John Warner, Virginian

by Kerry Dougherty

John Warner, who died Tuesday at the age of 94, was an accidental senator.

Had it not been for the plane crash that killed Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Richard Obenshain in August of 1978, Warner would have simply been a former Secretary of the Navy who came in second in a bid to get the GOP nomination that year.

When the small plane went down with the candidate on board, Warner found himself the party’s nominee.

He was an outsider. But it turned out the man from Middleburg held a trump card:

Elizabeth Taylor.

Warner had married one of the most famous women in the world two years earlier and she took to being a candidate’s wife as if it were her most important role.

She barnstormed the commonwealth by Warner’s side, disarming voters with her warmth and energy.

Taylor electrified the campaign trail that fall, followed everywhere by an international posse of reporters and photographers.

Never before had the hollows and hamlets of Virginia been graced by a celebrity of Taylor’s stature. She packed high school football stadiums, greasy spoons and town halls in her starring role as candidate’s wife.

In fact, best-selling author Adriana Trigiani set her novel “Big Stone Gap” in the Virginia town of the same name and in the same year, because it’s where Taylor famously choked on a chicken bone as she sampled a wing in the kitchen of a restaurant.

Four years later, in 1982, Warner and Taylor divorced. I read an interview with her some years later and she spoke affectionately of  Warner, but said she hadn’t prepared to sit home night after night while John put in long hours on Capitol Hill.

Made perfect sense.

In his three decades in the Senate, Warner quickly went from being a novelty — a celebrity husband — to one of Washington’s most powerful and respected senators. His work ethic was legendary, he rarely missed a vote, he made friends across the aisle, was a fierce defender of the military and protective of Virginia’s installations when the Pentagon embarked on consolidation.

The enormously popular Warner served five terms until his retirement in 2008. He was one of the last World War II veterans in Congress.

I covered many John Warner events over the years. At every one, I waited for his “model senator” joke.

He liked to quip that people called him a model senator but he looked it up in the dictionary and it meant “a drastically reduced version of of the real thing.”

Never failed to get a laugh.

It was during the summer and fall of 1994 that I spent the most time with John Warner.

Don’t remember that year’s crazy contest for the U.S Senate in Virginia? Let me refresh your memory.

For a time it was a wild four-way race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Chuck Robb.

Lt. Col. Oliver North shocked old guard Republicans when he clinched the party’s nomination. But both candidates had problems. Robb was tainted by a naked-back-rub scandal and North by Iran-Contra.

So former Virginia Attorney General Marshall Coleman, a Republican, offered himself as an independent alternative to North.

Then former Gov. Doug Wilder, who was a Democrat but not a Robb fan, entered the race but dropped out before Election Day.

Coleman’s strongest supporter was John Warner.

It was clear Warner didn’t believe Oliver North belonged in the U.S. Senate, but the senator’s endorsement of Coleman helped divide the Republican vote, handing Robb a slim victory with just a plurality of the vote.

I was covering that campaign, which is how I came to be standing in the Twins Ole Towne restaurant in Smithfield early one morning.

Coleman and Warner were kicking off a daylong blitz from the iconic establishment, and members of the media and townsfolk were crammed inside.

After shaking hands and signing autographs, Warner had a hankering for breakfast.

He saw a woman. He spied a notebook. He thought waitress.

So the senator turned to me and said something like, “Miss, I’ll have two eggs — over easy — sausage, whole wheat toast and coffee.”

I was about to head into the kitchen and fetch it for him when an aide with a sharp elbow told the senator he’d ordered breakfast from The Virginian-Pilot’s political columnist.

“Holy cow,” Warner exclaimed. “I’ve been campaigning 31 years and I think that’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.”

“Not even close,” the aide quipped.

As we left the restaurant, Warner shouted to me from across the street.

“Young lady, I want to ride with you!” he called.

I panicked.

At the time I had a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old. My car was a sticky mess of Cheerios and spilled apple juice, hardly suitable for a U.S. Senator.

I brushed the debris from the passenger seat with my jacket , unlocked the passenger door and spent the next several hours chauffeuring Warner from whistle stop to whistle stop.

He was a fabulous raconteur. At one point he wanted to tell me something personal, but hesitated.

“Can we talk as two people?” he asked.

“As opposed to what?” I wisecracked.

“You know,” he said.

And I did know. He wanted to go off the record. I told him to go ahead and frankly, his story was damned amusing.

