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John Warner, former U.S. senator once married to Elizabeth Taylor, dies at 94

Former Sen. John Warner of Virginia
Then-Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2008.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

Former Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a former Navy secretary who was once married to Elizabeth Taylor, has died at 94, his longtime chief of staff said Wednesday.

Susan A. Magill said Warner died Tuesday of heart failure at home in Alexandria, Va., with his wife and daughter at his side.

“He was frail but had a lot of spirit until his last days,” Magill said.

Warner was a centrist Republican and a courtly figure whose marriage to a movie star drew huge crowds when he was elected to the Senate in 1978. Serving five terms before retiring from the chamber 30 years later, he drew support from moderates of both major parties, establishing himself at the center of American politics.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) lauded Warner as a military hero and respected Senate leader.

“This country has lost a great patriot,” Pelosi said. “In Congress, we all knew him as a voice of courage, conviction and comity; a leader unafraid to speak the truth but always committed to finding common ground and consensus.”

He was a key supporter of President George W. Bush’s declaration of war in Iraq, and served for a time as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He had an independent streak that sometimes angered more conservative GOP leaders. But he was hugely popular with Virginia voters.

Warner was the sixth of Taylor’s seven husbands. The two met on a blind date at a dinner for Queen Elizabeth II and were married months later, in 1976. The two were married in 1976 and divorced in 1982. Taylor wrote later that they remained friends, but she “just couldn’t bear the intense loneliness” when he became engrossed in his Senate duties.

He was succeeded as senator in 2008 by Democrat Mark Warner — no relation — who had challenged him for the Senate in 1996 and went on to serve a term as Virginia’s governor. After years of rivalry, the two became good friends. Mark Warner said his predecessor “epitomizes what it means to be a senator.”

“In Virginia, we expect a lot of our elected officials. We expect them to lead, yet remain humble. We expect them to serve, but with dignity. We expect them to fight for what they believe in, but without making it personal. John Warner was the embodiment of all that and more. I firmly believe that we could use more role models like him today,” Mark Warner said Wednesday.

John Warner, a courtly man with chiseled features and a thick shock of gray hair, was so popular with Virginia voters that Democrats did not bother to challenge him in 2002 for his reelection to his fifth term.

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“Virginians know that I stand up for what I think is right, and I accept the consequences,” he said in 1996.

Evans wore a black beret and raised his fist on the medals stand at the racially charged 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.

“Virginia has lost an unmatched leader, and my family has lost a dear friend,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Wednesday. “Once I came to the Senate, I understood even more deeply the influence of John Warner. I came to know John McCain, Carl Levin and so many others who served with him and attested to his integrity and outsized influence in a body he loved so dearly.”

Warner had been an early supporter of McCain’s campaign for president, endorsing his fellow senator in February 2007.

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The former secretary of the Navy, a veteran of World War II and Korea, Warner devoted most of his career to military matters. He lost his post as Armed Services Committee chairman in 2001 when Sen. Jim Jeffords’ departure from the GOP put Democrats in control of the Senate, but he regained it after the 2002 elections put Republicans back in charge until the 2006 elections.

Warner often defended the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq, but he also showed a willingness to buck the White House.

After a 2007 trip to Iraq, Warner called upon Bush to start bringing troops home. He summoned top Pentagon officials to hearings about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and the Iraq war. Years earlier, he had cast a critical vote denying President Reagan’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Robert Bork, a favorite of conservatives.

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In 2005, Warner was part of the “Gang of 14″ — a group of centrist senators who defused a showdown over judicial filibusters on Bush’s appeals court nominees. That same year, Warner was the lone senator to formally object to the federal government stepping in on the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case.

“Greater wisdom is not always reposed in the branches of federal government,” he said at the time. He had quietly inserted his statement into the Congressional Record hours after the measure passed the Senate on a voice vote.

Republicans nominated Warner for the Senate in 1978 after the party’s first choice, Richard Obenshain, died in a plane crash. Warner was ridiculed by some who thought he was riding on the coattails of his then-wife, Taylor, whom he had married in late 1976.

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Warner was elected by the razor-thin margin of 4,721 votes out of 1.2 million cast and was easily reelected in 1984 and 1990.

In 1994, Warner angered conservatives by opposing GOP nominee Oliver North’s bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb. Warner declared the Iran-contra scandal figure unfit for public office and backed independent J. Marshall Coleman, who drew enough independent and moderate GOP votes to ensure Robb’s reelection.

Steamed by what they viewed as disloyalty to the party, GOP conservatives tried to deny Warner a fourth term in 1996, backing a challenge by former Reagan administration budget director Jim Miller.

Miller portrayed Warner as an elitist who spent too much time squiring stars, including Barbara Walters. But Warner easily defeated Miller in the primary, and went on to beat Democrat Mark Warner in the general election.

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John Warner mended his strained ties with the GOP by supporting the successful campaigns of Jim Gilmore for governor in 1997 and George Allen for Robb’s Senate seat in 2000.

“I sure risked my political future, that’s for sure,” Warner said in 1994. “But I’d rather the voters of this state remember that I stood on my principle. ... That’s the price of leadership.”

While the military was Warner’s top priority, he also championed legislation to toughen seat belt laws and took up an increasing number of environmental causes.

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Born in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 18, 1927, Warner volunteered for the Navy at 17 and served as a 3rd class electronics technician. He received an engineering degree from Washington and Lee University in 1949.

He entered law school at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1949 but volunteered the next year for the Marines, serving in Korea as a first lieutenant and communications officer with the 1st Marine Air Wing.

Following Korea, he returned to law school and received a degree from the University of Virginia in 1953.

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He was a law clerk at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, went into private practice and then served four years as a federal prosecutor.

In 1960, he resumed private practice and specialized in banking, securities and corporate practice. He became undersecretary of the Navy in 1969 and served as secretary of the Navy from 1972 to 1974. He was administrator of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration from 1974 to 1976.

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Warner received an estimated $7-million fortune from the breakup of his first marriage, to Catherine Mellon, daughter of multimillionaire Paul Mellon.

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He and Taylor divorced in 1982, and he married real estate agent Jeanne Vander Myde in 2003.

Warner had three children, Mary, Virginia and John, and was a member of the Episcopal Church.


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