By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
John Warner, a former Republican U.S. senator, died at his Alexandria home on May 25 due to a heart ailment. He was 94.
Widely known throughout his five terms for his innate ability to garner support on both sides of the political aisle, Warner ultimately left his mark as someone who operated with patience, curiosity and a deep mastery of the Senate process.
Warner served in the U.S. Senate as a Virginia representative from 1979 to 2009 — making him the second longest serving senator from Virginia, behind Harry F. Byrd.
Born on Feb. 18, 1927 in Washington D.C. to Martha Budd and John William Warner Jr., Warner enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 17 and served during World War II. After the war, Warner received an undergraduate degree from Washington and Lee University and attended the University of Virginia Law school, later leaving to join the U.S. Marine Corps in 1950.
He completed his law degree at George Washington University in 1953 and worked as an assistant attorney in a private law practice. Warner went on to serve as U.S. Secretary of the Navy in President Richard Nixon’s administration from 1972 until 1974.
Although Warner first ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1978, he lost the Republican primary to Richard Obenshain. Several months before the general election however, Obenshain was killed in a plane crash and Warner was chosen to replace him. Warner served on the Environmental and Public Works Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and chaired the Senate Rules Committee and Senate Armed Forces Committee. While in office, he gained notoriety among conservative colleagues for his sometimes-moderate views.
George Allen, a friend of Warner’s who also served in the U.S. Senate, hailed Warner as a man who not only had patience but a deep respect for the Senate process.
“It was his style and his temperament; it’s as much his experience as it was his personality [that] he could maneuver to find a solution [when there] were people with different perspectives,” Allen said.
Warner was also a fixture in the Alexandria community, having played a significant role in repairing and modernizing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Originally opened in 1961, the bridge was dilapidated and crumbling by the 1970s, but a repair demanded agreement from Alexandria City Council as well as state leaders in Virginia and Maryland and those in Washington D.C. due to its jurisdiction-spanning location. Warner assisted in creating a repair package with appropriations that was amenable to all parties.
“It [took] really elaborate and multi-jurisdictional diplomatic relations to get the engineering and the bridge approved by all those jurisdictions, and John Warner got that done,” Allen said.
Alexandria Republican Frank Fannon, who served as a member of City Council from 2009 to 2012, called Warner a “true statesman” throughout his 30 years of Virginia service.
“He was a true leader who [sought] to bring people together for the betterment of our country,” Fannon said. “America is lacking true leaders today like John Warner, who seek to unite people as opposed to many modern day politicians who are concerned about their own special interests.”
Warner voted on an expansive array of topics and at times differed from his fellow Senate Republicans. He supported an assault weapons ban in addition to the Roe v. Wade decision, for instance. While Warner was known to occasionally drift from party lines with his moderate viewpoints, he supported all three Republican presidents who served during his tenure in office.
Warner’s former legislative director and chief of staff Ann Loomis said that all of his decisions were “guided by his conscience” and an enduring passion for his job.
“[He] excelled at bridging divides among his colleagues,” Loomis said. “[He] loved the Senate and his staff. He inspired us to be our best and gave us endless opportunities to succeed. We became an extended family because of his kindness and generosity.”
Allen recalled a story told by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell about the Senate’s votes, which often ran deep into the night and meant senators had to nap on cots. They would wake up to vote, and then try to fall back asleep.
According to Allen, one night Mitchell was particularly uncomfortable and unable to sleep.
“Here [Mitchell] is, 2:30 in the morning, wide awake, and then he looked over at [Warner] who’s lying on a cot asleep like a baby, completely calm. Mitchell thought, ‘This must be his favorite place to be because this guy could be at home with Liz Taylor but here he is sleeping in these cots,’” Allen said with a laugh, referencing Warner’s relationship with actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Warner married Taylor in 1976 and the couple divorced in 1982. In 2003, Warner would marry his wife Jeanne Vander Myde, who he remained married to until his death.
Warner’s “mastery and respect” for the traditional Senate process made these late night sessions possible, Allen said, but so did his personality.
“He knew how to work the system, he knew the timing but also the personalities he was dealing with, and because of those relationships and the respect people had for John Warner, there were things he was able to get done that most people would never have the patience to get accomplished. He was just outstanding in that way,” Allen said.
Warner’s longtime chief of staff Susan Magill said she will remember Warner for his “childlike curiosity” about the world and ability to strike up a conversation with anyone. She noted Warner’s love for traveling throughout Virginia and visiting the Old Town Farmers Market, of which he was a long-standing patron.
Magill, who was often in charge of creating Warner’s schedules, said she routinely allocated extra calendar time to account for Warner’s conversations with residents or spur of the moment excursions.
“I knew to build in a lot of extra time because he was going to talk to people or find just that huge book he wanted at an antique store or decide he was going to escape for an hour or two and fish for trout in some beautiful stream we happened to be passing. You just never knew,” Magill said. “He didn’t let his official duties get in the way of [his] joy of life; he just kept exploring.”
Beyond his political career, Warner assisted in the launch of a government relations program for the non-profit Tuberous Sclerosis Complex Alliance. Warner helped secure $97 million for TSC research from the Department of Defense’s congressionally directed medical research program.
Beginning in the summer of 2001, the TSC Alliance shifted its focus toward congressional advocacy by urging the passage of a resolution in the House of Representatives to raise TSC awareness.
“When Sen. Warner heard about the efforts in the House, he most graciously volunteered to lead a companion resolution in the Senate …,” the TSC Alliance said in a statement. “Senator Warner will be remembered for his dedication and compassionate support for TSC research.”
An Alexandrian through and through, Warner’s favorite city event was the Scottish Christmas Walk, and he made sure to never miss the Historic Alexandria Antique Show when he was in town.
Additionally, the Tall Ship Providence Foundation is developing the Senator John Warner Maritime Heritage Center in Old Town.
“You can look at all the legislative accomplishments and everything, but he was a very kind person who was interested in everybody,” Magill said. “I think you would find, if you talked to his fellow senators or the Capitol Police or the person who ran the line in the cafeteria at the senate, they would tell you that he was known for kindness and interest in their lives.”
John William Warner III is survived by his wife, Jeanne Vander Myde Warner, children, Virginia Warner, Mary Conover, and John W. Warner IV, and two grandsons.