Remembering John Warner, Virginia gentleman and student of the Senate

Navy, Marine veteran was powerful force on Capitol Hill for years

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I searched for the senior senator from Virginia all day and never found him.

I was in the subway tunnel which stretches between the Senate Office Buildings and the U.S. Capitol. One of the underground trams which whisk people from the Dirksen Senate Office Building to the Capitol rumbled by.

And then I saw, behind the windowpane of one of the tram cars, that distinctive shock of white hair. A deep, perfect cleft separated the hair as a part. 

I knew I had found my quarry: Sen. John Warner, R-Va.

Now, I had to outrace the tram to the Capitol subway station to grab Warner before he ascended the small escalator leading to the elevators. Once on the elevators, Warner would be gone, onto the Senate floor to make a roll call vote, two floors above.

And I would miss my interview. 

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I don’t recall what I needed to talk to Warner about that day in the mid-2000s when I worked in public radio. But I clenched my audio recorder and microphone and set out in a dead sprint to reach the Capitol subway station, probably 250 yards away. I even hit the record button so I would be ready to go if I caught up with Warner.

I didn’t beat the tram. Even Usain Bolt couldn’t have done that. The tram trundles along at more than 25 mph and had a head of steam. As I ran up the slight grade of the tunnel, I saw Warner, attired in a smart, blue sport coat garnished with a red pocket square, exit the tram in the station and head for the escalator.

I dialed up my sprint a notch, and, out of breath, hollered as loud as I could.

"Senator Warner! Senator Warner!"

Startled, Warner stopped, one hand on the black, circulating handrail of the escalator, and turned.

"Senator Warner!" I called again.

He turned – and saw me, chugging the final 30 yards into the subway station, the tangle of a radio microphone slithering behind me on the walkway.

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Warner knew who I was. I interviewed the senator dozens of times and found myself in countless scrums with other reporters surrounding him in the Capitol. So he understood why I was chasing him, although he didn’t know the specific subject.

"I…..wanted…to….ask…you," I said, gasping for breath.

Always the gentleman, Warner looked after his fellow man.

"Now just take a moment," counseled the senator. "Get a breath. Relax. When you’re ready, we’ll talk."

I gulped in air for another few seconds, hands on my knees like a gassed basketball point guard late in the game. And, after finally catching my breath, I asked Warner three or four questions. He answered insightfully and succinctly. And then the senator went on his way to vote.

That was classic John Warner. Taking time for others. Especially those who showed an interest in what he might have to say.

Some senators would probably just ignore a reporter dashing through the tunnel, microphone cable scraping the ground behind them. Other senators would just declare they were too busy, or were running late.

"Can’t miss the vote," they often say.

Not Warner. He saw I put in effort into my enterprise to chase him down. And, he was more than happy to answer my interrogatives – after making sure I first caught my breath.

John William Warner III was born in Washington, D.C., in 1927.

But Warner was pure Virginia.

"I called him a Virginia gentleman," mused Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "It didn’t make a difference, whether you’re Republican or Democrat. He was there talking to everybody, from the people at the hotel to heads of state."

"He was also a truly old-school Virginia gentleman. John knew a thing or two about horseracing, for example," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "That’s high praise coming from a Kentuckian to a non-Kentuckian."

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., spoke of how he brought Warner to the Capitol for lunch a few years back.

"I came to the dining room with John Warner and it was like I brought in the Pope," said Kaine. "All the senators and their families were coming over to talk to John Warner because they loved him so much."

Warner was blessed with central casting good looks. He almost resembled Hollywood’s version of a senator when elected in 1978.

But Warner soon entered Hollywood royalty – thanks to actual royalty.

Warner chaired the U.S.’s Bicentennial Commission in 1976. The British Embassy invited Warner to a dinner party with Queen Elizabeth. But the "Court of St. James" instructed Warner they wanted him to invite someone else to the soiree: actress Liz Taylor.

One Elizabeth, introducing Warner to another Elizabeth.

Warner and Taylor hit it off. The starlet visited Warner’s farm to ride horses a week later. They married that fall at that same farm in Middleburg, Virginia.

Warner was Taylor’s sixth husband. She campaigned for him when he ran for Senate in 1978, often upstaging the candidate at events.

Taylor later observed that Warner was in fact married to the Senate.

The couple divorced in 1982. But the pair remained friends until her death in March 2011.

"May I say on behalf of myself, my children, the children of Elizabeth’s family, thank you for all the heartfelt condolences for this iconic figure in the history of her profession," said Warner when Taylor died.

Warner served in the Navy during World War II and the Marines in the Korean War. The Senate later confirmed Warner as President Nixon’s Navy secretary.

Warner chaired the Armed Services Committee in the Senate.

"Let us not be unmindful of the enormity of the sacrifice of the men and women of the armed forces of the United States," said Warner during a 2007 speech.

Warner also challenged Republican orthodoxy. He endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. He studied climate change – mostly at the behest of the military. He also opposed the nomination of President Reagan’s failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

"Whether it came to issues like the Iraq war, the use of torture, he was always willing to blaze his own trail," said Bronwyn Lance, Warner’s former communications director.

The Senate is often an antiquated place. But Lance says Warner was ahead of many of his colleagues, hiring and promoting women into positions of authority within his office and on committees.

Lance describes Warner as "truly the consummate gentleman." But she added there was still the "crusty Marine side to him" as well.

"I remember when he hired me, instead of saying ‘You’re hired!’ he said ‘Pack your damn bags and come on board.’ So, I thought ‘That’s a great way to start,’" said Lance.

John Warner defeated current Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in 1996. They’re not related. But Mark Warner won John Warner’s seat in 2008 when the late senator retired.

"I saw him four or five weeks ago. Very frail," said Mark Warner. "But still, oftentimes with a pocket square, and looking like he stepped out of ‘Hunt Country’ magazine."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., ordered flags at the Capitol to fly at half-staff to honor Warner.

Warner was a student of the Senate, and keenly aware of the institution’s sheer velocity. Nothing may happen on key issues for months. And then, Capitol Hill is drenched in work, right before a big recess or holiday.

"We don’t do a lot in Congress," Warner once quipped. "But when we do, we do it all at once."

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That quotation probably explains a lot of things.

Including why I was off in the Dirksen Senate Office Building searching for John Warner. And why I had to sprint through the Senate subway tunnels to catch the senator on his way to vote.

I’m glad he stopped. Even if I was out of breath.