Corrected 8:30 p.m. | John Warner embodied the Senate’s most patrician principles: compromise in the face of intransigence, conviction in the face of political consequence, and a sense of comity and duty to his fellow countrymen.
Washington’s old guard eulogized Warner at the National Cathedral on Wednesday and with him, perhaps, the institutional ideals he came to personify.
President Joe Biden rose first to remember the Republican from Virginia, who died May 25 at the age of 94.
Biden spoke a day after Senate Republicans blocked consideration of a voting rights bill, with the architect of that obstruction, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seated in the front row.
Bipartisan negotiations continue on the White House’s primary legislative goal, a major infrastructure spending bill, amid deep mistrust between and within the two parties.
The president extolled Warner for understanding “that empathy — empathy — is the fuel of democracy. The willingness to see each other as opponents and not as enemies,” Biden said. “Above all, to see each other as fellow Americans, even when we disagreed — from John’s perspective, especially when we disagreed.”
Born to a well-to-do Washington family, Warner enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II, and again in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. Along the way, he earned a law degree and became an assistant U.S. attorney, and eventually was named secretary of the Navy by President Richard Nixon.
With the wealth gained from his first marriage to a scion of the Mellon fortune and the fame gained from his second marriage to the glamorous actress Elizabeth Taylor, Warner ran for the Senate in 1978 and lost. But when his primary opponent died in a plane crash, he stepped in, going on to win the general election.
At first, Democrats and the press made light of “Mr. Elizabeth Taylor,” but he soon won them over. In time, Warner rose through the ranks to chair the Armed Services Committee and took stances on a range of issues — abortion, gun control, gay rights, and torture among them — that angered his own party.
Warner opposed the GOP revanchist flank when ultraconservative Oliver North, a darling of the right wing because of his role in the Iran-Contra affair, ran as a Republican for Virginia’s other Senate seat in 1994. Warner backed independent Marshall Coleman, which ultimately helped Democrat Chuck Robb win reelection.
Aside from his 1978 campaign, Warner’s only close race was against Democrat Mark Warner (no relation) in 1996, where he prevailed 52-47 percent. After his retirement in 2009, the Republican Warner would later endorse the Democrat in his 2014 race. Warner would also go on to endorse Tim Kaine in his 2018 Senate race and Biden for president in 2020.
On Wednesday, all three Democrats delivered elegies to Virginia’s longest serving GOP senator, as did former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, former aide Rita Meyer, and Warner’s two daughters, Virginia and Mary. No Republican elected officials spoke.
Kaine recounted a story about the advice Warner gave him when he first ran for the Senate in 2012. Warner had endorsed his friend and fellow Republican, Sen. George Allen, but was still happy to share his counsel. Kaine asked him if it was worth it, suffering the slings and arrows of a campaign, to become a senator.
“‘If you'd asked me that question in 1978, when I got here, I would tell you to run for the Senate if you have a 1 percent chance of winning. It’s the best job you could ever imagine,’” Kaine recalled Warner saying. “‘I can't say that [anymore]. Because partisanship, fundraising, and a polarized media have made it a tougher place to find a path to do good things. But you know what old friend? It’s not in the water supply. It’s not sick building syndrome. It’s in the character and the priorities of the people who walk into the building, every day.’”
Mark Warner recalled when he, then the Democratic governor of Virginia, asked the late senator for help wrangling Republican votes in the legislature. After a conversation convinced him to intervene, the Republican Warner immediately convened a news conference.
“He said, ‘politics be damned!’ And he stomped the podium,” Mark Warner said. “He said, ‘This is the right thing to do for Virginia!’”
“It was like Zeus come down from Olympus,” the younger Warner continued. “And y’know what? He got it done.”
Before the service began, the most powerful politicians in the nation hobnobbed happily in small groups as the doleful notes of Barber’s Adagio for Strings slinked out of the Cathedral’s speakers.
When Warner retired in 2008, he had his favorite poem, “O Ship of State” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, read into the Senate record. On Wednesday, his daughter Mary Conover read it once more.
“In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,/In spite of false lights on the shore,/Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!/Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee./Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,/Our faith triumphant o'er our fears,/Are all with thee, are all with thee!”
And then, her voice cracking, she added a line of her own.
“Sail on, Daddy. Sail on.”
This report was corrected to reflect that Warner's final campaign was in 2002.