John Warner, a Republican who served in the U.S. Senate for 30 years and died recently at 94 in his home state of Virginia, said this about his Democratic colleagues: “We had political disagreements and fought on the Senate floor. But at day’s end we shared a drink, talked as friends, and we found common cause, solving problems and serving the American public.”
Jeez. Now there’s a sentiment that belongs in a time capsule, along with rotary phones and videocassettes.
He was fortunate to retire in 2009. Imagine how he would’ve felt sharing the chamber with insurrectionist goons like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. As a veteran of two wars who cared deeply about the credibility of Congress, imagine how he would’ve felt being forced to breathe the same air as Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
The species of Republican willing to work across the aisle has been dying and retiring for many years now — Arlen Specter, Richard Lugar, John Chafee, it’s a very long list — but Warner deserves special attention, not just because he’s one of the last to depart, not just because he was a glamour guy who was married to Liz Taylor (husband No. 6), but because he stood up to the right-wing zealots when it mattered most.
It might be enough to simply point out that Warner, in retirement, recognized Donald Trump’s twisted treachery from a mile away — and signaled early support for Hillary Clinton. But that was a comparatively easy call because in 2016 he no longer had to face the voters. In truth, he indulged his country-over-party instincts decades earlier.
A former Navy Secretary under Richard M. Nixon, he won his Senate seat in 1978 and dutifully hewed to the GOP line most of the time. But in that era when it was still possible for a Republican to put country first, he did so without quaking in his boots.
When it became clear that gun violence was a national epidemic, he infuriated the rabid right by voting for gun-safety measures and trying (without success) to extend the federal ban on assault weapons. He voted for some restrictions on abortion, but accepted that Roe v. Wade was the law of the land.
Warner had supported George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, but in 2007 he called for Bush to start bringing the troops home, and he compelled Pentagon officials to testify about the torture of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. He opposed gay marriage, but when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs denounced gays in the military, Warner said, “I respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the chairman’s view that homosexuality is immoral.”
But arguably Warner’s most laudable moment came in 1994, when it appeared that Oliver North would become his Virginia colleague in the Senate. North was the key Iran-Contra scandal operative who’d been criminally convicted for lying to Congress; naturally, Virginia right-wingers deified North as a hero and rewarded him with a Senate GOP nomination.
Warner refused to pledge tribal fealty and declared that North was unfit for public office. He helped save his Democratic colleague, Chuck Robb, by endorsing an independent bid by moderate Republican Marshall Coleman. That November, the GOP vote was split, and Robb survived. Home-state conservatives hated Warner’s blasphemy, and tried to oust him in a 1996 Senate primary, but he didn’t bend, and he didn’t lose.
What he said was this: “I sure risked my political future, that’s for sure. But I’d rather the voters of this state remember that I stood on my principle … That’s the price of leadership.”
If only the MAGA rabble in today’s Senate could fathom the meaning of his words and honor his legacy. Or at least thank him for his service. I just did.
Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia, writes at DickPolman.net. Email him at email@example.com