Former Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a courtly figure and longtime military expert whose marriage to Elizabeth Taylor gave him a potent dash of star power, has died at 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.
A centrist Republican, Warner had an independent streak that sometimes angered more conservative GOP leaders. But he was hugely popular with Virginia voters.
That popularity was only amplified by his marriage to a mega movie star, which drew huge crowds when he was elected to the Senate in 1978. The “Doonesbury” comic strip lampooned him as “Sen. Elizabeth Taylor.”
Warner was the sixth of Taylor’s seven husbands. 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.
President Joe Biden, who served with Warner in the Senate, said Warner took “principled stances” guided by two things: “his conscience and our Constitution.”
“He neither wavered in his convictions nor was concerned with the consequences,” Biden said, noting Warner wasn’t afraid to buck his party on issues of “rational gun policy, women’s rights, and judicial nominees” and even crossed party lines to support Biden’s presidential candidacy in 2020.
Warner served five Senate terms before retiring from the chamber 30 years later. He was succeeded in 2008 by Democrat Mark Warner — no relation — who had challenged him for the Senate in 1996. After years of rivalry, the two 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.”
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said, “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.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lauded Warner as “a great patriot … a leader unafraid to speak the truth but always committed to finding common ground and consensus.”
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served both Democratic and Republican administrations, said Warner’s “steadfast support for our men and women in uniform made a difference in their lives and in the security of our country. His friends and admirers came from across the political spectrum and he set an example for all of bipartisan leadership.”
Flags at the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol were flown at half-staff. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised Warner as a “consensus builder” and an “authority on military affairs.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called Warner a “principled patriot across the board.”
The courtly senator 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.
A veteran of World War II and Korea, Warner devoted most of his career to military matters. He served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and as Navy secretary.
He was a key supporter of President George W. Bush’s declaration of war in Iraq and often defended the Bush administration’s handling of the war. 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 into the torture of detainees at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison and the Iraq war.
In 2005, Warner was the lone senator to formally object to the federal government stepping in on the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case. She had suffered brain damage and her husband sought to remove her feeding tube, over the objections of Florida lawmakers.
“Greater wisdom is not always reposed in the branches of federal government,” he said at the time.
In 1994, Warner angered conservatives by opposing GOP nominee Oliver North’s bid to unseat Virginia 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 reelection.
“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.”
Steamed by what they viewed as disloyalty, GOP conservatives tried to deny him a fourth term in 1996, backing a primary challenge by former Reagan administration budget director Jim Miller. Miller portrayed Warner as an elitist who spent too much time squiring celebrities, including Barbara Walters. But Warner easily defeated him and then beat Mark Warner in the general.
John Warner mended his strained GOP ties by helping Jim Gilmore become governor in 1997 and George Allen take Robb’s Senate seat in 2000.
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 earned an engineering degree from Washington and Lee University and entered law school at the University of Virginia in 1949, but volunteered for the Marines, serving in Korea before finishing his degree in 1953.
Warner clerked at the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, went into private practice, and then became a federal prosecutor. He was Navy secretary from 1972 to 1974.
Warner got an estimated $7 million fortune in the breakup of his first marriage, to Catherine Mellon, daughter of multimillionaire Paul Mellon. 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.