Washington & Lee alum, longtime Virginia Sen. John Warner dies at 94

Virginia News

LEXINGTON, Va. (WFXR/WAVY/AP) — Former U.S. Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a Washington & Lee University alum and former Navy secretary who was once married to Elizabeth Taylor, has died at 94.

He died on Tuesday, May 25 of heart failure while surrounded by his wife Jeanne and daughter Virginia, his longtime chief of staff Susan Magill said.

“He was frail but had a lot of spirit and was involved until his last days,” Magill said.

A former secretary of the Navy, Warner was for a time was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He had an independent streak that sometimes angered more conservative GOP leaders.

Warner, a courtly figure who squired celebrities and was married to Taylor when he was elected to the Senate in 1978, and went on to serve five terms before retiring from the chamber in 2008. He drew support from moderates of both major parties, establishing himself in the center of American politics.

He was a key supporter of President George W. Bush’s declaration of war in Iraq, and served for a time as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He had an independent streak that sometimes angered more conservative GOP leaders. But he was hugely popular with Virginia voters.

Being the sixth of Taylor’s seven husbands didn’t hurt when he ran for the Senate. The two were married in 1976 and divorced in 1982. Taylor wrote later that they remained friends, but she “just couldn’t bear the intense loneliness” when he became engrossed in his Senate duties.

Democrat Mark Warner — no relation to the former senator — who had challenged him for the Senate in 1996 and went on to serve a term as Virginia’s governor, won the election to succeed him in 2008. After years of rivalry, the two became good friends, and John Warner attended his swearing-in in January 2009.

“Virginians know that I stand up for what I think is right, and I accept the consequences,” Warner said in 1996.

Warner had been an early supporter of McCain’s campaign for president, endorsing his fellow senator in February 2007.

The former secretary of the Navy, a veteran of World War II and Korea, Warner devoted most of his career to military matters. He lost his post as Armed Services Committee chairman in 2001 when Sen. Jim Jeffords’ departure from the GOP put Democrats in control of the Senate, but he regained it after the 2002 elections put Republicans back in charge until the 2006 elections.

Warner often defended the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq, but he also showed a willingness to buck the White House.

After a 2007 trip to Iraq, Warner called upon Bush to start bringing troops home. He summoned top Pentagon officials to hearings about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and the Iraq war. Years earlier, he cast a critical vote denying President Reagan’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Robert Bork, a favorite of conservatives.

In 2005, Warner was part of the “Gang of 14″ — a group of centrist senators who defused a showdown over judicial filibusters on Bush’s appeals court nominees. That same year, Warner was the lone senator to formally object to the federal government stepping in on the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case.

“Greater wisdom is not always reposed in the branches of federal government,” he said at the time. He had quietly inserted his statement into the Congressional Record hours after the measure passed the Senate on a voice vote.

Republicans nominated Warner for the Senate in 1978 after the party’s first choice, Richard Obenshain, died in a plane crash. Warner was ridiculed by some who thought he was riding on the coattails of his then-wife, Taylor, whom he had married in late 1976.

Warner was elected by the razor-thin margin of 4,721 votes out of 1.2 million cast and was easily re-elected in 1984 and 1990.

In 1994, Warner angered conservatives by opposing GOP nominee Oliver North’s bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb. Warner declared the Iran-Contra figure unfit for public office and backed independent J. Marshall Coleman, who drew enough independent and moderate GOP votes to ensure Robb’s re-election.

Steamed by what they viewed as disloyalty to the party, GOP conservatives tried to deny him a fourth term in 1996, backing a challenge by former Reagan administration budget director Jim Miller.

Miller portrayed Warner as an elitist who spent too much time squiring stars, including Barbara Walters. But Warner easily defeated Miller in the primary, and went on to beat Democrat Mark Warner in the general election.

John Warner mended his strained ties with the GOP by supporting the successful campaigns of Jim Gilmore for governor in 1997 and George Allen for Robb’s Senate seat in 2000.

“I sure risked my political future, that’s for sure,” Warner said in 1994. “But I’d rather the voters of this state remember that I stood on my principle. … That’s the price of leadership.”

