Farmville, North Carolina
The reason the man of the house—Republican Congressman Walter Jones Jr.—was not home on a recent Sunday was that his conscience was bothering him. So he went to his 3rd Congressional District office in nearby Greenville, North Carolina, to add handwritten notes of condolence to the form letters he sends to every family who loses a son or daughter in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During an interview in their comfortable but not palatial home here, Jones’s feisty wife of forty-five years, JoeAnne, described his laserlike focus on getting those letters written on weekends. “You can’t reach him,” she said. “He doesn’t answer his phone. I had to reach him one Sunday for something. So I drove into Greenville and tapped on his office window. The man never stops.”
With one painful exception, the devout Jones, who grew up in this sparsely populated part of the tobacco belt and seems to know everyone in Farmville (population 4,615), votes the way God and his conscience tell him to. Jones considers himself a conservative on most issues, including abortion. “A child is a gift from God,” he argued. “No baby should be aborted unless a mother has been raped, impregnated by incest or would risk her life by giving birth. Even in those three cases it should be the mother’s choice.”
Sometimes his conscience tells him to vote differently from the way House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican Party operatives ask him to. This drives party leaders nuts. Jones’s independence has probably kept him from rising to a committee chairmanship as his Democratic dad did before him. The elder Jones, who died in 1992, was chair of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee from 1981 to 1992.
Even though more retired military people live in Jones’s district than in most other districts in the country, he has discovered that many marines who served in Afghanistan agree with him that the United States is fighting a hopeless, never-ending war for a corrupt government. Jones, who gets down on his knees every night to pray for God’s guidance on the issues he will be voting on in the House of Representatives, is conscience-stricken about all the American lives being lost or ruined in Afghanistan and Iraq. His conscience, laminated to his guilt for voting to invade Iraq in 2002, has radicalized this conservative Republican from rural North Carolina into doing everything he can to get the roughly 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan the hell out of there.
Jones is seeking co-sponsors on a bill that would force President Obama to send a plan to Congress to pull all our troops out of Afghanistan. Jones is especially eager to win over Republicans to his side in hopes of compelling Boehner to become more flexible on the pullout. As of the May Congressional recess, Jones had forty-one co-sponsors signed up, including seven Republicans.
Jones has allied himself with liberal Democrat Dennis Kucinich on many issues raised by the “war on terror” and Obama’s decision in late March to go to war against the Libyan government without bothering to get Congressional authorization. “We must not let any war continue absent legal authorization by Congress,” Kucinich said. He contends that Obama not only violated the War Powers Act of 1973 but also the Constitution, which empowers Congress, not the president, to declare war and provide for the common defense, in Arti- cle 1, Section 8. Kucinich has vowed to force a vote in the House “to end US military operations in Libya.” Jones and Kucinich are discussing filing suit in federal court to force a judicial ruling on whether Obama overstepped his constitutional bounds regarding Libya.
Jones is also a point man in an effort in the House to grab back from the president the powers the founding fathers gave Congress to declare war and provide for the common defense. Not since 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, has Congress exercised its right to declare war. Jones sponsored a bill that would subject a president who lied in giving the reasons for going to war to prosecution by the Justice Department. The measure never left the subcommittee. As for Obama’s bombing of Libya, Jones said, “We’re neutered as a Congress. It’s like we don’t exist.”
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Some readers may remember Jones as the Congressman who in 2003 got the House cafeterias to change the name of french fries to “freedom fries” on their menus. His idea was to punish the French government for not backing George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But Jones, 68, has changed his feathers from hawk to dove since the Iraq War, a change that followed from his conversion years ago from Democrat to Republican and from Baptist to Catholic.
