News & Politics

RIP John Warner, a Resident of the Almost Vanished “Big-W” Washington

The former US Senator may have represented Virginia, but the capital was the center of his world.

Photograph by Matthew Worden

Former US Senator John Warner has died in Alexandria. He was 94 and suffered from heart failure.

Warner represented Virginia in the Senate for five terms beginning in 1979, but his career was spent in orbit around Washington—the “big-W” world of power loosely centered on Washington, DC. He was born in DC and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School, worked as an assistant US Attorney after graduating from the University of Virginia, and later worked for the law firm Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells). He served in World War II and Korea, and later became Secretary of the Navy under Richard Nixon. He also planned the US’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration.

A divorce settlement from Warner’s first wife, Catherine Mellon, preceded his entry into Virginia politics, to which he brought unusual pizzazz in the form of Elizabeth Taylor, whom he married in 1976. Warner lost the GOP primary in 1978 to Richard Obenshain, who died in a plane crash soon afterward, leading the state party to name Warner its nominee. He edged his Democratic opponent, Andrew Miller, in the general election and began a career that frequently found him in the political center.

Any hopes that Taylor’s glamour would light up dowdy official Washington faded after their divorce in 1982—as Shane Harris wrote for Washingtonian in 2011, “whatever star power Taylor may have lost in her stint as a politician’s wife she regained as an activist and fundraiser for people infected with HIV and dying of AIDS. That role may be the one Washingtonians most remember and embrace.”

Warner had a strong influence on the Washington region, engineering a repair package for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and backing conservation efforts in Virginia. His intelligence was apparently a running joke among elites—a 1990 Washington Post profile dedicated a surprisingly long section to “questions about his brain power”—but did not appear to hamper him socially or politically. In 1999, he became chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he went rogue on questions about the Iraq War and the US’s conduct after it defeated Saddam Hussein. Apostasy wasn’t a new posture for him: He opposed Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Republican Michael Farris’s campaign for Virginia’s lieutenant governorship in 1993, and Oliver North’s GOP campaign for Senate in 1994.

That sort of independence has since been largely snuffed out in Warner’s party, which hasn’t won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009. He retired before the 2008 Senate election, which Mark Warner (no relation) won in a landslide. He was on friendly terms with Democrats and Republicans alike in what appears to have been the twilight of comity in Washington. “I am proud to have been his friend,” US Representative Don Beyer said in a statement Wednesday. “John’s bipartisan spirit that put country and Commonwealth over party epitomizes what Virginians want in their leaders, and his fairmindedness and generosity were legend. He was a lovely man, and I will miss him.”

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.