” to be a “silly idea,” compared with 33 percent who thought it was an “expression of patriotism.”
Culturally, things did not get any better. “Doonesbury” criticized “freedom fries” in French. Plant, the Led Zeppelin singer, released an antiwar song with his band Strange Sensation titled, “Freedom Fries.” On “Saturday Night Live,” days after the news conference at Longworth, Fey and Jimmy Fallon had more than enough material at the “Weekend Update” desk.
“In France, American cheese is now referred to as ‘idiot cheese,’” Fey said on March 15, 2003.
On the series premiere of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” in 2005, the celebrity chef visited Paris with an episode title directly addressing the U.S. hostility toward the nation: “France: Why the French Don’t Suck.”
“I wanted to explore the Paris of locals,” Bourdain said. “You know, show my countrymen why the French don’t suck.”
Then, in 2006, there was a change. Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), who replaced Ney as chairman of the House Administration Committee while the Ohio congressman was facing corruption charges after being linked to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, quietly changed the food back to french fries in the House cafeteria. (Ney served 17 months in prison for conspiracy and making false statements, and was released in 2008.)
“It’s no big deal,” a spokesman for Ehlers told NBC News in 2006. “It’s not news.”
The news did not stop the French government from having some fun with the change.
“Our relations are definitely much more important than potatoes,” Agnes von der Muhll, then a spokeswoman for the French Embassy, said to the Washington Times in 2006. “French fries are back in the Capitol, back on the presidential dinner menu and our relations are back on track.”
As Jones’s stance changed on the war in Iraq, he also came to regret his role in creating freedom fries. “Walter wants to distance himself from freedom fries, and I’ll oblige him,” Rowland said in a 2007 news release, according to Politico. (The restaurant has since closed, according to Yelp.)
Jones tried to reconcile his regret over the war by writing thousands of letters to the families of U.S. service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last November, he ran unopposed in his reelection bid, winning a 13th term. He was granted a leave of absence in December for an unspecified illness, and was moved to hospice care on Jan. 26 after a fall that caused him to break his hip.
In “Sideswiped,” Ney maintained that Jones was “sincere” in his efforts at the time and that “freedom fries” was not a stunt. Jones would always take full responsibility whenever he was asked about both the war and the fries he vouched for 16 years ago.
“I wish it had never happened,” Jones said to local media in 2005, according to the Guardian.
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