John Warner was debonair, wealthy, powerful, charismatic, and once married to Elizabeth Taylor. He wasn’t a movie star, though; he was a senator from Virginia and occasional Republican heretic whose death at 94 on Tuesday is a reminder of long-lost political traditions.
His long congressional career, which ended in retirement in 2009, was marked by his lofty position in the bipartisan-defense establishment, tons of military pork to keep restive Virginians satisfied, and, despite a generally orthodox Republican voting record, occasional high-profile acts of heresy. It was no great surprise when Warner announced support for Democrat Mark Warner (no relation) as his successor, and he was among the early Republican supporters of Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump in 2016. Years earlier, he staved off the takeover of his party by right-wing zealots such as Oliver North that would presage the danger to come.
Warner’s career was regularly marked by skill, personal charm, and regular doses of good fortune. After a comfortable upbringing in Washington, he performed brief Navy service near the end of World War II, and then volunteered for the Marines during the Korean conflict. Soon thereafter, Warner married banking heiress Catherine Mellon, which made him very rich (even after their 1973 divorce). His campaign work for and contributions to the 1968 Nixon presidential campaign helped him secure appointment as an undersecretary of the Navy before his ascension to the top post in 1972. He did some high-profile work for Gerald Ford in planning the Bicentennial, and marked 1976 personally by becoming the sixth husband of Elizabeth Taylor.
Warner’s first Senate run in 1978 was initially adjudged a failure. He was defeated for the GOP nomination at a state-party convention by conservative leader Richard Obenshain. But when Obenshain died two months later in a plane crash, the party turned to the very well-heeled Warner, who won the general election after a campaign he dominated with his personal appeal, as the Washington Post recalled:
On the campaign trail, with the glamorous Taylor in tow, an ebullient Mr. Warner trooped from Arlington County to Abingdon, playing down his upbringing as the son of a Washington surgeon and his taste for Savile Row suits, squash and fox hunting (one of his horses twice won the coveted Gold Cup steeplechase). Instead, he described himself as a farmer and cattleman …
His Democratic opponent, Andrew P. Miller Jr., a former state attorney general, derided him as “the only farmer in Virginia with a swimming pool in his barn.”
Once in the Senate, Warner became popular with colleagues, particularly on the Armed Services Committee, where he lavished money and purpose on his state’s Tidewater naval facilities. Liberal lion Ted Kennedy said upon Warner’s retirement: “Our Founders would regard the Senate career of John Warner as a shining example of the type of person they envisioned should serve in this body of our government.”
Sometimes Warner’s wealth and glamour could be overwhelming. As an aide to Georgia senator Sam Nunn in the early 1990s, I was once called by Warner’s staff while Nunn was en route to Georgia, asking me to give my employer a message to call the Virginian on some armed-services business. In those pre-cell-phone days, I was given a list of Warner callback numbers: “He’s at his Watergate condo now, but tonight he’ll be at home in Alexandria. Tomorrow he’ll be at the farm, and on Sunday at his hunting lodge.” As I conveyed this message to Nunn in his tiny, cramped Atlanta apartment, I understood for the first time why my millionaire boss considered himself poor.
Above all else, though, Warner was an exemplar of the days before ideological rigidity gripped the GOP. Despite supporting some abortion restrictions, he was fundamentally pro-choice, which is a nearly extinct point of view among Republicans today. He joined his friend Ted Kennedy in opposing Robert Bork’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, a cause that is still dear to an older generation of conservatives. He supported the Brady Bill and other gun-safety measures. Even on defense issues, he was not entirely predictable; as Armed Services chairman, he opposed the Bush administration’s last “surge” in Iraq and joined John McCain in opposing torture by the military and intelligence agencies.
It was his willingness now and then to buck party discipline even in elections, though, that is now so amazing. In 1994, Oliver North — the key Iran-Contra operative convicted for lying to Congress who became a right-wing hero (sort of the Michael Flynn of his era) — won the GOP nomination to take on Warner’s Democratic colleague, Chuck Robb, who looked doomed by allegations of sexual misconduct and drug use. Instead of putting on the party harness, Warner endorsed an independent bid by moderate Republican Marshall Coleman, which split the GOP vote and made it possible for Robb to survive in a very Republican year. That Warner was renominated twice after that episode was a testament to his appeal and perhaps to the now-departed tolerance of Republicans for dissent.
There was always something distinctively Virginian about Warner as well, harkening back to the commonwealth’s patrician and nonpartisan traditions. His closest brush with electoral defeat was against Democratic former governor Mark Warner in 1996, whose bumper stickers read, “Mark, Not John.” They became close friends soon thereafter.
It’s easy to say American politics may never see anyone quite like John Warner again, or at least anyone whose passing is mentioned as much for whom he married as for what he did. In a scene memorialized in his book Confirmation Bias about Supreme Court confirmation fights, Beltway veteran Carl Hulse has this characteristic Warner story:
“Quite a speech, senator,” I told Warner. “You ought to write a book.”
“A book?” said Warner, a famous playboy of the Senate … “If I wrote a book,” he mused as he stepped onto an elevator, “all anyone would want to know was how Liz was in bed.”
We all laughed uproariously. “Well,” I said, “maybe that could be a chapter.”
“Oh no,” said Warner, his eyes lighting up as the elevator doors closed, “it would be more than a chapter.”
And Warner’s long and complicated story of wealth, power, charisma, and occasional heresy would be more than a book.