No, I won’t share it with you. I gave the good senator my word.

We lost a great man this week.

John Warner was a proud Virginian and Virginians had every reason to be proud of him.

This column is republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed & Unedited.

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23 responses to “John Warner, Virginian”

  1. DJRippert Avatar


  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    So Warner was also a fishing guy and river enthusiast:×1800.jpg

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Warner’s previous marriage to Catherine Mellon of Upperville might have been the true launch of his political career. Catherine was the daughter of philanthropist Paul Mellon and the granddaughter of Sec. of Treasury Andrew Mellon. When Warner split with Mellon he came away with a horde of cash and political connections.

    1. StarboardLift Avatar

      Some gave Warner credit only for marrying well, calling his ex-wives the source of his career. I look back at his service and like what I see. I would love to see a Warner-style centrist at hand.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Warner served Virginia well. He steered billions of defense dollars to the Old Dominion. A bit of a maverick at times on key votes. I always admired his independence. Warner could have served the Republican party better when it comes to endorsements at election time. It is too bad that centrism is dead in modern politics.

    2. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      During the 1978 campaign, the editor of the Fincastle Herald endorsed Andy Miller and opined (in print) that he didn’t want as senator anybody the Mellons paid $7 mil to get rid of….One of the best lines of that campaign.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        One of the great “what ifs” of Virginia politics: What if R. Obenshain had been seated as Senator and served for 30 years? It would have cemented the old Byrd Machine transfer of power from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Things would have unfolded differently for sure.

  4. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    I was there in 1976 when he brought Liz Taylor to Lexington to show off his alma mater, to show the world his “date,” and to test the political waters. He found them warm and I’d love to find my stories from that event. And I was there just a couple years ago at the shipyard when we attended ceremonies for the submarine that now bears his name. He was always a fabulous, larger than life character but also a fine Senator and very helpful to his fellow Republicans. They broke the mold.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      The Senator from Central Casting.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        Central Casting!

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          I thought I said that?

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    “Robb was tainted by a naked-back-rub scandal and North by Iran-Contra.”

    Only a Republican could equate those. Fortunately, in those days, a Republican was a person who understood the difference between patriotism from jingoism. Times change.

    There were also rumors of Robb and cocaine that stemmed from a fund raiser in SEVA. I was there. So was the cocaine. But Robb was totally unaware that a substantial number of the younger crowd were out by the pool doing lines.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Is that what you told Billy Franklin? 🙂 I’ve got his book, my signed first edition, right here by my desk….Wasn’t a second edition as far as I know….

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        No, but I certainly would have been willing to testify to it under oath. Robb and his wife were mostly glad-handing in the living room, kitchen and dining room.

        But, just to titillate, there were some currently serving in Richmond out by the pool.

        But to put things into perspective, it would have been virtually impossible to attend a party on the Peninsula in the 80s where there wasn’t cocaine. That s#!t was everywhere down this way.

        1. Stephen Haner Avatar
          Stephen Haner

          I DID testify under oath but that’s another story for another day.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Never had to testify, ever. Deposed once, but we might as well have had cocktails. Pretty amicable.

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    How fortunate Kerry was to get to spend that much one-on-one time with Warner!

  7. WayneS Avatar

    A very nice tribute. Thank you.

  8. William Cover Avatar
    William Cover

    My Mother (Margaret Peery Cover) was a campaign leader for Wampler and Warner in the Fighting Ninth District in 1978. I was delegate at the convention in Richmond when Warner won the nomination. For trivia fans, Senator Warner brought Elizabeth Taylor to our house at 102 Church Street in Tazewell Virginia during the campaign. Mom broke out the silver tea and coffee pots and her best china for the occasion. It was a turning point in Virginia politics. Mom is enjoying retirement at age 93 and she did give me the China used on that day to serve Ms Taylor hot tea. William Cover JD PhD Arnold California

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Fascinating! thanks!

    2. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      As members of the Roanoke Times staff of that day, Jim and I got a chance to see a wonderous item: Our colleague Ben Beagle had the X-ray film of Liz Taylor from the day she went to the hospital in SWVA with a chicken bone stuck in her throat. It was a life size film of the full thorax. As with today’s airport scanners, not much left to imagine…..quite a collector’s item! 102 Church in Tazewell was probably a lot like my grandparents’ house at 107 Logan Street in Bluefield…best wishes to her.

      1. William Cover Avatar
        William Cover

        Steve, thanks for the comment.

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