As It Happens

Why this late Republican lawmaker ditched 'freedom fries' to oppose the Iraq war

U.S. Republican Walter Jones, best known for pushing for the House cafeteria to re-brand French fries as "freedom fries" during the invasion of Iraq, has died at 76. He later recanted his support for the war.

'He's gone, and we're worse off with that,' says Democratic colleague and friend of Walter Jones

U.S. Republican Congressman Walter Jones points at a photograph of Marine Sgt. Michael Edward Bits of Ventura, Calif. — the first military funeral he and his wife attended — along a hallway leading to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
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U.S. Republican Congressman Walter Jones, who died on his birthday Sunday at 76, was best known as the politician who wanted French fries served in the House to be known as "freedom fries" during the invasion of Iraq.

He later recanted his support for the war and wrote letters to the families of fallen soldiers.

Democratic Congressman John Garamendi was from the other side of the House from Congressman Jones — but they became friends and drafted legislation together.

Garamendi spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation.

Mr. Garamendi, first of all, I'm sorry for the loss of your friend.

Walter Jones is indeed a friend. He's not only a friend of mine, but he's a friend to the men and women that serve this nation in the military.

I don't know of anybody on the armed service committee that cared so deeply about their well-being, both in peace and war.

Congressman Walter Jones explains the origins of 'freedom fries' to the Russian news agency, RT, in 2011. 0:54

Just for people who might not remember, he was quite famous when he had the cafeteria rename French fries to be "freedom fries," and French toast to be "freedom toast," because he supported so strenuously ... the invasion in Iraq and the war in Iraq. What changed him? Was there something in particular that made him think differently about that war?

During the course of the war, Walter Jones represented one of the major military bases here in the United States. And, like many Americans, he was proud to see the military march off to war.

And then as men and women came back from war, seriously injured — either mentally or physically — or in a coffin, he realized that this war was having an extraordinary impact on the people that he personally represented in his district; on the families, and on the men and women.

And [he] began to question what it was that we were trying to accomplish, specifically in Iraq, and also in Afghanistan.

And [he] became increasingly concerned that the voice of the representatives — the people of the United States, members of Congress, and the Senate had given up — forfeited —  their constitutional obligation to appropriate, to question, and ultimately to allow for a war to even exist; in other words, the War Powers Act and the Constitutional authority to wage war.

He and I began working on this seven or eight years ago. And each year, he became more and more concerned as the war continued, as the injuries went on and as lives and families were disrupted.

From left, Jones, Rep. David Cicilline, Rep. Jim McGovern and Rep. John Garamendi, D-California take part in a news conference in 2011 to announce their bipartisan bill calling for an exit strategy for U.S. forces from Afghanistan. (Harry Hamburg/Associated Press)

He paid a price for that, didn't he? Within the Republican Party. I mean, you're speaking as a Democrat, and you had much support for your position. But not with the Republicans. And he said that there was a "special place in hell" for ... for Dick Cheney, for his role in it. He saw this as being something that was it was quite evil, what had happened to all these families. What effect did that have on his standing within the Republican Party?

Walter was essentially ostracized from the Republican Party. He was continually challenged in primaries, and on the armed services committee, where he had the most seniority next to the chairman. He was set aside, he was routinely ignored, and withstood that personal affront in a very courageous and determined way.

He knew that, in his mind, he was right: that these wars had gone on too long and there was no end to them, and that there was no strategy that would succeed in ending the wars.

But he stood bravely. And he teamed up with those of us — including more than a couple of Republicans — to try to reestablish the power of Congress, to take back the power of Congress, to determine whether we should or should not be waging a war.

I understand, at the same time, he was a social conservative. He was a lead[ing] opponent of abortion. He was against same-sex marriage. He was against gays serving in the military. It seems like an unlikely ally for a Democrat. What's the connection you had with him?

And so, OK, we disagree on abortion and gay rights, LGBTQ issues. But that disagreement didn't mean he was a bad person. He was, in fact, a very good person.

Congressman John Garamendi says Jones was 'a friend to the men and women that serve this nation in the military.' (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

I understand he cared so much about those soldiers who had been lost, and their families, that he had photos of many of them outside his office — that he wrote to every single soldier's family who had died in both Afghanistan and Iraq. That meant 12,000 letters he wrote to families.  What was he like personally?

Walter Jones was a man who had a very deep, personal concern about people — generally, and certainly about the soldiers.

I think he also was a person that regretted his earlier decisions about the appropriateness of the Iraq war. I think he was more comfortable with ... the Afghanistan resolutions and the Afghanistan war. But the Iraq war, he knew was instigated on lies and on nefarious purposes by the Bush administration. 

And I think he regretted that to a point of personal anguish about what he had done with his vote, and that for whatever reason, he missed the lies that were the foundation for going into Iraq.

So, and then as the soldiers returned — in coffins or in wheelchairs, or with mental issues of all kinds — he took it very, very personally.

I miss a comrade ... a comrade who I worked with for many years, to try to address fundamental issues. And he's gone, and we're worse off with that.

Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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