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Former Sen. John W. Warner, who led Virginia's congressional delegation, dies at 94
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Former Sen. John W. Warner, who led Virginia's congressional delegation, dies at 94

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Former Sen. John Warner through the years

John W. Warner, a Republican U.S. senator for 30 years who led Virginia’s congressional delegation and whose marriage to actress Elizabeth Taylor brought a dash of glamour to Virginia politics, has died. He was 94.

Mr. Warner died of heart failure Tuesday night at home in Alexandria with family at his side.

Mr. Warner served in the Senate from 1979 to 2009, including two stints as sole chairman of the Armed Services Committee, a key post for a state whose economy is heavily dependent on federal spending.

Mr. Warner, whose patrician bearing, military mien and stentorian pronouncements made him the senator from central casting, enforced comity in Virginia’s congressional delegation by stressing the state’s interests. He also prided himself on an independent streak that led to high-profile splits with his party.

He “set the tone for how Democrats and Republicans should work together for the betterment of all Virginians,” Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd, current dean of Virginia’s congressional delegation, said in a statement Wednesday.

Gov. Ralph Northam, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, and Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th, separately referred to Mr. Warner as “a giant.”

In September 2016 the retired senator endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton for president. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., then Clinton’s running mate, said that to him and to fellow Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, John Warner was “our great example of public life in Virginia.”

“He’s proud of who he is,” Kaine said at the time. “He’s been proud to be a member of the GOP, but he’s always put country and commonwealth above anything else — and especially on matters of national security.”

Kaine said in a statement Wednesday: “Virginia has lost an unmatched leader and my family has lost a dear friend.”

Tim Kaine remembers former Va. senator John Warner

Sen. Mark Warner, who ran against John Warner in 1996 and later counted him as a political ally and friend, said in a statement Wednesday:

“In Virginia, we expect a lot of our elected officials. We expect them to lead, yet remain humble. We expect them to serve, but with dignity. We expect them to fight for what they believe in, but without making it personal. John Warner was the embodiment of all that and more.”

In 2004, when then-Gov. Mark Warner proposed a package of tax increases, Mr. Warner held a Richmond news conference and lent his support to hikes, saying: “Politics be damned.”

President Joe Biden, who served with Mr. Warner in the Senate for three decades, said in a statement: “The John Warner I knew was guided by two things: his conscience and our Constitution. And, when acting in accordance with both he neither wavered in his convictions, nor was concerned with the consequences.”

A fateful turn

Mr. Warner nearly did not become a U.S. senator. He had finished second for the 1978 GOP nomination to conservative Richard Obenshain at a convention in Richmond. But Obenshain was killed that summer in a plane crash in Chesterfield County. The Republican State Central Committee then chose Mr. Warner as the party’s new nominee.

Mr. Warner campaigned for the seat less than two years after he became the sixth husband of Taylor, the Oscar-winning actress whose glamour and personal dramas already had been tabloid fodder for 25 years. Taylor drew international attention to Mr. Warner throughout his first Senate run, but that campaign might be best remembered for a chicken bone that lodged in Taylor’s throat during a campaign stop in Big Stone Gap.

Mr. Warner edged Democrat Andrew P. Miller in what was then one of the closest elections in Virginia history.

While Mr. Warner’s first two marriages to heiress Catherine Mellon and to Taylor are part of Virginia’s political lore, his third marriage was his longest. Mr. Warner is survived by his wife of more than 17 years, Jeanne Vander Myde, who was an Alexandria real estate agent when they wed in 2003.

Once lampooned in the “Doonesbury” comic strip as an opportunistic dilettante, Mr. Warner soon grew out of that caricature. On the Armed Services Committee he built on his experience as Navy secretary in the Nixon administration and presided over hearings on the defense budget.

In the 1980s he backed the Reagan administration’s military buildup, believing it helped counter a Soviet threat. The buildup also boosted Virginia’s economy, particularly its shipbuilding industry in Hampton Roads. By the time he chose not to seek re-election in 2008, Mr. Warner was widely seen as an expert on defense issues.

The USS John Warner, a Virginia-class attack submarine commissioned in 2015, is named for the former senator.

Clashes with GOP

Mr. Warner always identified himself as a Republican, but touted his independence.

In 1987, he was one of 15 Republicans who opposed Robert Bork, President Ronald Reagan’s pick for the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1994, Mr. Warner refused to back Republican Oliver North for the U.S. Senate, citing the former Marine colonel’s actions in the Iran-Contra affair. Mr. Warner instead recruited former Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman to run as an independent, helping Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Va., win re-election.

Bork was “a brilliant jurist, there’s no doubt about that,” Mr. Warner said in 2008. “I just felt that some of his views were so extreme that he couldn’t get that level of objectivity that I feel a jurist should have in certain cases, not every case.”

As for North, Mr. Warner said in 2008 that “I just felt there were certain things about him that would not serve the Senate well or the state well.”

In endorsing Clinton for president in 2016, Mr. Warner chastised Republican nominee Donald Trump for remarks about the military that he considered disrespectful.

