The Week (US)

The GOP senator who had an independen­t streak

John Warner 1927–2021


When he arrived in the Senate in 1978, John Warner faced some harsh critics. They said he’d ridden to wealth on the back of his first wife—banking heiress Catherine Mellon, who gave him an estimated $7 million in their 1973 divorce—and won a Virginia Senate seat thanks to the star power of his second, actress Elizabeth Taylor. His chiseled good looks earned the Republican the title “the senator from central casting.” But over 30 years in the Senate, Warner earned bipartisan respect for his diligence, consensus building, military expertise, and willingnes­s to buck his party. He supported gun control and legal abortion and angered many Republican­s by opposing Oliver North’s 1994 run for Virginia’s second Senate seat, citing the former White House aide’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal. “I sure risked my political future,” Warner said. “But I’d rather the voters of this state remember that I stood on my principle.” Warner was born in Washington, D.C., to an obstetrici­an father and a homemaker mother, said The Times (U.K.). He left high school at age 17 “to enlist in the Navy for the final months” of World War II. As a law student at the University of Virginia, he again interrupte­d his education to enroll in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. Warner finished his studies in 1953 and then worked as a U.S. attorney in Washington before joining a private law firm. By now married to Mellon, he gave “time and money” to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidenti­al campaign, and “was rewarded with the job of undersecre­tary of the Navy.” Three years later he became Navy secretary.

When Warner ran for the Senate, “his principal claim to fame” was his marriage to Taylor, whom he’d met at a British embassy luncheon, said The Washington Post. On the campaign trail in Virginia, he played down his “taste for Savile Row suits, squash, and fox hunting” and presented himself as a “farmer and cattleman.” Warner, who separated from Taylor in 1981, won the election by 4,721 votes—“the closest Senate race in Virginia history.” He reached “the peak of his power” in 1999, when he became chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said The New York Times, and “evolved into a Republican force on military issues.” Citing advancing age, he announced his retirement in 2007. “How fortunate,” he said, “how blessed I have been.”

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