ENTRY

John W. Warner III (1927–2021)

SUMMARY

Throughout a long career in public life, John W. Warner III served as assistant U.S. attorney (1956–1960), undersecretary of the navy (1969–1972), secretary of the navy (1972–1974), and represented Virginia in the U.S. Senate for three decades (1979–2009). Warner did not seek reelection in 2008, leaving him second only to Harry F. Byrd Sr. as the longest-serving senator from Virginia. Warner was born in Washington, D.C., on February 18, 1927, the son of Martha Budd Warner and John W. Warner Jr. Warner married banking heiress Catherine Conover Mellon in 1957, with whom he had three children before divorcing in 1973. His 1976 marriage to actress Elizabeth Taylor attracted much attention before ending in divorce in 1982. Warner married Jeanne Vander Myde in 2003. As a U.S. Navy and Marine Corps veteran who served in two wars and former secretary of the navy, Warner made his greatest mark in the Senate on military and defense matters. He twice served as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he pressed for large investments and notable innovations in U.S. defense capabilities and championed better pay and benefits for military families. A moderate conservative with a penchant for independence and nontraditional approaches to problem solving, Warner occasionally departed from conservative Republican orthodoxy, thereby rankling some GOP partisans and earning him crossover Democratic support during a career that often seemed to transcend Virginia’s competitive two-party system. After leaving the Senate, he expressed alarm over the country’s worsening political polarization and several times supported Democratic candidates for president and the U.S. Senate, including the reelection bids of his successor, Mark R. Warner (no relation). Warner died of heart failure in Alexandria on May 25, 2021, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Early Years

Warner was born in Washington, D.C., on February 18, 1927, the son of Martha Budd Warner and John W. Warner Jr., a physician and surgeon. Although the nation’s capital was the place of his birth and childhood home, he was always quick to point out his deep familial roots in Virginia, which included generations of forebears in Amherst County and elsewhere in the commonwealth.

Warner’s six-decade relationship with the U.S. armed forces began in January 1945 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of seventeen. A year later, following the end of World War II (1939–1945), he was discharged as a petty officer third class. He attended Washington and Lee University on the GI Bill, graduated with an engineering degree in 1949, and enrolled in the University of Virginia School of Law. His legal studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Korean War; he was commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps in October 1950. After returning from Korea, he remained in the Marine Corps Reserves, reaching the rank of captain.

Warner received his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1953, three years after it was desegregated, and returned to Washington, D.C. There, in rapid succession, he became law clerk to federal appellate judge E. Barrett Prettyman, served as assistant U.S. attorney, married banking heiress Catherine Conover Mellon, and joined the prominent Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells) law firm. John and Catherine Warner went on to have three children, Virginia, John IV, and Mary.

Warner’s first political involvement came during the final year of the Eisenhower administration, when he joined Vice President Richard M. Nixon’s staff; Warner then served as an advance staffer in Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign. Active thereafter in Republican politics, Warner was a significant donor to Nixon’s successful 1968 presidential bid and led the recruitment of “citizen groups”—lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, and so forth—who endorsed the Nixon candidacy. President Nixon appointed Warner undersecretary of the navy in 1969 and secretary of the navy in 1972. In those roles Warner represented the United States at the Law of the Sea Talks in Geneva (1969–1973), where he served as principal negotiator and signatory of a U.S.-Soviet agreement regarding naval operations in international sea lanes. In 1974, President Nixon tapped Warner to lead the multifaceted international program to celebrate the bicentennial of the American Revolution, an assignment that continued through the high-profile 1976 commemoration.

1978 Election and Political Campaigns

Warner made his first bid for elective office in the 1978 contest for the U.S. Senate. Also seeking the Republican nomination were two of Virginia’s most accomplished GOP leaders—A. Linwood Holton, the breakthrough Republican winner for governor in 1969, and Richard D. Obenshain, the party’s former state chair and a conservative champion. The winner of the primary would face one of the state’s top Democratic vote-getters, former two-term attorney general Andrew P. Miller. Warner nevertheless brought notable assets to his campaign. He had significant personal wealth from his marriage to Catherine Mellon, which had ended amicably in a 1973 divorce. His chiseled features, dapper dress, and dashing deportment led observers to brand him the “senator from central casting.” Most important, he was newly married to renowned stage and screen star Elizabeth Taylor, whom he met and wed during the bicentennial commemoration. Barnstorming the state for Republican candidates in the 1977 Virginia elections, the celebrity couple drew large, enthusiastic crowds and amassed a bevy of political chits and supporters.

