Walter Jones, Hank Johnson and Me

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There it is, in the fourth paragraph of the News and Observer’s story about the death of Walter Jones, veteran congressman from the eastern shores of North Carolina.

“An early supporter of the war, Jones was generally credited with coining the term “freedom fries” and bringing them to House cafeterias, to protest France’s refusal to join the war effort In Iraq.”

And there it is in the Washington Post. Headline of the LA Times. Subheadline at The Atlantic. More.

He told me he expected that.

Jones and I spoke about it and a great many other things 15 years ago, when I was covering politics for the Rocky Mount Telegram. Rocky Mount was split between three congressional districts. I drove up to Washington D.C. one day in 2004 to see them.

I was five years out of the Army. Jones district contains Camp Lejeune among other military installations. He wasn’t expecting a military veteran to be interviewing him, and I think it changed the tone of our conversations over the months.

This was two years after his vote in support of the Iraq War, and the “freedom fries” cafeteria stunt that had marked his anger at France balking.

He said they would write that on his tombstone. Some people are. This is deeply, deeply unfair to him, and to us.

I was struck in my conversations with Jones both by his acumen and the deep consideration he gave to what he was doing in office for the people in his district. We spoke at length about the effect multiple combat deployments had on younger military families. I had written about it in the Army; the conversation was substantive and nuanced. He was plainly in anguish at sending his constituents into a war and then finding them receiving too little support when they came home.

I was unsurprised when Jones turned sharply against the war a year later.

The cafeteria naming stunt had been overshadowing a significant political transformation. His opponents would flog him with the “freedom fries” thing whenever they wanted a cheap shot, even a decade later. And he had opponents, because he crossed Republican party lines on more than one issue, like support for an increase to the minimum wage. To the people in his district, though, he was what they wanted and needed. He won every primary challenge by at least 18 points, and every general election by at least 20.

The man deserved credit for having the capacity to change one’s mind in the face of evidence. But our political obsessions lay with the trite quip, the easy headline and the caricature. “Freedom fries” robbed him — and those of us who didn’t live in his district — of a sense of the man as a thoughtful political leader.

So, where’s the connection to our Congressman Hank Johnson?

Guam. Tipping over.

Nine years, people. It’s been nine years and five elections, and it still comes up. It doesn’t matter that medication throws people’s timing off. Nor that Johnson was among the quarter of the House Democrats to reject the TARP bailout of 2008 — an act of political courage for which I remain impressed. Nor his laudable work on issues even Republicans might normally approve of, like corporate misuse of public money, reducing the militarization of police agencies, or lowering prescription drug costs for seniors — a bill that Jones had co-sponsored.

Nope. Guam.

Like Jones, Johnson has been returned to office by wide margins every election since his gaffe. It’s because, by and large, local voters know their own representatives better than the national press does. When we wonder “how do these people keep getting elected?” … keep that in mind.

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One thing I like about Hank Johnson is that he defeated Cynthia McKInney. Maybe I will be back in his district after the next round of redistricting.


Not sure if even the best comedic timing could have salvaged the Guam joke. Gotta start with good material.