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Warner Soldiers On

Previously Content to Ply His Trade at Armed Services, Virginian Takes on New Prominence in Senate

A walk through Sen. John Warner’s (R-Va.) Russell Building office amounts to a tour of a miniature museum of the history of modern warfare and leadership.

There’s the painting of Napoleon fleeing a battle to round up more soldiers. Weapons recovered from the Battle of Waterloo. The Army identification card and medals of his father, a doctor in the trenches of France in World War I. The October 1944 letter from the Secretary of the Senate, an old family friend, recommending Warner, 17 at the time, for enlistment in the Navy. Pieces of the Berlin Wall and the Roman Senate, as well as a fake bird from the imploded offices of former Panamanian General Manuel Noriega.

Not to mention the pictures of himself: as a young sailor in World War II, as the secretary of the Navy negotiating a treaty with the Soviet Union, and as the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee working with other Senators. That one prompts a slightly bitter recollection. “I’ve spent an eternity off and on as ranking member,” he recalls of the GOP’s years in the minority.

Not today, however. Entering his 25th year in the Senate, Warner is once again at the helm of Armed Services as chairman, and he’s commanding more respect from his leadership and the White House than ever before.

Having played a high-profile role in the rise of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a close confidant of President Bush’s, Warner’s moves this month have shown that he has no intention of letting the White House dictate to the Senate. That role is the one he considers his most critical in the year ahead, with confrontation looming on multiple fronts around the world.

At a GOP retreat at the Library of Congress held on Jan. 8, he delivered a stern rebuke to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card regarding the Pentagon’s lack of consultation with his committee in the run-up to a possible war with Iraq. The same message was communicated to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a small briefing with committee members two weeks ago, and again last week in a full Senate briefing by Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“Because of the complexities of the issues,” Warner said in a interview Thursday, he is urging Bush “to achieve the highest of high-water marks of consultation with Congress.”

That frankness has won him plaudits, particularly with some of the Bush administration’s strongest critics.

“He jealously and appropriately guards the prerogatives of the Senate,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an Armed Services member who has routinely criticized past administration military briefings.

His background — serving in the Navy during World War II, the Marines in Korea and the Pentagon during the Vietnam War — gives him a credibility on the issue of Congressional prerogative that other Senators might not be able to muster. And he’ll gladly take any doubters through the tour of his office memorabilia to back up his talk.

“He’s achieved a role not only through his talent but also through being at the right time and place,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

With nine new members on the 25-Senator panel, Warner’s seniority and clout on Armed Services will be felt even more deeply.

Warner, who turns 76 in three weeks, cuts a confident, purposeful figure as he walks the halls of the Senate, as though he was plucked straight out of central casting for the role of a Virginia Senator. While he can be sometimes gruff and direct, he displays another side as well. An amateur painter, his portraits of flowers, particularly peonies, adorn his walls, interspersed between the war treasures.

Fellow Senators, in fact, will soon be receiving a card from Warner with one of his works, a flower painting entitled “Red, White and Blue.”

Twice divorced (including a 1970s marriage to Elizabeth Taylor), Warner invokes his three children and his grandchildren as the guiding purpose behind his decision to stay in the Senate rather than spend his twilight years in retirement.

Despite his surprisingly prominent role in last month’s leadership battle, Warner disavows any notion that he is attempting to become a behind-the-scenes force in Frist’s decision-making, bitterly complaining about a recent graphic in Time magazine that labeled him a political “godfather” to Frist. “I do not aspire to be in the inner circle,” he said, adding that committee work will continue to be his focus.

“I stepped back into the role I enjoy the most. That’s where my energies are directed.”

His blunt-spoken approach to the Bush administration on matters of Congressional consultation followed the role he played in helping push Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) out the door of leadership after the furor arose from remarks he made at former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 100th birthday party.

Warner said he was never a close ally of Lott’s, but considered him someone who gave him a fair shake, most recently when Lott agreed to appoint Warner to the Intelligence Committee before he was deposed as Majority Leader. As the controversy spiraled out of control, Warner told his fellow Senators in a now-infamous conference call they needed to hold a face-to-face meeting to hear Lott out and then decide his future, a notion he repeated that weekend on TV talk shows.

But by the time he watched Lott’s performance on a Black Entertainment Television program, in which the Mississippi Republican endorsed affirmative action and other positions out of line with the majority of the Conference, Warner decided Lott had to go.

“I said to myself …” Warner recalled, trailing off, putting his hand over his face and shaking his head.

Within days Warner was going before the TV cameras, announcing Frist’s challenge to Lott, who resigned the next day.

His high-profile involvement in Lott’s demise ruffled some feathers, but not those of anyone who offered on-the-record criticism. One senior Senator said Warner appeared to “relish the role of appearing to be kingmaker” to Frist, while another said Warner’s moves were “irritating” to some.

Most importantly, Warner’s public stance against Lott gave the ouster movement more credibility. Previously, the only Senator fomenting the anti-Lott cause was Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who had long clashed with Lott and who was assumed to be angling for his job.

“Someone was going to have to do it who didn’t appear to have any motive,” a senior Senator said.

Other Republicans, even some who were on Lott’s side, defended Warner and said he was trying to bring the party together as quickly as possible. Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), one of the Old Bulls behind Lott, said Warner and Frist stepped out publicly on the eve of Lott’s resignation knowing full well he would step aside the next day.

“We all knew Lott was going to do that,” he said, adding that part of Warner’s prominent role in the transfer of power came simply from the fact that he lives just across the Potomac River, where television reporters know he’s easily accessible for interviews.

And Stevens, for one, is happy to have Warner on call during periods when the rest of the Conference is spread around the nation. “Warner, I think, really represents the on-guard Old Bull,” he said.

The principal co-sponsor of the Gulf War resolutions of both 1991 and 2002, Warner considers himself most on-guard these days about the public’s mood with the nation on the brink of war. He worries that European allies are hesitant to support Bush and Congressional Democrats are ready to pounce, while Americans at large aren’t sure what to think.

“It’s just not coming together for this president,” Warner said.

He desperately wants to avoid a return to the Vietnam era, when a divided Congress mirrored a bitterly divided public. He recalled a moment in the Nixon administration when, as undersecretary of the Navy, he and John Chafee, then secretary of the Navy, were sent to the National Mall during a protest march.

The Pentagon wanted a couple of their own to see what was happening, so Warner and Chafee slipped into everyday civilian clothes and walked through the thousands of young protesters, bemused by their antics (“You could cut the pot smoke with a knife,” he said), but amazed by their spirit of cause.

Warner intends to fight to make sure today’s troops in Afghanistan and the Middle East get a better treatment than their predecessors did coming home from Vietnam, a fight he’ll take up with the administration and Congressional Democrats.

While he realizes his time is limited, Warner believes he’s “as strong as ever” and plans to keep serving as long as possible, maybe even running for re-election again in 2008. He was essentially unopposed last year.

Without prompting, he asked his own question: “Is this the way you want to spend, frankly, the final years of your life?”

He said someone else asked him that recently, and he had a quick reply. “I said I’m going to retire the day I die. The day after I die, I guess.”

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