Alexandria, Va. — 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 starpower, 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.
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.
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 and went on to serve a term as Virginia’s governor. 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.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., 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.”
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 and 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 into the torture of detainees at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison and the Iraq war.
In 2005, Warner was part of 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. 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.
Republicans nominated Warner for the Senate in 1978. He was ridiculed by some who thought he was riding on the coattails of his then-wife, Taylor, whom he had married in late 1976.
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 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 celebrities, 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.
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 the University of Virginia 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. He became under secretary of the Navy in 1969 and served as secretary of the Navy 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 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.
Dena Potter, a former staffer of The Associated Press, was the principal writer of this obituary.
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