1978 Republican Senate Campaign

By June 1978, when Virginia Republicans convened in the Richmond Coliseum to choose their Senate nominee, the contest had electrified the party faithful and drawn in many first-time participants, with a record-shattering 9,000-plus delegates and alternates showing up. The drama did not disappoint. Dubbed the Great Indoor Primary by veteran newspaper writer Charles McDowell, the contest finally ended after six suspenseful ballots and twelve exhausting hours when Obenshain edged out Warner by a few dozen votes.

Two months later, however, Obenshain died in an airplane crash while returning home from a day of campaigning. The state GOP governing committee selected Warner to replace Obenshain, mainly because of Warner’s political legitimacy due to his runner-up status and his personal wealth, which enabled him to jump-start a late campaign and outspend the formidable Miller. Endorsements from Obenshain’s widow, Helen Obenshain, and Governor John N. Dalton sealed Warner’s nomination.

On the campaign trail, Warner’s energy, panache, and crisp delivery contrasted favorably with his opponent’s less flashy, more ponderous style, but the inexperienced Republican candidate occasionally threw his campaign off stride with factual misstatements and impolitic observations. Aided by Democratic president Jimmy Carter’s growing unpopularity and by the GOP’s technological and coalition-building edge in the right-of-center state, Warner eked out a 4,721-vote victory in Virginia’s closest statewide election of the twentieth century.

With one exception, Warner never had serious challenges for reelection over his thirty-year Senate career. In 1984, he polled 70 percent of the vote against Democrat Edythe Harrison, a little-known former state legislator, and secured more votes from Virginians than the GOP’s top-of-ticket candidate, incumbent president Ronald Reagan. Democrats did not even field a candidate against Warner in 1990, but six years later, Warner faced both primary and general election challengers. He polled nearly 66 percent of the vote that summer in dispatching his Republican primary foe, former Reagan administration budget chief James C. Miller III. Warner then recorded a much slimmer 52.5-percent general election victory over Democrat Mark R. Warner, a millionaire businessman and former state Democratic Party chair. In 2002, John Warner again faced no Democratic challenger in his fifth and final reelection bid.

Warner’s displays of political independence were the principal cause of his unusual political stress in 1996. His 1987 vote against confirmation of Robert Bork for the U.S. Supreme Court—one of only six Republicans and the only one from the South to vote against the Reagan nominee—generated hostility among many GOP regulars that had not fully abated when Warner declined to support two of his party’s conservative nominees for statewide office. Warner refused to endorse social conservative Michael P. Farris’s 1993 ultimately unsuccessful bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Donald S. Beyer Jr. as lieutenant governor. The next year, Warner vigorously opposed the Virginia GOP’s U.S. Senate nominee, Marine Corps veteran Oliver North, and even recruited a prominent Republican, former state attorney general J. Marshall Coleman, to mount an independent bid for the seat. Warner decried North’s central role in the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal and declared North’s federal law violations and false congressional testimony disqualifying. Republican activists blamed Warner for splitting the GOP vote and thus allowing the scandal-plagued Democratic incumbent, Charles S. Robb, to win an improbable reelection victory. These partisan transgressions ensured that Warner would face a battle for the Republican nomination in 1996. In addition, the prospect that the apparently wounded incumbent might be defeated or damaged in the GOP primary induced Mark Warner to open his checkbook and self-fund a spirited campaign for the seat.

John Warner overcame the Republican and Democratic challenges, but the unfamiliar and unpleasant electoral struggles of 1996 were experiences not to be repeated. He supported Republican presidents’ Supreme Court nominees for the remainder of his Senate tenure, and he backed the Virginia GOP’s subsequent nominees for statewide office until his retirement from elective politics. A social moderate, he continued to stray occasionally from the party line on litmus tests such as abortion and gun control. When President Bill Clinton was tried on articles of impeachment in 1999, Warner voted to convict on one article and to acquit on the other. In 2005, he joined the “Gang of 14” centrist senators in crafting a bipartisan compromise that facilitated consideration of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees while forestalling a rule change that would have ended all filibusters of judicial nominees. Such high-profile moves reinforced Warner’s reputation as a moderate, sustaining his crossover political appeal among Democrats and Independents in Virginia. The reality, however, was that Warner ordinarily voted with his conservative Senate GOP colleagues, siding more than 90 percent of the time with the Republican presidents under whom he served. He also was a loyal fundraiser, boosting his Republican Senate colleagues at annual events in Williamsburg and working on behalf of favorite Virginia GOP candidates and causes, including the Virginia Federation of Republican Women. His center-right positioning, together with his clout on military matters in defense-friendly Virginia, ensured that Warner would remain one of the state’s most popular politicians throughout his long career.