“Loose lips sink ships,” Mr. Warner said. “Got that, Trump? Loose lips sink ships.”

In 2020 Mr. Warner endorsed Biden for president two days ahead of Virginia’s Super Tuesday primary.

In his later years Mr. Warner still endorsed GOP nominees in some state contests, including the 2013 bid for attorney general by state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham — Richard Obenshain’s son — and Ed Gillespie’s 2017 campaign for governor.

Doctor’s son

John William Warner was born in Washington on Feb. 18, 1927, the son of John W. Warner, a D.C. physician whose family hailed from Amherst County, and Martha Budd Warner.

He served in the Navy from 1944-46. Mr. Warner attended Washington and Lee University, where he befriended Linwood Holton, who would become Virginia’s first Republican governor of the 20th century and a rival to Mr. Warner for the 1978 GOP U.S. Senate nomination. They would remain friends for 75 years. Mr. Warner graduated from W&L in 1949 and enrolled in the University of Virginia’s law school. Mr. Warner then joined the U.S. Marines and served in Korea. Following his release from active duty he graduated with a UVA law degree in 1953.

Mr. Warner clerked for E. Barret Prettyman, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit and was an assistant U.S. attorney before going to work for what was then the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson.

Marrying a Mellon

Long before he became Taylor’s sixth husband, Mr. Warner was used to jokes about his ties to a prominent and wealthy spouse. In 1957 he had married heiress Catherine Mellon, daughter of multimillionaire and philanthropist Paul Mellon.

The law firm where Mr. Warner was to become a partner had long ties with the Mellon family. Frank J. Hogan had represented Catherine Mellon’s grandfather Andrew W. Mellon — banker, steel magnate, U.S. Treasury secretary and ambassador to England — in a tax dispute with President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. Andrew Mellon was a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art.

In 1960 Mr. Warner worked as an advance man for Vice President Richard Nixon, in the White House and then on Nixon’s traveling staff during the 1960 presidential campaign, which Nixon lost to Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass. Mr. Warner, who had attended law school at UVA with Robert Kennedy, later became good friends with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., his longtime colleague on the Armed Services Committee.

Mr. Warner first appears in the pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in early 1967. That March, according to The Associated Press, Mr. Warner attended a “secret meeting of top Republicans” in Washington to hear Michigan Gov. George Romney, who was preparing a bid for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, which ultimately went to Nixon.

Mr. Warner served as undersecretary of the Navy in the Nixon administration from 1969 to 1972, when Nixon nominated him to become the nation’s 61st Navy secretary.

As his responsibilities grew in Washington, Mr. Warner was also becoming a fixture among the horse set, as a member of the Blue Ridge Hunt and owner of Atoka, a 350-acre country estate in Fauquier County. Beginning in the late 1970s, Mr. Warner started hosting the Atoka Country Supper, an annual GOP fundraiser that would twice draw then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. Mr. Warner also owned a home in Georgetown.

Mr. Warner once joked that when he served as secretary of the Navy, he was sometimes referred to as “Secretary WarnerMellon.”

Family ties

His marriage to Catherine Mellon ended in divorce in 1973 and Mr. Warner received millions in a settlement. The couple have three children, Virginia, John W. Warner IV and Mary.

Mr. Warner took part in a 2019 podcast with his son, a historical novelist, farmer and former race car driver. Mr. Warner reminisced about the World War II era and joked that he had not distinguished himself as a young student.

“So as the years came on I was, of course, being much of a rascal like you were my dear fellow,” the former senator told his son. “I wasn’t that good in school and I didn’t go to St. Albans,” he said, referring to a renowned prep school in Washington.

Mr. Warner and his son reflected on how their family rode out some rough patches and remained united. They recalled that it wasn’t always easy.

John Warner IV told of how Mr. Warner once came to visit him at UVA. He took his father for a hair-raising ride in a bright green Pantera sports car.

Mr. Warner climbed out of the car and said: “Good God almighty you’re going to kill us all.”

Mr. Warner’s stint as Navy secretary lasted to 1974. In a 1979 speech to graduates of Fishburne Military School, he looked back with sorrow on the war in Vietnam, according to an Associated Press account.

“Sometimes my conscience hangs heavy because this right arm signed the orders of literally thousands of men who went into that battle and never returned,” Mr. Warner said.

From 1974 to 1976, Mr. Warner headed the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, a group set up to mark the nation’s 200th birthday.

Elizabeth Taylor

In March 1976, as Mr. Warner led U.S. efforts to mark the bicentennial, Britain’s U.S. ambassador urged him to escort Taylor to a dinner for Queen Elizabeth II. Mr. Warner then took Taylor on a visit to his Atoka farm.

In December 1976 the couple wed at the farm in Fauquier. Mr. Warner gave his wife the wedding band that his father had given his mother 50 years before. Taylor gave Mr. Warner two cows and a bull.

Days before the wedding, Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Charles McDowell wrote that Taylor would “shortly become the best known bride of a Virginia farmer since Pocahontas married John Rolfe.”

