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Conservative Rep. Walter Jones follows his conscience

WASHINGTON—More than a week after all the media hubbub, you may have forgotten his name, but probably not his story: He's the conservative Republican congressman from North Carolina who went from once touting "freedom fries" to calling now for a timetable to bring the troops home from Iraq.

For Rep. Walter Jones, the story of his turnaround on Iraq begins with a prologue: Rewind to the early 1980s, then picture a father passing on life's lessons to his son as they sit together on a back porch in small-town North Carolina.

Jones, then a freshman Democrat in the state Legislature, was the son. His father, Walter Jones Sr., was a veteran Democratic congressman who'd come home for the weekend to offer a little advice to the political rookie.

"He said, `Walter, always vote your conscience first, your constituency second and your party third,'" the son recalled.

That do-the-right-thing credo has led Jones Jr., now 62, down a different political path from most of his poll-driven colleagues in Washington. Evidence that he's following his conscience on Iraq is as plain as the posters lining his office walls, which show faces of the fallen.

"Walter is a very introspective guy," says Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C. "He ain't much on watching polls. He makes up his own mind."

Or follows his own heart, as the soft-spoken, deeply religious Jones prefers to put it.

"I don't rush at anything," he said. "I consider the good and the bad, then do what I think God wants me to do."

While serving in the state Legislature, Jones joined dissident Democrats who teamed up with Republicans to oust an autocratic House speaker. In the early `90s, he said, it was his conviction that abortion is wrong—and that Democrats are wrong on the issue—that caused him to switch to the Republican Party.

Earlier this month, his growing anguish over mounting casualties in Iraq led Jones—a conservative Republican who represents the most military district in a military-friendly state—to call on President Bush to set a timetable for withdrawing the troops. He joined three other congressmen in sponsoring a resolution to that effect, two of them Democrats.

That marked a long journey from two years ago, when a gung-ho Jones, angry at France's refusal to back the war in Iraq, led the charge to banish the term "french fries" from congressional cafeterias. He renamed them "freedom fries."

"When anyone orders freedom fries," he said at the time, "I hope they would think about our men and women who are serving this great nation, who are willing to give their life for the freedoms that we all enjoy."

Jones' concern for those in combat hasn't flagged. But his feelings about the war have.

In April, during a meeting of the House Armed Services Committee, Jones, near tears, tore into Richard Perle, a former Pentagon adviser who had testified before the war that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

"It is just amazing to me how we in Congress were told we had to remove this man," Jones told Perle as he waved a copy of the prewar testimony. "But the reason we were given was not accurate. ... There should be somebody (in the Bush administration) large enough to say, `We made a mistake. ...'"

Jones' anger has cooled, but the ache remains.

He's written more than 1,300 letters of condolence to families of the fallen. He still talks in detail about attending the funeral of Marine Sgt. Michael Bitz at Camp Lejeune, the largest of three military bases in his coastal district.

Last week Jones talked about a visit he had recently from Gold Star moms and dads—parents who've lost soldier children in Iraq.

"One woman—with tears in her eyes—told me, `My son was killed looking for weapons of mass destruction,'" Jones said. "Now, if you've got a heart at all, there's no way that your heart doesn't have tears when a mom tells you that."

Jones' stand has won him praise from Democrats, but his troop-withdrawal proposal and dalliance with Democrats on it have sparked an uproar among his fellow Republican lawmakers and many constituents in his district, which voted overwhelmingly for Bush last year.

Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina's senior senator and a Republican, released a statement this week aimed clearly at Jones, though his name wasn't mentioned.

"We have made tremendous advances (in Iraq), but there is much to be done before throwing our hands up in the air," she said. "Arbitrarily setting a timetable for withdrawing our troops emboldens the terrorists and sends the message that the United States has lost its resolve."

Back in North Carolina, the Daily News in Jacksonville—home of Camp Lejeune—ran a critical editorial under the headline "Jones' support is misdirected."

Then there was this letter in the Carteret County News-Times: " I always thought Walter was an exceptional politician until now," wrote Walter Schaw, a former member of the Army Medical Corps. "How can one give aid and comfort to our enemies while claiming support for American troops who are their targets?"

Jones said the letters, calls and e-mails from his district were running about 50-50.

He said some critics thought he was calling for an immediate withdrawal, which he wasn't. His resolution calls for a phased withdrawal beginning no later than autumn 2006. By then, Jones thinks, America will have done enough for Iraq, having felled and captured Saddam, set up a nascent democratic government, fought the insurgency and trained Iraqi troops to defend their country.

If he should lose his seat over this, he said, so be it: "If doing what's right means I don't return to Congress, then it's God's will."

Until the next election, Jones said, he'll continue to espouse a moral outlook that causes him to join Democrats in opposing a proposed trade agreement with Central America, but also to champion issues—such as keeping gay-themed books out of school libraries—that are important to evangelical Christians.

But it's the cost of war that preoccupies him, as do those posters on his office walls of the men and women who have died in Iraq.

Does he wish more of his colleagues saw the world as he did?

"I can't judge other people," Jones said. "I would say this: I think, in both parties, that the country would be a better country if we would follow that advice—vote your conscience first—that I got from my father."

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Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina won national attention this month when, as a conservative Republican, he co-sponsored a resolution calling for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

Born: Feb. 10, 1943, Farmville, N.C.

Education: B.A., 1967, Atlantic Christian College.

Religion: Roman Catholic.

Business career: manager, Walter B. Jones Office Supply Co., 1967-73; salesman, Dunn Associates, 1973-82; president, Benefit Reserves Inc., 1989-94; president, Judson Co., 1990-94.

Military career: North Carolina National Guard, 1967-71.

Elected offices: North Carolina House of Representatives 1982-92; U.S. House of Representatives, 1994-present.

District: Outer Banks and eastern counties of North Carolina.

Interest group ratings 2002: ACLU, 7 percent. American Conservative Union, 96 percent.

Quote: His father, former Congressman Walter Jones Sr., told him: "Walter, always vote your conscience first, your constituency second and your party third."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WALTERJONES

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