Ever curious, especially about the byways and mores of the commonwealth and people he represented, Warner was the rare political longtimer who seemed never to stop growing in skill, substance, and stature. A stilted speaker at the beginning of his political career who would disappear during campaign dinners to rehearse anxiously in stairwells and restrooms, Warner became a masterful communicator able to read any room and effortlessly regale diverse audiences. His was a gifted storytelling, an art he honed by listening well and embellishing liberally. For someone who began in politics as an advance staffer, he displayed a remarkable lack of discipline on the campaign trail, often arriving late at scheduled appearances because of impromptu detours into farmers markets, country stores, and antique shops as well as occasional frolics at favored fishing holes. If at times his curiosity and eccentricities discombobulated staff members, he also earned intense loyalty and affection from the hundreds who worked in his Senate office and on his campaigns. As the two parties’ fortunes ebbed and flowed in hypercompetitive Virginia over his three decades in the Senate, Warner seemed to be the one constant. Virginians liked and voted for him because he not only wore the mantle of the patrician patriot but also seemed entertaining, authentic, and approachable.

Senate Service and Major Legacies

Affectionately dubbed “Squire” by his Senate colleagues, with whom he was popular, Warner was among the most innovative and consequential members of the legislative branch around the turn of the twenty-first century. During his first term in the Senate, he put to rest the prediction that he would be a dilettante with little aptitude or patience for the mundane duties of a federal legislator, becoming a workhorse on matters as wide-ranging as conservation, education, transportation infrastructure, Senate operations, intelligence, and defense. He served as chair, vice chair, or ranking Republican member on multiple committees. His words and actions had special force on military matters. He was a member of the Committee on Armed Services during his entire Senate tenure, serving as its chair in 1999–2001 and 2003–2007. Especially after the 9/11 attacks and onset of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he became a highly visible national figure whose expertise on defense and foreign policy matters was widely acknowledged.  

With Virginia second only to California as the locus of military facilities and defense spending, Warner’s clout on the Armed Services Committee was especially beneficial for his home-state constituents and defense-related industries. But having entered the service even before he reached adulthood, Warner viewed U.S. military personnel and their families as his special constituency. As he annually assembled defense authorization bills, his top priorities included military pay raises, health care benefits, and Department of Defense medical research. Two of his major legislative accomplishments—the TRICARE for Life program and the post–9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act (the updated GI Bill)—provided significant additional health and education benefits to military families, reflecting his belief that such benefits were essential for the recruitment and well-being of an all-volunteer force. He was keenly concerned about the impact of the frequent and long deployments that followed September 11, 2001, and he made numerous treks to Iraq and Afghanistan to visit troops and express appreciation.

A lead drafter of legislation authorizing the use of force after 9/11 and a consistent defender of the war effort, Warner had two notable breaks with the George W. Bush administration’s prosecution of the conflicts, and both were driven principally by his empathy for military personnel. In 2007–2008, he pressed for reassessment of the Iraq War strategy and opposed the Bush administration’s “surge” of additional troops to that theater, believing that too much already had been asked of military families. He had previously supported limits on the administration’s controversial “enhanced interrogation” methods, fearing that the undermining of international norms against torture ultimately would endanger American service personnel.

Warner was a constant and formidable champion of increased defense investments, including construction of aircraft carriers, other naval vessels, and advanced weaponry. He was frequently ahead of his congressional colleagues—and sometimes ahead of the defense establishment—in promoting innovations, such as the development of unmanned aerial vehicles and cybersecurity research and training, that later would gain broad acceptance. His early and avid support for missile defense was in this category, and it occasioned a rare, Warner-led partisan hemorrhage on the Armed Services Committee in 2001. When majority Democrats moved to strip the defense authorization bill of its funding for newly elected President Bush’s missile defense initiative, Warner rallied the committee’s Republican minority to cast an unprecedented party-line vote against the entire bill.

An independent streak and readiness to use nontraditional approaches to solve problems were part of the Warner persona from his earliest days in the Senate, and these traits were in evidence on a range of subjects. As a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he proposed allocating funds collected from oil company overcharges to provide energy assistance to low-income families. He used his post as chair of the transportation subcommittee of the Committee on Environment and Public Works to advance highway safety initiatives, including seatbelt and motorcycle-helmet mandates and stricter laws to combat drunk driving. A promoter of accelerated highway construction and public transit projects, he broke a regional logjam to build a new, federally owned Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River and secured direct federal investment in extending the national capital region’s Metro system to Dulles Airport.

