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James Walter Jr. buys a full page in the New York Times to condemn Colin Powell and the secretary's stance on war in Iraq.
By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2003
James "Jimmy" W. Walter Jr. awoke in his seven-tiered house in the hills above Santa Barbara long before daybreak Thursday.
This was the day the world would come to know him.
With black socks protruding from his sandals, he steered his rented Toyota Camry down the hill to a small convenience store and grabbed a New York Times off the newsstand.
There, on page A15, was a full-page ad condemning Secretary of State Colin Powell and the impending war against Iraq.
The ad had cost him $125,000.
"I thought I had a shot and the heck with it, I'm going to take it," said the heir to Walter Industries in Tampa, a conglomeration that does everything from manufacture pipes to build houses.
"I thought if we could slay the knight," Walter said, "we could checkmate the king."
Walter left his south Tampa home more than a year ago for one with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. He was 53, unencumbered, and wanted to start fresh in a place where his late father, James Sr., wasn't a household name.
"In Tampa, I was always in the shadow, and everybody has a particular view of me, whether it's correct or not," he said. "Out here, I am who I am. People don't know."
But Walter is quickly making a name for himself among his well-heeled neighbors.
Last week, he tacked posters to his house accusing Powell of lying to the United Nations about the need to go to war. Those were ripped down, he said.
Then someone smashed a large rock through the window of his BMW V3, the same window on which he had posted another sign saying, "Powell Lied." Thus, the rented Camry.
He also paid for similar ads in his local papers -- in both English and Spanish.
"I have half the rich people in Santa Barbara p----d at me," Walter said. "There's also people who say we really admire you for standing up in a conservative town like this."
Walter, now 55 and never married, describes himself in eclectic terms: a humanist, Christian Buddhist, a rationalist, pacifist, ethicist, computer expert -- "and probably crazy," he says, then laughs.
His impassioned attacks on Powell came as little surprise to his friends.
"What? He's taken out an ad in the New York Times against the war?" said Curt McKenzie, who once ran Walter's Life Skills Foundation, an organization that taught skills to prison inmates.
"Well, that sounds like Jimmy," McKenzie said from his home in Tallahassee. "He's just . . . when he believes in something, he supports it."
Walter attended a boarding school in North Carolina and says he graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina. He worked briefly for his father, but says it didn't work out. After that came a series of ventures, including a computer business that flopped.
There was a cocaine addiction, his hot temper and his father's omnipresence to overcome. Walter says he licked them all.
He has turned his attention to larger ills. And he has the funds to get the world to pay attention -- at least for a moment.
He thinks Colin Powell misled the United Nations by alleging the existence of a terrorist chemical factory in northern Iraq. He points to an article in early February that ran in the British newspaper, The Observer, that instead describes "a dilapidated collection of concrete outbuildings" with "no sign of chemical weapons anywhere."
Walter also cites a recent story in the online Guardian Unlimited that contradicts Powell's assertions in 1990 that Iraqi tanks and soldiers were lining the Saudi border, an argument used to justify the Gulf War.
Powell's statement also was challenged at the time by the St. Petersburg Times, which paid for satellite photos of the border that showed no such buildup.
"You know my point: Impeach Powell," Walter said. "Powell is carrying their water for them in a rush to war. This man should not have credibility."
He has equally strong words for Saddam Hussein, "but two wrongs don't make a right."
Still, motives are rarely simple. Abhorrence of the looming war was only part of what moved Walter to purchase the ad.
"Quite frankly, I'd just broken up with a girlfriend again, and I was just motivated to do something. Very complex," he said, laughing again.
"It's a late mid-life crisis -- whatever you want to call it."
Not everyone in Walter's life is comfortable with his vocal stand.
"My brother goes public with a lot of things that may or may not be appropriate," said Robert Walter, who lives in Tampa. "I prefer not to talk about it right now."
War is not Jimmy Walter's only concern. He's also disturbed about the state of America's cities. He is writing a "utopian novel," titled Walden III, about "engineered cities." These new cities would have no cars and enough factories to be self-sufficient.
The New York Times ad could draw attention to his ideas since it also listed his personal Web site, www.walden3.org.
"If I can help them stop a war," he said, "eventually somebody will read what I said."
At last count Thursday, the number of hits to his Web site had jumped by more than a hundred. It wasn't quite the surge he had hoped for. Maybe the Web site hit counter was broken, he said.
"This has really launched me. This really got me off the dime. I'm movin'," he said. "Now, I'm pumped!"
But there is no guarantee he will get the kind of attention he is seeking.
"DISGRACEFUL," chided one reader who shot him an e-mail about the ad.
To Walter, the ad would be a success if President Bush fired Powell. Or if the United Nations gave him a chunk of change to execute his engineered city.
About $10-billion should do it.
He said he isn't planning any more ads.
"I think I've made my point."
-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.