While the military was Warner’s top priority, he also championed legislation to toughen seat belt laws and took up an increasing number of environmental causes.

Born in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 18, 1927, Warner volunteered for the Navy at 17 and served as a 3rd class electronics technician. He received an engineering degree from Washington and Lee University in 1949.

He entered law school at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1949 but volunteered the next year for the Marines, serving in Korea as a first lieutenant and communications officer with the First Marine Air Wing.

Following Korea, he returned to law school and received a degree from U.Va. in 1953.

He was a law clerk at the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, went into private practice, and then served four years as a federal prosecutor.

In 1960, he resumed private practice and specialized in banking, securities and corporate practice. He became under secretary of the Navy in 1969 and served as secretary of the Navy from 1972 to 1974. He was administrator of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration from 1974 to 1976.

Warner got an estimated $7 million fortune in the breakup of his first marriage, to Catherine Mellon, daughter of multimillionaire Paul Mellon.

He and Taylor divorced in 1982 and he married real estate agent Jeanne Vander Myde in 2003.

Warner had three children, Mary, Virginia and John, and was a member of the Episcopal Church.

Tributes from Virginia leaders began to pour in on Wednesday, May 26 after news of Warner’s passing. Those various statements are listed below:

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine

“I am stunned at the loss of John Warner. Virginia has lost an unmatched leader, and my family has lost a dear friend.   

John Warner and my father-in-law, Linwood Holton, interrupted their college studies to join the Navy during World War II. Each served in the Pacific theatre, and they met when they returned to Washington and Lee at the close of the war. Their fraternity brother days started a friendship that lasted 75 years. Lin and John worked together, built the Virginia Republican Party from irrelevance into a formidable force, competed against one another in the 1978 Virginia Senate race, and always found time for new projects and humorous reminiscence.

When I married Anne in 1984, I entered the large circle of John’s friends. From his thirty-year post in the Senate, he helped me as Mayor and Governor again and again. In particular, I will never forget his advocacy that helped save the Metro Silver Line from the brink of extinction. His advice on matters large and small (mostly solicited but occasionally offered even though I hadn’t asked!) was always farsighted, patriotic, and delivered in pithy and memorable phrases.

Once I came to the Senate, I understood even more deeply the influence of John Warner. I came to know John McCain, Carl Levin, and so many others who served with him and attested to his integrity and outsized influence in a body he loved so dearly. In particular, John’s service in the Navy during World War II, as a Marine during the Korean War, and as Secretary of the Navy, made him a steady hand as Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And in this new chapter in my life, John’s advice again became essential.

I consider it a deep honor to represent Virginia on the Armed Services Committee as John did, and I often think of him during Armed Services deliberations, wondering how he would handle the dilemmas of the day. Shortly after I was elected to my first term, I asked John to lunch in the Senate Dining Room. He hadn’t been in many years. When he walked into the room, the place absolutely lit up, and a steady stream of Senators and Senate staff made a path to the table to visit with a person they loved so much.

John and I once talked about how the Senate of today was more partisan and less relationship-based than during his years of service. 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. So you have a chance to walk into the Capitol and make it better each day.’

Not having John Warner to go to for advice leaves a big hole in my life. But we can all celebrate a public servant who stood on principle, made us proud, and exemplified the best of what politics can be.

My condolences go out to Jeanne and the entire Warner family.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner

“John Warner was a consummate statesman and a public servant who always put Virginia before politics; who put the nation’s security before partisanship; who put the country’s needs above his own.

John Warner and I ran against each other back in 1996. I’ve often said since that the right Warner won that race. And one way that I know that is that even though we came from different political parties – even though we ran spirited, albeit respectful, campaigns that year – as soon as the election was called, it was over. And even though John Warner was already a towering institution in Virginia politics, and I was just some young upstart, he allowed me to become his friend. I felt then, as I do today, incredibly privileged.

Later, when I became Governor of Virginia, anytime I had to ask folks to take a tough stand in order to do what was right for Virginia, John Warner was always right there, volunteering to put his name and his credibility on the line, because that’s who he was.

