We were the first Republican majority in 40 years. We were elected on the Contract with America. We were sent to Washington in 1994 to balance the budget and put the federal government on a shorter leash. By the way, we did balance the budget and paid down over $500 billion of publicly held debt.
The Tar Heel State sent several impressive people to be part of that historic freshman class. One, a former mayor of Charlotte. One who would become a distinguished senator. Another had been the most venerated Ambassador to Romania. Then there was a fairly recent Republican convert and namesake of a legendary North Carolina Democrat Congressman, Walter B. Jones Jr.
During our freshman orientation I got to know the Carolina delegation pretty well. For whatever reason, Walter B. and I ended up sitting together at many of those meetings. Later, when we drew for offices, we wound up with one just down the hall. So we got to know each other better. We were from different parts of the country, had different accents. We had both served in our respective State Houses. And for people in public life, we were both what some might described as loners. We each lived alone. Neither of us would be called hale fellows, well met.
Over the years, our friendship grew. He knew that I kept Chardonnay in my little office refrigerator. At the end of the legislative day, he would sometimes stop by to discuss the issues of the day over a glass of Gallo’s. Harry Truman once said that if you wanted a friend in Washington, buy a dog.
He never met Walter B.
We could be honest with each other. We shared our frustrations and our impressions of people, especially people in leadership positions. We sometimes talked about philosophy or our our faith. Both secure that our comments would be held in confidence. Not a small thing in D.C.
Walter B. was a gentleman and a gentle man. He treated everyone with respect. We didn’t always agree. But, I respected his reasoning and the conclusions he came to. He was a conservative to his core. As time went on, he became suspicious of the neocons. This was especially true with regard to the endless wars in the Middle East. He began to challenge both the postulates and the prosecution of those wars.
History will be very kind to Walter B.
He was a very trusting man…until he determined that someone had misled him. Once he concluded that someone had abused that trust, they were unlikely to ever get it back. So it was with members of the Bush 43 Administration. He believed they had lied to him. He never trusted them again.
Harsh? Maybe, but that was the way he was wired.
Walter B. was a true patriot and a romantic. He really believed in that shining city on the hill. He saw the corrosive influence of big money in our decision-making process. The Leadership PACs, the Super PACs and the amorphous 501c’s all combining to empower the Swamp at the expense of the people. He never blinked in a stare down with the power brokers. At a certain level, he relished it. He understood who he worked for and it wasn’t the party leadership. If they couldn’t persuade him, they certainly could not threaten or intimidate him.
He saw himself as a committed fiscal conservative. He voted for tax cuts as long as they were accompanied by spending restraint. Walter B. was a convert to the GOP and the Catholic Church. It would be fair to say that he was a much more militant Catholic. He defended the faith and its teachings better than many who wear its robes. He religiously gave up the Chardonnay each Lent.
Like all of us who have served in Congress, he will be succeeded. But, to his staff and those who knew him well, he will never be replaced.
So, until the Clerk takes the roll up yonder, I will miss you my friend.
Gil Gutknecht served 12 years in the U.S. House from Minnesota. Proud to be called Walter’s friend and fellow wine bibber.