I’ve been on a roller coaster ride over the years with Walter Jones. In the early 90s, while in DC, a fellow North Carolinian started telling me about this rebellious conservative Democrat in the North Carolina House. “He’s one to keep your eye on,” my friend told me.
Walter B. Jones, Jr. left us today — his 76th birthday — for that grand journey through the pearly gates. For the last year or so, he had been bothered by minor ailments that seemed, at least to his doctors, as typical for a man getting older.
After defeating two opponents in the May 2018 primary, things really started going down-hill with the health. It wasn’t until the end of 2018 that the Jones family and close friends began to realize things were much more serious.
Political opponents were quick to pounce. Many had the nerve to suggest Jones hid the seriousness of his illness from the voters so he could get back to Washington.
Walter Jones was a man who would choose going home to Farmville to grocery-shop, go to church, and mow his lawn over a weekend of Washington cocktail parties in a heartbeat. To suggest he had some love of DC that overruled his love and sense of loyalty for his home state, his hometown and his district is ludicrous — to say the least.
I met Jones ONCE — as a young political reporter covering his 1996 campaign for reelection to Congress. Granted, I had met a lot of politicians by that time. But there was something almost surreal — something very genuine — about this guy. I had him pegged as someone who could quite possibly bring a breath of fresh air to DC and give all of us frustrated little people outside the beltway at least a little bit of hope.
Walter Jones reminded me a lot of my former boss in DC — the late senator Jesse Helms. Both men were old-school, down-to-earth, down-home people. Both men had independent streaks that would drive their caucus leaders CRAAAAAAAAAZY. Neither of them sat around waiting with baited breath for instructions from the speaker or whip’s office.
Neither man could be “managed.” Both of them would speak their minds before the public and the driveby media at a frequency that would drive consultants and staffers loony. Jones’s statements about Trump and Mueller, and Renee Ellmers and Kevin McCarthy are two instances that come to mind.
Neither man was a finger-to-the-wind kind of guy — the type you see all over Washington and Raleigh these days. Jones and Helms were both men of principle. The wishes of the party and its operatives were a distant, distant, distant second (or third).
My patience with Jones got tested over his stands on military action overseas. As the son of a career military officer, I’ve always been a firm believer in passionately debating the policy or decision first. But after the decision is made, and our folks are in the field and in harm’s way, our job is to cheer for the home team to accomplish their mission and come home victorious and safe.
I now understand Jones’s reasons — his argument — for rethinking his position on overseas military action. They were based more on his religious faith and his connection with the families of fallen soldiers than on some alleged lack of patriotism. I disagree with how he expressed it all. But I respect him for expressing his sentiments.
Jones’s votes on military action and against some parts of the caucus agenda led to accusations that he had gone “liberal.” (Never mind that all of the major conservative effectiveness rating systems consistently had him rated as one of the top three most conservative members of the North Carolina delegation to the US House. )
The Walter Jones era in Washington leaves us with some valuable lessons about holding firm to your principles, staying true to who you are, and keeping the folks back home who keep sending you to DC at the forefront of your mind in everything you do.
Rest in peace, Mr. Jones. I”m sure you and your father have a lot of catching up to do behind those pearly gates.