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The Three Conversions of Walter B. Jones

From freedom fries to Marine funerals, a Southern Republican?s road to Damascus.

UNTIL THE CONGRESSMAN from North Carolina spoke, the hearings were proceeding routinely. The Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives was convened on April 6 in a stately room in the Rayburn office building to consider the progress of the war in Iraq; much of the testimony was barely more animated than the paintings of deceased legislators adorning the walls. Richard Perle, a former Pentagon adviser and one of the war's principal architects, had taken the witness chair. He was serene and unflappable as he answered questions about the Pentagon budget, oil prices, and the training of Iraqi troops.

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Then the chairman called on Rep. Walter B. Jones. Glaring at the witness, Jones quoted a statement from Perle's testimony suggesting that the administration had been misled in its assessment of Iraq by "double agents planted by the regime." The congressman's voice quavered as he demanded an apology to the country. "It is just amazing to me how we as a Congress were told we had to remove this man, but the reason we were given was not accurate."

"I went to a Marine's funeral that left a wife and three children, twins he never saw," Jones said, his voice cracking as his eyes began to water. "And I'll tell you—I apologize, Mr. Chairman, but I am just incensed at this statement." He continued, "When you make a decision as a member of Congress and you know that decision is going to lead to the death of American boys and girls, some of us take that pretty seriously, and it's very heavy on our hearts."

Jones wasn't the first erstwhile war supporter in Congress to have second thoughts; lawmakers like Senator Chuck Hagel and North Carolina Rep. Howard Coble preceded him in that reversal, and in November, most of the Senate's Republicans voted for a resolution calling on the administration to "explain to the American people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission." No less a figure than the Senate Armed Services Committee chair, Senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican and one of the Senate's old bulls, has warned that the point is approaching when support of the war may no longer be politically tenable.

Yet among all the defections, Jones' may be the most telling. The courtly 62-year-old Republican represents North Carolina's flag-waving 3rd District, home to the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune. He is known to his constituents as a staunchly conservative Christian, and known to the nation and the world for his insistence, back during the lead-up to war in 2003, that House cafeterias replace French fries on the menu with "freedom fries." He banished French toast, too. "A lot of us are very disappointed in the French attitude," Jones said then.

Against that backdrop, Jones' road to Damascus may seem especially long. But in truth, his conversion did not come about in spite of his conservative politics, his religious beliefs, his own military background, and his Marine constituency. It came about because of them.

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