United Press International reported that on the couple’s quick honeymoon trip to Israel, Mr. Warner said he was not worried about the focus on his movie-star wife.

“Just so long as no one calls me Mr. Taylor, I’ll be fine,” Mr. Warner said.

Senate campaign

After state GOP leaders picked Mr. Warner to step in and run for the Senate seat in 1978, he and Taylor lived in Richmond during the campaign, renting an apartment at Berkshire Apartments, 300 W. Franklin St.

During a campaign stop in Big Stone Gap on the evening of Oct. 12, 1978, Mr. Warner and Taylor had a chicken dinner at Fraley’s Coach House. As Taylor chewed on a fried chicken wing, a bone stuck in her throat.

Novelist Adriana Trigiani, who immortalized the incident in her novel and film “Big Stone Gap,” recalled in a March 2011 column in The Times-Dispatch that Taylor “was rushed to Lonesome Pine Hospital, where the doctor took a rubber hose and stuffed the bone down where it dissolved in digestion.”

The incident led to a send-up by John Belushi on “Saturday Night Live,” in which Belushi — as Taylor — gnawed on a piece of chicken during an interview, choked and dislodged the bone by giving herself the Heimlich maneuver.

Mr. Warner and Taylor had a public spat on policy during a February 1980 GOP conference in Easton, Md. Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., had urged spouses to take part in a discussion about registration for the draft.

Mr. Warner said women should be excluded from any resumption of registration, arguing it was pointless because he said Congress would never let women into combat. Taylor did not hide her disagreement.

“I’m a lady who likes to fight,” she said, according to The Associated Press. “I think women would go into the trenches tomorrow if they could.”

Mr. Warner told Taylor “I’m sorry, but on this issue you don’t have a vote,” and held out his hand in an effort to quell Taylor’s riposte.

Taylor shot back: “Don’t you steady me with your all-domineering hand.”

Mr. Warner and Taylor announced a legal separation in December 1981 and divorced in 1982 after nearly six years of marriage.

In an interview with Life Magazine, Taylor said she loved Mr. Warner, but that “being a senator’s wife is not easy” and “it’s very lonely.” She added: “I really loved him — I mean really. I wanted to be the best wife anybody ever had. I wanted this to be a lifelong run.”

Mr. Warner and Taylor would have a cordial relationship after they divorced. Two years later she visited with the senator in his Capitol Hill office.

But Mr. Warner could not resist the occasional zinger. In a 1982 copyright interview published by The Star, a tabloid, Mr. Warner said he and Taylor were sorry that the marriage had not lasted.

“If I said I was no bargain, that’s exactly what I meant,” Mr. Warner said. “I try to work at not being a pompous ass, but I’m not always successful, I fear.”

He added that Taylor was “100 percent loyal to her man — whoever that happens to be.”

Senator

Mr. Warner could be convivial, but also could be pointed. In September 1980, he boycotted the ceremony in which President Jimmy Carter signed the first successful bill in the Virginia senator’s name — a military pay raise that Mr. Warner co-sponsored with Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga. Mr. Warner said Carter was politicizing defense issues.

As secretary of the Navy, Mr. Warner had often debriefed former prisoners of war who had been held in Vietnam. In 1980 he helped debrief helicopter pilots and crews of transport planes and the leader of the commandos involved in Carter’s failed attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran.

There were early signs he would go against the grain. In 1980, he was a booster of the struggling U.S. auto industry — but he also pushed for giving consumers the option of a new safety device — the air bag.

“Well, we’re in mourning for 52 hostages being held in Iran, yet about 52,000 Americans lose their lives on the highway every year,” Mr. Warner said in a Washington Post account. “That’s an astonishing record and I think the air bag can help reduce those fatalities.”

In 1983, Mr. Warner said he had changed his mind and decided to support a federal holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Warner said he retained concern about the cost of such a holiday but said it would be fully justified “if Americans pledge to make this day a rededication of the American principle that all Americans are created — and treated — equally.”

When President Bill Clinton was impeached and then acquitted by the Senate on both counts, Mr. Warner voted not guilty on the perjury charge, but guilty on the charge of obstruction of justice.

Warner vs. Warner

After edging Miller in 1978, Mr. Warner was not seriously threatened for re-election until 1996, when Democrat Mark Warner challenged him in Virginia’s Warner vs. Warner Senate contest. Mark Warner’s bumper stickers said “Mark not John.”

Mark Warner threw a scare into the incumbent. Mr. Warner won by fewer than 20,000 votes out of 2.3 million cast. The close shave helped set up Mark Warner to run for governor in 2001.

On the night he trounced Democrat Edythe C. Harrison in 1984, Mr. Warner urged his party to broaden its appeal.

“What it says is broaden your base,” he said. “Let us as a party grow and have diversity. Let us welcome and make a working partner in our party all races and creeds.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Warner is survived by his three children.

Sen. Tim Kaine's full comments on his family friendship with and the death of John Warner

acain@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6645

Twitter: @AndrewCainRTD

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