It’s not so much what you do, but the manner in which you do it.
John Warner has shown us, once again, that we really are better than we let on. The praise of Warner’s tenure as our United States Senator has been universal and consistent – John Warner was a great politician.
Virginia’s gentle man.
There have been many wonderful remembrances of him. Read them all.
After the news broke yesterday, I recounted my own with fondness, many smiles, and several laughs. That was a great trip down Memory Lane, but it wasn’t sad.
Then I remembered that I was having lunch with Frank Atkinson in just a few hours and that we would be nerding out on the life and times of John Warner. I mean Atkinson literally wrote the books about modern Virginia politics.
Order them. Must reads. The Dynamic Dominion: Realignment and the Rise of Two-Party Competition in Virginia, 1945-1980 and Virginia in the Vanguard: Political Leadership in the 400-Year-Old Cradle of American Democracy, 1981-2006
Talk about timing.
(We did talk about John Warner, but not as much as I thought we would. There are after all pressing political issues in the Commonwealth.)
If you totaled up all the remembrances I think there would be this sum — We were grateful to have John Warner representing Virginia in the U.S. Senate for thirty years and that we need more John Warners in our politics today.
We do need more John Warners, but John Warner didn’t just happen. He worked at it.
John Warner was a great politician who perfected the craft over many years of public service.
As Maya Angelou rightly said:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Have you noticed the similarity of all the remembrances of John Warner?
Start off with Andrew Cain’s very good article at the Richmond Times Dispatch as he captures much of Warner’s rise and career. This nugget quote from Warner about his first re-election in 1984 stood out for me:
“What it says is broaden your base,” he said. “Let us as a party grow and have diversity. Let us welcome and make a working partner in our party all races and creeds.”
37 years ago.
Shakespeare gives us one example of a young man who is originally considered a lightweight but grows in office into a serious-minded leader who is respected even by his enemies: The rakish Prince Hal’s transformation into the martial Henry V.
He was genuinely interested in people he would meet and the stories they would tell, whether it was in a small-town hardware store, a cinder-block barbecue stand along a backroad, a boardroom in Richmond or a deli in Alexandria not far from his house. Watching him frustrate staffers tasked with keeping him on schedule was a source of amusement.
As shrill partisanship began remaking Virginia’s politics about two decades ago, there was a constant in its congressional delegation: John Warner who, by weight of his energy, experience and 100-watt personality, could get its rivalrous members in the same room, keeping them focused on larger issues important to the entire state — defense, federal contracts, transportation and the environment.
He was approachable, happily a caricature of himself as the so-called Senator from Central Casting. He delighted in working a crowd, gossiping, sharing a ribald joke and was an enthusiastic watercolorist whose subjects tended toward the botanical.
Or from former aides like Chris Pepin-Neff on Twitter:
I believe this photo was taken in July 1976 at a Bicentennial event. Warner was head of the Bicentennial celebrations and Queen Elizabeth visited the States to mark the occasion. President Ford was everywhere for the occasion. And they all came to Charlottesville too!
— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) May 26, 2021
or McGuire Woods’ Tucker Martin:
Right out of college my buddy was John Warner’s body man. Super Bowl weekend he casually told him we were having a party for the game. Didn’t think anything of it. Bunch of 22/23 year olds came over. Doorbell rings. It’s John Warner. Holding a 6-pack. Stayed the entire time.
— Tucker Martin (@jtuckermartin) May 26, 2021
John Warner was the one politician universally respected and genuinely liked because he respected and liked everyone. Relationships are a two way street and Warner’s knack with them was a true gift — but he worked at it.
Like the New Radicals hit song title goes “You Get What You Give.”
Consider this Facebook post from State Senator Mark Obenshain whose father, Dick Obenshain, was tragically killed in a plane crash in August of 1978 after winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.
I first met John Warner in 1978 during the epic US Senate nomination fight. Our paths crossed many times over the years. We often were politically at odds, but never personally. Senator Warner was never anything but kind and generous to me and to other members of my family. For that I will always be grateful. He was a gentleman and rendered great service to Virginia and to our nation.
