At first, Jones was a loyal soldier in Gingrich's revolutionary army. He backed tax cuts, a redesigned welfare system, the Balanced Budget Amendment, and more money for the Pentagon. The handbook Politics in America described him as "one of the unreconstructed true believers' of the GOP Class of 1994."
But, like the celluloid Mr. Smith, soon after Mr. Jones went to Washington he found himself disillusioned. The machinations of lobbyists, the power of money, and the ego-driven politics of the nation's capital upset him. "Christ was a man of humility," he says. "Washington is a city of arrogance." Still, when George W. Bush declared a war on terror, and then took that war to Iraq, Jones was an early, firm, and vocal supporter. He believed what the Bush administration said about Iraq's connections to Al Qaeda and about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and he became one of the war's strongest advocates.
The idea that catapulted Jones into the headlines back then came from Cubbies, a chain of restaurants in eastern North Carolina. In Greenville, Cubbies' black awning spreads out over the corner of Evans Street and East 5th, and signs proclaim: "Voted #1 Cheeseburger and Hot Dog in Pitt County." Inside, the place is packed with sports memorabilia and "Go Pirates" posters. Rough-hewn wood tables surround a comfortable bar. There are 13 Cubbies in North Carolina, including one in downtown Farmville and another in Beaufort, just outside the Cherry Point Naval Air Station. Neal Rowland, who owns the Cubbies franchise in Beaufort, first introduced "freedom fries" in February 2003, and soon customers were clamoring for them at every Cubbies. Jones "was inspired by it," says Rowland. "He came in, and we chitchatted and talked." Back in Washington, Jones prevailed on Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Administration Committee, to rewrite the menus on Capitol Hill. With hindsight, it's not one of his proudest moments. "I wish it had never happened," he says now.
Just two months after the French fry incident came the event that would set off Jones' third conversionthe memorial ceremony for Marine Sergeant Michael Bitz. Bitz was a 31-year-old amphibian assault vehicle driver who was killed in Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003, while trying to evacuate wounded troops. The young Marine left behind a wife, Janina, a two-year-old son, and a pair of newborn twins. His funeral was held on the grounds of Camp Lejeune, on the banks of the New River. Jones watched the Marines fold the flag that had draped the coffin and hand it to Janina Bitz as her toddler wandered close by. "She read from the last letter that he sent her," he recalls. "I had tears running from my eyes." The little boy, Joshua, dropped a toy, and a young Marine in dress uniform stooped to pick it up, handing it to the child. "And the boy looked up at him, and the Marine looked down, and then it hit me: This little boy would never know his daddy." The tableau affected Jones in a way that he struggles to explain. "This was a spiritual happening for me," he says. "I think at that point I fully understood the loss that a family feels." Driving home to Farmville that day, grief swelled in him. "The whole way, 72 miles, I was thinking about what I just witnessed. I think God intended for me to be there."
Jones began writing letters to the families of each and every U.S. soldier, sailor, and Marine killed in Iraq, a practice that he continues today. He's written more than 2,000 in all. He works on them every Saturday, alone in his office in Greenville. He can bear to do only a few at a time. "I can do four or five letters, and then I have to stop and do something else," he says. "And then I come back and do another five." Outside his office on Capitol Hill stands a forest of placards titled "Faces of the Fallen," bearing photographs of Americans killed in Iraq; there are so many that Jones' staff has to rotate the placards. Those not displayed on easels in the hall lean against a breakfront by his desk.
Gradually, one letter at a time, Jones' doubts about the war began to take shape. The failure of U.S. forces to uncover weapons of mass destruction gnawed at him, and the billions of dollars being spent added to his concern. He worried about President Bush's inability to enunciate clear goals for the war. "In all the president's speeches," Jones says, "I've never heard the president say that there is an end point."
Jones turned to those closest to him for guidance, including his pastor. Father Kerber recalls times that he and Jones would pray about important decisions, sometimes getting down on their knees in Jones' congressional office. "He's told me of the anguish he felt about the deaths in Iraq," he says. "He would talk to me after Mass to say that his heart was so disturbed."
Then"as God would have it," Jones sayshis daughter, who works for the state agriculture department in Raleigh, gave him a gift that changed everything. For his long drives back and forth between Washington, D.C., and Farmville, a lonely trip down Interstate 95 that can take five or six hours, she presented him with an audiotape of James Bamford's A Pretext for War, a scathing indictment of the Bush administration's abuse of prewar intelligence that excoriates the neoconservatives who hyped the threat from Iraq. The revelations opened Jones' eyes. "I was so concerned that I bought the book so I could highlight it." Jones invited Bamford to lunch and then brought him back to Capitol Hill for an off-the-record dinner with two dozen members of Congress. Bamford, a former investigative producer for ABC News who has written widely on in-telligence issues, was impressed. "The vast majority of people in Congress, once they make a mistake, don't want to admit it, which is why I have a lot of admiration for Walter Jones," he says. "Until then, he had felt the emotion of the war and the casualties, but he hadn't focused on the lies and the distortion and the exaggeration involved in the period before the war."
That was last winter. Since then, Jones has met with numerous opponents of the administration's Iraq policy, including conservatives such as General Anthony Zinni, the former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, and General William E. Odom of the Hudson Institute, a former director of the National Security Agency. He has sat down in his office with antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan.
Last June, along with Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Jones introduced a resolution presaging the one his Senate Republican colleagues would pass a few months later, but with one key difference: Jones' version would have required the administration to develop a specific timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. He titled it Homeward Bound.