Walter Jones: The Antiwar Republican From North Carolina
Jones and Ron Paul of Texas are the only Republican members of the Out of Afghanistan Caucus, which includes Democrats Kucinich, John Conyers Jr., Bob Filner, Raúl Grijalva, Michael Honda, Barbara Lee, Jim McDermott, James McGovern, John Olver, Jan Schakowsky, José Serrano and Lynn Woolsey. The caucus, citing recent polls, issued a statement on March 16 saying, “The American people understand that our country’s fiscal state renders the continued funding of a war that costs over $2 billion a week unsustainable. A substantial withdrawal of troops later this year will go a long way towards rebalancing our domestic and overseas priorities and reduce government spending by billions of dollars.”
Jones told me he and his allies plan to take these steps in the coming months:
§ Find a respected general or public figure to speak out against the war to give cover to wavering members of Congress. “We need a drum major,” he said.
§ Have Jones and McGovern campaign against continuing the war in early presidential primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. They hope to push the Afghan War front and center in the American consciousness by addressing college students and encouraging presidential candidates to state their position on the war at their rallies.
“What we want to do here is increase the antiwar pressure on the Congress,” McGovern told me. “The antiwar sentiment is growing. I think we’re gaining traction. I really do. I’m a liberal; Walter Jones is a conservative. There is an alliance between liberals and conservatives that is emerging to end this war.
“Hey, look, I read my history about the Vietnam War and Congress’s role,” McGovern continued. “It was more and more people who got on board in every vote that ultimately forced the Nixon White House belatedly to end that war. We have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, and nobody wants to talk about it. It’s sometimes hard for me to fathom why a nation as great as ours can’t muster the necessary will to bring a war to an end that should be brought to an end. The mission changes every year. Al Qaeda is no longer there. Now we’re going to try to keep the Taliban in check. We’ll be there forever if that’s the goal.”
To see how Jones’s get-out-of-Afghanistan campaign is going over in his hometown, I talked with a wide spectrum of Farmville residents in restaurants, stores and St. Elizabeth Catholic Church. Nobody had a harsh word for Jones the man, even those who want the military to finish the job rather than withdraw too soon. “He hasn’t become a Washington politician,” said Nichole Reason, 23, a bartender at the Pour Haus Pub, the only bar in Farmville, in a typical comment. “He’s still a North Carolina man; he still looks out for the local people.”
Only Brooklyn-raised Father Joseph Yaeger, pastor of St. Elizabeth, had a needling comment about his parishioner. With eyes a-twinkle, Yaeger declared, “Jones is a fine man. But he’s a Republican. I can’t forgive him for that.”
I found one person who was glad to see Jones move out of Farmville—years ago, when he left to attend Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia, for his last two years of high school. His then–wife to be, JoeAnne Whitehurst, was in school in nearby Bethel, a fierce basketball rival of Farmville’s. “I hated him when I was growing up in Bethel because he was so good in basketball,” she said. “He was a gunner.”
So how does she feel now about being the wife of Congressman Jones?
“I’m an abnormal political wife, first of all. When he was elected to Congress in 1994, I retired from teaching because I thought I was going to need to be in Washington all the time. I stayed up there in DC for two years,” she said, noting that she decided she enjoyed Farmville more. So she moved back here to cover the home front for her husband, as Bess Truman had done before her in Independence, Missouri. When a senator asked her why she did this, JoeAnne replied, “Because my name is not on the ballot.”
For Walter Jones, whose name is on the ballot, guilt has been a powerful force for making amends to his God, and to the men and women he had a hand in sending into Iraq and to his constituents. It has impelled him to try to fire up a national debate over the wisdom of continuing to fight what he considers a hopeless, never-ending war in Afghanistan.