“Former Senator John Warner talks about his political career.” (July 31, 2019)


In this interview with political scientist Larry Sabato on July 31, 2019, John W. Warner describes his first campaign for U.S. Senate. He tells a story about how invoking his Virginia heritage helped him win the election in 1978, defeating the Democratic Party’s nominee, Andrew P. Miller. His ancestors lived in Amherst County dating back to the eighteenth century. Members of his father’s family enslaved people through to the American Civil War (1861–1865). This interview took place at a forum on the future of representative democracy at the College of William and Mary to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Virginia General Assembly, the oldest continuous legislative body in the Western Hemisphere.


Getting into it today is very important for reasons that were not present when I came into politics. And that is the severity of technology that has in the 30 years of my Senate time, now 40 since I’ve been out 10 years. All the things that have been developed from the internet to social media to unmanned spacecraft and all kinds of things. So, today’s political figures have got to be persons that have a basis to learn and learn quickly because a spectrum of problems that they’re going be confronted with is just unlimited.

 Let me just stumble through one little last personal story to make a point clear. Picture my campaign was over a year and two months. And I ran against the former governor Linwood Holton, Dick Obenshain, and Nathan Miller, a distinguished state legislator. And for one year, the four of us traveled with our dog and pony show all over the commonwealth, sat on boxes, and picnics, and had a friendly debate. And then we came down to now we got to decide which of the four. So they came up with the idea of let’s have a convention. That sounded sensible. 1100 people, 1100 people showed up at the Virginia Coliseum for that convention. I’ll never forget it.

It went on until late at night, and I remember, one of my campaign managers said, you want to win this race? You are on the fifth ballot. And I had won on all of them and I was tied with Obenshain for the sixth ballot coming up. He said, get out there and start a parade and do not let the parade end until after midnight. I said, well what do you mean? What’s that got to do with it? He said, at the stroke of 12, there is about ¼ of this audience evangelical in their beliefs, they have to quit politics, it’s a sabbath Sunday morning, and they are going home. And you’re going to lose. And I said, I got to think about this. It seems to me fraudulent and distrustful. He just shook his head. It’s up to you. You want to be a senator? Get out on that parade. If you don’t, pay me off, and I’m gone. Well, I didn’t, and I lost, and Dick won.

And then we had the tragedy of his coming in on an airplane one night late in Richmond and hit the top of a tree, and he lost his life. And I was given 90 days—you got that? 90 days. I didn’t have a stick of furniture. I didn’t have an employee. I didn’t have anything to put together a campaign and seek that election. And so I got into it again and I’ll never forget, I won the nomination. And by the way, the old city council of fathers of the Republican Party were a tough gang in those days, and they didn’t really want—you’re not conservative enough. You’ve got to commit to do this. I don’t make any commitments. Blah, blah, blah. The door opened—and this is something I’ll never forget—in walked a woman, very quietly, and simply said to those guys, my husband lost his life. Dick Obenshain. He would be here tonight telling you to give the nomination to Warner. And it was dead silence. I took her by the hand, walked out, and next morning they announced I had the nomination. It shows you the power of individuals as you go along. I’ll rush up to the last story and then we’ll open up the case. I think it is fun to hear about people with all of their non achievements in life, the little things in life that made a difference. It is the last week of the campaign, my opponent was a very able Democrat named Andrew Miller. His family Francis Pickens Miller had been part of the famous for a while and then they broke off. But he was well known and he was an attorney general and a very able campaigner, and a good guy.

So, picture the last debate, cleverly put in old town [future url="Alexandria"]Alexandria, where I now live, which is a very strong Democrat stronghold. So, the odds were kind of against me to begin with. We went to the debate and then the moderator said each of you have two minutes to stand before this crowd, and in very simple language, tell them one reason why you should be the next senator. Well, Andy Miller being the attorney general, senior to me in the hierarchy, he got up, walked up, look them in the eye, and he didn’t say anything. He stood there. My watch’s clicking, I’m saying wait a minute, this guy is burning up his time. He’s not saying a thing. He looked them in the eye and he said, elect me, I was born a Virginian. And it was dead silence. He turned around and walked off. The silence was still in that room. And that was the longest walk in my life from my seat up to wherever I was going to speak. I said, dear god, give me the strength to figure out what to do now. I’ve been 18 months trying to do this. It hangs in the balance for the three minutes I’ve got, what do I do?

Well, I said, go for it, boy. And I got up and going to the rostrum and I said, I am very impressed with what my opponent said tonight, and you should take it into consideration because it is important. I call it the Virginia way. We know in Virginia how things are to be done and often we do not put them down in writing, but we instinctively—my father used to say, I used to say, daddy what does that mean?  It’s the Virginia way, son, don’t try to worry about it. So, I got up and there is my mother 86 years old in the front seat right there in the front seat of me. I said mom, you heard my opponent talk about his birth. We have great pride in it, and our family had come from down Amherst, Virginia. Mom got up and said I heard him, too. But I want him to know that if I and Dr. John—my father was an old-time surgeon—if I and Dr. John ever thought that our little boy wanted to be a United States senator, I’d have crossed the Potomac River and had him under the magnolia trees in the state of Virginia. Folks, that broke that audience up. Next day, banner headlines: grandma speaks for son whatever mother speaks for son. I won the election 48 hours later by ½ of 1% of a vote.

APA Citation:
Warner, John W.. “Former Senator John Warner talks about his political career.” (July 31, 2019). (2023, May 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Warner, John W.. "“Former Senator John Warner talks about his political career.” (July 31, 2019)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 May. 2023). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2023, May 23
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