Congress loses man of courage, decency

Mark Shields

As on so many matters, former Republican Senate leader Bob Dole put it best when he said that almost all members of Congress love to make tough speeches; they just don’t like to make tough votes. Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., the North Carolina Republican who died on his 76th birthday, was an admirable exception. Elected to his 12th term in November, he was nobody’s idea of a velvet-voiced orator. However, Walter Jones spoke volumes through the eloquence of his political courage.

Not surprisingly for a congressman whose eastern North Carolina district included major Marine Corps bases — including Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point — Jones was a strong supporter of the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Like majorities in Congress, Jones accepted the Bush administration’s argument that Saddam Hussein had chemical, biological and quite possibly nuclear weapons, all of which represented a grave military threat to his neighbors and even potentially to Americans at home. He voted for the authorization for use of military force, or AUMF, which would send Americans to war.

That the above argument turned out to be false was — for the Bush administration and Democrats and Republicans who backed the invasion, as well as for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal — a source of some public embarrassment, political inconvenience and presumably some personal regret. But for Walter Jones, it was instead a genuine personal epiphany.

It began at the funeral of Marine Sgt. Michael E. Blitz, whose wife, Janina, and their four children, including twin babies born after Blitz had shipped out for Iraq, lived in Jones’ district. Jones stayed in touch with the Marine family. “My heart was hurting,” he told me, and that hurt led him to do “penance” for what he admitted was his wrong decision. An unembarrassedly religious man who had converted to Catholicism from his Southern Baptist roots, Jones spoke openly of asking God to forgive him for his vote.

He worked with a small bipartisan group of House colleagues to repeal that AUMF vote on Iraq, which, in the 17 intervening years, has been invoked by presidents of both parties to send Americans into combat in Iraq, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen. The logic was straightforward for demanding that Congress revisit that fateful 2002 vote: You can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility.

Personally, Jones was a courteous and unassuming man. In a poll by Washingtonian magazine, the staffers on Capitol Hill, the secretaries and the elevator operators voted him the “nicest” member of Congress. He wrote a personal letter of condolence and apology to the spouses and family members of Americans who died in military actions allegedly authorized by Jones’ 2002 vote. By the time of his death, Jones had written 11,266 such letters to grieving families. The letters were intimate and respectful. He sought to comfort by writing that someone in power was understanding of the pain and loss they have endured.

An anti-war, pro-peace Republican, the independent Jones — who dared to vote for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms and to overturn the Citizens United decision, which legalized the flood of corporate millions into campaigns — was denied by GOP leaders the committee chairmanship to which his seniority entitled him. In Donald Trump’s Washington, where the formula for personal advancement is too often, sadly, both to suck up (by fawning on and flattering the powerful) and to kick down (by exploiting and even abusing those less powerful), Walter Jones was the polar opposite. Jones afflicted the too-comfortable, comforted the already afflicted. R.I.P.

Editor’s note: To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.