When John retired from the Senate in 2009, he was able to do so with satisfaction at a job well done, and I was blessed to take his place in the Senate. But truthfully, John’s service to our country never ended; he remained an active participant in public affairs. He was always available with a keen ear, sound judgment, good humor and a few words of encouragement and advice. The last time I saw him just a few weeks ago, he was full of questions about the latest in the Senate and in Virginia.

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. I firmly believe that we could use more role models like him today. There’s little I’m prouder of than the fact that he twice endorsed me for re-election.

I will dearly miss having John’s counsel and wisdom to call upon in the years ahead. But more than that, I will miss his friendship, because I loved him. My deepest condolences go out to his children and his entire family, especially his devoted wife of many years, Jeanne.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner

U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith

“John Warner was an old friend. More importantly for the country and the Commonwealth, he was a giant of Virginia politics. For five terms he represented Virginia with distinction in the United States Senate, and among his achievements, he helped drive the military expansion that won the Cold War.

I was his campaign’s Emory & Henry College coordinator during his first fight for the Republican nomination for Senate. I fondly remember putting signs together in the modest hotel suite of the future senator and his then-wife Elizabeth Taylor. I was honored when he repaid the favor by assisting me in my first race for the House of Delegates. A true gentleman and patriot, John Warner will be missed but not forgotten.”

U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith

U.S. Rep. Ben Cline

“Today Virginians mourn the loss of former Senator John Warner, a man whose life’s work was dedicated to serving others and the Commonwealth. John fought tirelessly for the people of Virginia, and his life and legacy will not soon be forgotten.”

U.S. Rep. Ben Cline

Gov. Ralph Northam

“Virginia, and America, have lost a giant.

As a sailor, a senator, a statesman, and a gentleman, former U.S. Senator John Warner spent his life in public service. A World War II veteran of the Navy, he served as Secretary of the Navy, led the Senate Armed Services Committee, and was a respected voice in Washington on military affairs.

John helped build up his political party and always remained an independent voice. He used that voice in the Senate to forge bipartisan compromise, knowing how and when to reach across the aisle. And he always put Virginia first.

John Warner truly was the best of what public service and elected leadership should be, and his loss leaves a deep void. Pam and I join the Commonwealth in mourning his death. Our prayers for comfort go out to his wife Jeanne, his three children, grandchildren, scores of friends, and all those who loved him.”

Gov. Ralph Northam

In Warner’s honor, Northam ordered that the Virginia state flag be flown at half-staff over the Virginia Capitol on the day of his funeral.

Attorney General Mark Herring

“John Warner exemplified what it meant to be a statesman and public servant. His commitment to our country and commonwealth set a standard for generations to follow. I am saddened to hear of his passing. Sending my condolences to the entire Warner family.”

Attorney General Mark Herring

National D-Day Memorial Foundation

The staff, board, and volunteers of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation mourn the passing of Senator John Warner, an early and ardent supporter of the Memorial.

“John Warner was a true Virginia gentleman who cared deeply about veterans and ensuring they were properly recognized,” said April Cheek-Messier, president of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation.

Warner served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and the Marines during the Korean War. He later served as secretary of the Navy and as a Republican U.S. senator from 1979 through 2009.

He was instrumental in working with the National D-Day Memorial in the early days of the Foundation to ensure the monument was built.  Warner spoke at the Memorial’s groundbreaking ceremony in 1997 and at other events over the years. When asked to speak more recently, Warner responded with a Jefferson quote which he paraphrased: “as one walks the path of life there comes that time when one should step off and allow those coming from behind to carry on where you have left off.”

The National D-Day Memorial is proud to carry on the work of recognizing the critical contributions of those who have served and continue to serve the nation. Cheek-Messier noted, “He was a remarkable man who gave so much of his life to serving others, both in serving his country and in public service throughout his career. He will be greatly missed, and we will always be grateful for his support.”

The Foundation extends its deepest condolences to Senator Warner’s family, many friends, and colleagues.

National D-Day Memorial Foundation
Former U.S. Sen. John Warner spoke at the National D-Day Memorials groundbreaking on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1997. (Photo: Courtesy National D-Day Memorial Foundation)

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