R.I.P. John Warner
It always seemed effortless to Warner, but that was due to his authenticity. He really liked being a politician and he loved Virginia — but he worked at it.
Everyone likes to point out that he married Elizabeth Taylor, but let’s tell the story fully — Elizabeth Taylor also married John Warner.
and we’re back.
In late 2007, I met with Warner in his Senate office one on one.
His colleague, John McCain, had recently asked me to co-chair his presidential campaign in Virginia along with John Warner. McCain was doing poorly in the polls at the time, but I readily agreed to join the campaign. I mean who says no to working with those two political giants? Not this guy anyway.
Later, we were joined by George Allen and Bob McDonnell after their candidate, Fred Thompson, dropped out of the race.
That was some heady stuff.
Anyway, Warner and I meet. We both graduated from Washington and Lee so we always chatted about that. Then we talked about his 1978 campaign for the U.S. Senate and he tells me a story about campaigning with Elizabeth Taylor.
One day during a hot dusty summer drive in rural Virginia they pulled into what we call a convenience store today but was then just a local gas station. Well, Warner is thirsty and goes in to ask for a glass of water. The store owner says no, you have to pay for it. Warner replies, “Well, what if I told you I was John Warner and I’m running for the United States Senate?”
Comes the reply, “Honey, I don’t care who you are. Ain’t nuthin’ in this store free!”
To which he offers a higher bid, “Well, what if I told I had Elizabeth Taylor out in my car and I’ll introduce you to her?”
“Honey, you can have any dang thing you want!” Warner laughed but after the punch line had struck me first. Genius timing.
I could tell right away that he really liked telling that story.
We did a few more campaign events together and they were all treasures. Warner always owned the room. Everyone liked, if not loved, the man. I never heard him complain or run a person down. That wasn’t his manner. At all.
<Memo to self>
Sure more politically conservative Republicans groused about his independent streak, but another part of his political genius was to not linger in internecine battles. He stayed above them, by staying out of them. Warner would make a principled decision, but knew not to add gasoline to the fire by making it personal.
In the case of Principle v. Personal, Warner ruled wisely and with self restraint. In that sense, his politics were far more conservative than he is credited.
Warner epitomized disagreeing without being disagreeable. His focus was on more important matters that were still to come – especially when it came to national defense and foreign affairs.
Politics is always about the future, dear Brutus.
Warner was in his last term in the fall of 2007 having decided not to seek re-election in 2008. Bob Lewis calls it The Graceful Exit in his piece linked above. My sense is that when he announced at the beginning of September 2007 that he wouldn’t run again he had already spoken with Mark Warner about it. After all, John was “doing alright.”
It was time to pass the baton.
John Warner’s politics lined up well with Virginia’s and that’s why he was re-elected four times — he was right of center but didn’t get too far right. He knew Virginia and what was out of step with it. For that, he was rewarded by her citizens with sometimes massive majorities. His last race was in 2002, when Warner won with 83% of the vote against two independents.
Some people say “well, the Democrats didn’t run anyone against him!”
Yeah. We know. There’s a reason… or a couple dozen.
While he painted in watercolors, politics for John Warner was more like how Robin Williams’ character John Keating describes poetry in Dead Poets Society. There was depth and meaning in it all:
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?
Maybe they are more like Tennyson’s Ulysses:
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Now is not the time “to yield” to the times.
Now is the time “to strive, to seek, to find” what we extol, desire, and admire.
If we really want to have more public servants like John Warner, then we have to be more like John Warner. After all, our politicians represent us.
We’re better than this time.
A man became a giant by contributing his verse in manner and deed.
John Warner just showed us that – again – by reflecting “the better angels of our nature” back to ourselves.
Thank you, United States Senator John Warner.
Chris Saxman is executive director of Virginia FREE. This column is republished with permission from his Substack publication, The Intersection.