Former Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a onetime Navy secretary who was once married to Elizabeth Taylor, has died. He was 94.
Warner died Tuesday of heart failure at home in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife and daughter at his side, his longtime chief of staff, Susan A. Magill, said Wednesday.
“He was frail but had a lot of spirit and was involved until his last days,” Magill said.
Warner was a centrist Republican and a courtly figure whose marriage to a movie star drew huge crowds when he was elected to the Senate in 1978. Serving five terms before retiring from the chamber 30 years later, he drew support from moderates of both major parties, establishing himself at the center of American politics.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lauded Warner as a military hero and respected Senate leader. “This country has lost a great patriot,” the Democrat said. “In Congress, we all knew him as a voice of courage, conviction and comity; a leader unafraid to speak the truth but always committed to finding common ground and consensus.”
Warner 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. His independent streak angered more conservative GOP leaders at times. But he was hugely popular with Virginia voters.
Before he ran for the Senate, Warner became the sixth of Taylor’s seven husbands. The two met on a blind date at a dinner for Queen Elizabeth and were married months later in 1976. They divorced in 1982 but remained friends thereafter. Taylor wrote that she “just couldn’t bear the intense loneliness” when he became engrossed in his Senate duties.
He was succeeded in 2008 by Democrat Mark Warner — no relation — who had challenged him for the Senate in 1996 and later served as Virginia’s governor. The rivals later became good friends.
“In Virginia, we expect a lot of our elected officials,” Mark Warner said Wednesday. “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.”
Warner, a courtly figure with chiseled features and a thick shock of gray hair, was so popular with Virginia voters that Democrats did not bother to challenge him in 2002 for his re-election to his fifth term.
“Virginians know that I stand up for what I think is right, and I accept the consequences,” Warner said in 1996.
“Virginia has lost an unmatched leader, and my family has lost a dear friend,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. He said he understood after joining the chamber years later just how influential Warner had been.
The former secretary of the Navy and 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.
Republicans nominated Warner for the Senate in 1978 after the party’s first choice, Richard Obenshain, died in a plane crash. He was ridiculed by some who thought he was riding on the coattails of his movie star wife, and was elected by the razor-thin margin of 4,721 votes out of 1.2 million cast. Every race thereafter was much easier.
In 1994, Warner angered conservatives by opposing GOP nominee Oliver North’s bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb, declaring the Iran-Contra figure unfit for public office. Steamed by what they viewed as disloyalty, party 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 advance 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.
After he and Taylor divorced, 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.