“I went to all the classified briefings” that the Bush administration arranged for members of Congress to make its case for invading Iraq, he said. “When the night came to vote on the resolution to give Bush the authority to go into Iraq, I walked to the floor not believing the justification was there. My conscience said Saddam did not bring down the Twin Towers. So I go to the floor, and I’m more concerned about those down in my district who had fought for this country and how they would feel, because we had the administration telling the American people that Saddam was behind the towers. My guilt is that I was not strong enough to vote my conscience as a man of faith. All this comes from my not trusting God as much as I profess to do and being concerned about being re-elected instead of being concerned about doing what’s right for our military.” Jones is writing a book explaining his change of heart and apologizing for voting to invade Iraq.
His guilt about that vote, seeing crippled teenagers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, attending military funerals where he sees children with pain in their eyes because they are burying fathers and mothers they loved and cannot believe are dead—all these things and more drove Jones into reading everything he could find about the attempts of previous empires to occupy Afghanistan. The more he read, the stronger he felt the urgency of getting the troops out.
Here is Jones’s brief for withdrawing from Afghanistan as early as December 31, drawn from our talks and his recent statements on the House floor and in news conferences:
§ ”Afghanistan will never be changed,” no matter how many troops we send there or how many billions we spend in the corruptly led country. “Great leaders and great nations have tried to change Afghanistan. We’re trying to change a country that no one else has changed. It’s different from Iraq in a multitude of ways. At least Iraq had a semblance of government. Afghanistan has none of that.”
§ The Afghan Infrastructure Fund of $400 million “would help create another ‘bridge to nowhere,’” Jones contended in championing an amendment to eliminate the money. It is “going to be borrowed money from the Chinese to begin with…. We’re propping up a corrupt, dishonest government headed by President Karzai,” he said. “And we’re going to say to the American people, we can’t help you with your infrastructure needs in your counties, in your towns.” Jones’s amendment was defeated 294 to 135, but he got ninety-nine Democrats and thirty-six Republicans, including Republican Fred Upton of Michigan, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to vote with him.
§ ”I want to share very quickly a letter from a retired colonel who’s a marine [who] lives in my district,” Jones told his House colleagues. He quoted: “‘I would have been on my third or fourth deployment by now to a war that has gone on too long…. It makes no sense if we’re there four years or forty. The results will be the same…. This war is costing the United States billions of dollars a month to wage, and we still continue to get more young Americans killed. The Afghan war has no end state for us.’”
§ ”I want to put a face on this debate,” Jones said in another House speech. He showed a picture of Tyler Jordan, a young boy whose father, Gunnery Sgt. Phillip Jordan of Cincinnati, was killed in Afghanistan. “He is attending his father’s funeral…. The 6-year-old little boy—you can’t see his eyes, but they hurt. They’re pained. How many more Tyler Jordans are going to be waiting for their daddy or mom to come home to be buried if we stay there four, five, six or seven more years, as has been indicated by the leadership of the military and this administration?”
§ ”I’m concerned that Mr. Obama is going to get cornered into staying in Afghanistan much longer than 2014,” Jones told me. “Three or four more years, we will wear out the military and its equipment.”
Jones believes his anti–Afghan War effort is slowly winning supporters in the House. Most of them are Democrats, but he has high hopes of converting Tea Party Republicans looking for more places to cut the budget. “A lot of these Tea Party types said during their campaigns that they were ready to get out of Afghanistan,” Jones said. “Slowly, but not enough of them, Republicans are beginning to inch toward bringing the troops home.” Jones said he was encouraged by a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that found 64 percent of the public does not think the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting, and 73 percent say the United States should withdraw “a substantial number” of combat forces from Afghanistan this summer.
Jones and Kucinich co-sponsored a resolution that would require Obama to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year. The House voted it down 321 to 93 on March 17. Only eight of the 230 Republicans who voted on the resolution favored it; Democrats were split, with eighty-five voting yea and ninety-nine nay.
I asked Kucinich if he is finding the Afghan hill too steep to climb.
“Never!” he replied sharply. “Ultimately, we may have to wait for millions of Americans to take to the streets. In a way, that is what the Tea Party has been about, except that it’s rapidly being usurped by corporate interests. But the movement represented an authentic expression of a dissatisfaction that people have with the government. Sooner or later, people will get it.”
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.