John W. Warner, a towering senator for three decades, was a man of principle and patriotism, of charm and wit — qualities that have been wanting in American public life since his retirement in 2009.
The Virginia Republican once told this reporter that, at the end of life, the only thing left is one’s integrity.
By all accounts, Warner’s integrity was firmly intact when he died this week of a heart ailment at the age of 94.
“Not having John Warner to go to for advice leaves a big hole in my life,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said in a statement Wednesday.
Warner left a big hole in Washington when he retired, and it has yet to be filled.
He fought in two wars, served as Navy secretary and later chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was known as a military affairs maven.
But whether the topic was warfare or climate change or abortion or anything else, the patrician Warner, though not a perfect man and not above hard-knuckled politics, was a pragmatic compromiser, who put what he thought was good for his country first.
That sometimes irked his fellow Republicans and endeared him to Democrats. But his primary aim, he said, was to get results and do the right thing.
“When I began serving in 1979, three-quarters of my colleagues were military veterans,” Warner wrote in an article for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Trend magazine in 2018. “We had political disagreements and often fought on the Senate floor, our battlefield. But at day’s end, we shared a drink, talked as friendly rivals and even friends, and we found common cause, solving problems and serving the American public.”
Lawmakers, reacting Wednesday to the news of Warner’s death, cited the political significance of his personal virtues.
“John always put country first,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement.
Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer ordered the Senate to lower flags to half-staff Wednesday in Warner’s honor.
“The kind of stature that he had — his great, great, great reaching across the aisle in bipartisanship — is something that this chamber misses,” Schumer said, adding, “And we miss him.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Warner “a voice of courage, conviction and comity; a leader unafraid to speak the truth but always committed to finding common ground and consensus.”
Kaine, in his statement, recounted how he and Warner had once talked about the more partisan and less friendly place the Senate had become.
“But at the end of our conversation, he told me: ‘But Tim, it’s not in the water supply or sick building syndrome. It’s in the character and priorities of the people who walk into the building every day.’”
‘Senator from central casting’
Warner was not always a white-haired senator.
He was born in Washington, D.C., but his family had roots in Virginia.
Warner embodied the so-called Greatest Generation. At 17, he joined the Navy and then served in World War II. He fought in Korea as a Marine Corps officer. He would become Navy secretary during the Nixon administration.
Warner ran for Senate in Virginia in 1978 but lost the GOP primary to Richard D. Obenshain. But Obenshain’s death in a plane crash two months later paved Warner's path to the nomination.
Warner was arguably best known for much of his life for his marriage to Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor from 1976 to 1982.
The square-jawed Warner was initially viewed as a political lightweight, dubbed “Mr. Elizabeth Taylor” and “the senator from central casting.” But his commitment to the work soon showed.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor in 2008 ahead of Warner’s farewell speech to the chamber that, to most Americans, Warner was the image of a United States senator.
But, McConnell said, Warner “has matched the image with the skill” and “has always been a patriot first.”
Warner was a loyal Republican, but he also had a propensity to buck his party.
He supported keeping abortion legal, with some restrictions, as well as some limits on gun ownership. He voted against strictures on stem cell research. He was part of the bipartisan “gang of 14” in 2005 that was able to withstand calls at the time to effectively ban filibusters on most judicial nominations, a change that would take place anyway eight years later.
Warner was also known for most of his Senate career as a key voice on national security, on which he was also something of a maverick.
He supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and pushed back against members who wanted to end the U.S. occupation. But Warner did not support President George W. Bush’s so-called surge of 20,000 additional U.S. troops there in 2007.
Warner also held hearings on the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by U.S. military personnel, much to the Bush administration’s consternation. And he joined Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Graham in opposing the use of inhumane interrogation methods at any U.S. military facility.
Warner’s public heterodoxy was always politely delivered. But aides said then that his challenges to party positions on torture often led to tense exchanges with fellow Republican senators in the Cloakroom.
Warner was a lifelong critic of what he considered to be extremists in his beloved GOP.
In 1994, he opposed the Senate candidacy of Virginia Republican Oliver North, an ultraconservative activist who had been an architect of Ronald Reagan’s infamous arms-for-hostages deal with Iran in the late 1980s.
Even after Warner left the Senate, he used his influence to try to moderate an increasingly radical GOP and in some cases to endorse Democrats.
He backed President Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020, and had previously endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump.
Warner also supported Kaine in his recent Senate race and backed Mark Warner’s 2014 campaign even though the two had faced off for the Senate seat in 1996.
In Warner’s 2008 farewell speech to the Senate, he characteristically spent most of it lauding other retiring senators. At the end, he thanked the people of Virginia.
“I look back on it with the deepest respect for the trust and confidence you reposed in me — all Virginians — over these 30 years,” Warner said.
In his 2018 article for Trend magazine, Warner reminded Virginians, and all Americans, why he earned that trust.
“We must remember that we are more alike than different, that how we act toward one another is as important as anything else we aspire to do,” he wrote. “If we do, there is no reason why any generation cannot be called the greatest.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.