Warner’s affinity for the outdoors led him to support groundbreaking environmental and conservation measures, including a plan to address climate change by limiting carbon emissions and efforts to move the defense sector toward clean energy. His initiatives had significant impacts in his home state, including the designation of multiple wilderness areas in Virginia’s national forests, the expansion of national parks and creation of new national wildlife refuges in the commonwealth, and a dam removal that made the 184-mile Rappahannock River the longest free-flowing river in the eastern United States. His interest in historic preservation led to the creation of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District. Perhaps channeling his own experience in leading the 1976 bicentennial celebration, he sponsored legislation creating a federal commission to help Virginia draw international participation and a visit by Queen Elizabeth II to the commemoration marking the 400th anniversary of the 1607 settlement at Jamestown.

Warner chaired the Senate Rules and Administration Committee from 1995 to 1999 before gaining the top spot on the Armed Services Committee. Even in his earlier role, he proved to be a change agent, modernizing the congressional computer system, revamping administrative processes on Capitol Hill, improving U.S. Capitol conditions for nonsmokers and persons with disabilities, and laying the groundwork for a public-private partnership to fund the extensive new underground Capitol Visitor Center. His support and sponsorship proved pivotal in the development of several major historical and tourism assets in the capital region, including the Martin Luther King Memorial, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s expansive facility at Dulles Airport.

Warner’s recommendations on judicial appointments helped to make the federal bench in his home state notably more diverse, an accomplishment saluted by his former colleagues in a Senate resolution adopted after his death in 2021. Among those he recommended for nomination and supported for confirmation were Rebecca Beach Smith, the first woman to serve on the federal bench in Virginia; James R. Spencer, the first African American to serve as a federal district judge in the state; and Roger L. Gregory, the first African American to serve on the appellate bench for the U.S. Fourth Circuit. Warner had “led by example” on diversity, the resolution noted, pointing out that his Senate staff was “led by strong women for more than 20 years.”

Later Years

Warner and Elizabeth Taylor divorced during his first term in the Senate. In 2003, he married Jeanne Vander Myde, a real estate agent and the widow of Reagan administration commerce department official Paul Vander Myde. After his retirement from the Senate, the Warners lived in Alexandria, and he rejoined the Hogan Lovells law firm as a senior adviser. Active as an elder statesman, he occasionally offered policy and political commentary and received a cascade of honors, including a 2009 honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. His most prized tribute undoubtedly was the 2015 commissioning of the USS John Warner, a Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine constructed by Newport News Shipbuilding. Like Winston Churchill, one of the leaders Warner most admired, he was an avid gardener and accomplished painter.

In retirement, Warner increasingly found fault with politics in general and the GOP in particular. He supported some Virginia Republicans’ electoral bids, including the Senate comeback attempt by his friend and former colleague George Allen in 2012 and the unsuccessful run for attorney general by Richard Obenshain’s son Mark Obenshain, a state senator, the following year. But Warner more often made news by endorsing Democrats, including his Senate successor, Mark R. Warner, whom he backed in 2014 and 2020, and Virginia’s other U.S. senator, Tim Kaine, whom he supported for reelection in 2018. No fan of Donald Trump, Warner endorsed the Clinton-Kaine and Biden-Harris Democratic tickets in 2016 and 2020, respectively. At a 2019 forum in Williamsburg marking the 400th anniversary of the beginning of representative government at Jamestown, Warner argued that the best cure for the country’s acute partisan polarization was to recruit well-motivated young people to politics and train them in the techniques and traditions of honorable public service.

Warner died on May 25, 2021, at age ninety-four, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. President Joe Biden delivered a eulogy at Warner’s June 23, 2021, memorial service at the National Cathedral.

MAP
TIMELINE
February 18, 1927

John W. Warner III is born in Washington, D.C.

January 1945

John W. Warner III enlists in the U.S. Navy at age seventeen.

1949–1950

John W. Warner III graduates from Washington and Lee University and enrolls at the University of Virginia School of Law. With the onset of the Korean War, he leaves law school to accept a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps.

1953

John W. Warner III graduates from the University of Virginia School of Law and returns to Washington, D.C., where he becomes a clerk to Judge E. Barrett Prettyman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

1956–1960

John W. Warner III serves as assistant U.S. attorney.

August 7, 1957

John W. Warner III marries banking heiress Catherine Conover Mellon. The marriage produces three children, Virginia, John IV, and Mary, before ending in divorce sixteen years later.

1960

John W. Warner III joins the Eisenhower administration, serving in the office of Vice President Richard M. Nixon, before leaving for a position as an advance staffer for Nixon’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.

1964

John W. Warner III becomes a partner at the Hogan & Hartson (later, Hogan Lovells) law firm in Washington, D.C.

February 11, 1969

After playing an active role in Richard M. Nixon’s successful 1968 presidential campaign, John W. Warner III is appointed undersecretary of the navy by President Nixon.

May 4, 1972

John W. Warner III succeeds John H. Chafee as secretary of the U.S. Navy.

1974–1976

John W. Warner III leads the commemoration of the American Revolution bicentennial.

December 4, 1976

John W. Warner III and actress Elizabeth Taylor wed after Warner serves as Taylor’s escort to a bicentennial event at the British Embassy in the summer of 1976.

June 3, 1978

John W. Warner III narrowly loses the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate to former state GOP chair Richard D. Obenshain at the party’s large and tumultuous Richmond convention.

August 1978

Ten days after Richard D. Obenshain dies in an August 2 plane crash, the Virginia GOP selects John W. Warner III to replace Obenshain as the party’s U.S. Senate nominee.

November 7, 1978

John W. Warner III is elected to the U.S. Senate in the closest Virginia statewide election of the twentieth century, defeating Andrew P. Miller, a former two-term state attorney general, by 4,721 votes out of more than 1.2 million votes cast.

1981–1982

John W. Warner III and Elizabeth Taylor separate and divorce.

November 6, 1984

Senator John W. Warner III coasts to his first reelection, receiving 70 percent of the vote in a contest with Democrat Edythe Harrison, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

1987

Senator John W. Warner III votes to reject President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of federal appellate judge Robert H. Bork as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

November 5, 1990

After Virginia Democrats decline to contest Senator John W. Warner III’s bid for a third term, he wins reelection with more than 80 percent of the vote over Independent Nancy B. Spannaus.

November 8, 1994

Senator Charles S. Robb, a Democrat and former governor, is narrowly reelected to the U.S. Senate over retired lieutenant colonel Oliver North after Senator John W. Warner III recruits an independent Republican candidate, former attorney general J. Marshall Coleman, who siphons GOP votes from North.

1995–1999

John W. Warner III chairs the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

November 5, 1996

Despite being outspent by Democratic challenger Mark R. Warner, Senator John W. Warner III wins a hard-fought reelection contest with 52.5 percent of the vote. Five months earlier, the incumbent senator fended off an intraparty challenge, amassing 65.6 percent of the GOP primary vote over former Reagan administration budget director James C. Miller III.

1999–2001

John W. Warner III chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

2001

Senator John W. Warner III votes to convict President Bill Clinton on one of two impeachment articles.

November 5, 2002

John W. Warner III wins his fifth Senate term without Democratic Party opposition, amassing nearly 83 percent of the vote against Independents Nancy Spannaus and Jacob Hornberger.

2003–2007

John W. Warner III chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

December 15, 2003

John W. Warner III marries Jeanne Vander Myde, a real estate agent and the widow of a Reagan administration commerce department official.

January 3, 2009

Thirty years to the day after joining the U.S. Senate, John W. Warner III retires, giving him the second-longest tenure of any U.S. senator from Virginia.

August 1, 2015

The USS John Warner (SSN-785), a Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, is commissioned at Naval Station Norfolk. It is the first Virginia-class submarine named for a person rather than a state.

May 25, 2021

John W. Warner III dies of heart failure in Alexandria at age ninety-four. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

FURTHER READING
  • Atkinson, Frank B. The Dynamic Dominion: Realignment and the Rise of Two-Party Competition in Virginia, 1945–1980.  2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield and the University of Virginia Center for Politics, 2006.
  • Atkinson, Frank B. Virginia in the Vanguard: Political Leadership in the 400-Year-Old Cradle of American Democracy, 1981–2006. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield and the University of Virginia Center for Politics, 2006.
  • Baker, Donald P. “John Warner, Senator from Virginia and Force on Military Affairs, Dies at 94.” Washington Post, May 26, 2021.
  • Hulse, Carl. “John Warner, Genteel Senator from Virginia, Dies at 94.” New York Times, May 26, 2021.
  • Sabato, Larry. Virginia Votes. Vol. 3, 1975–1978. Charlottesville: Institute of Government, University of Virginia, 1979.
  • “Warner, John William, 1927–2021.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present. https://bioguide.congress.gov/search/bio/W000154. Accessed March 18, 2023.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Atkinson, Frank. John W. Warner III (1927–2021). (2023, May 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/warner-john-w-1927-2021.
MLA Citation:
Atkinson, Frank. "John W. Warner III (1927–2021)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 May. 2023). Web. 28 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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