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After five terms in the Senate, service in two wars and in his third marriage at age 81, John W. Warner still retains the unbent posture and bearing of the Marine he once was.
When he took his seat in the U.S. Senate 30 years ago, he was the rakish husband of Elizabeth Taylor with movie star looks of his own, a gentleman’s drawl and a farm in Virginia horse country.
He became "the senator from central casting."
Age has softened the angular jaw and whitened the dramatic shock of hair that for decades made him Virginia’s most globally recognizable face.
The bounce in his step is gone, but Warner’s trim, blue blazer fits his lean frame more crisply than most men half his age have any right to expect.
In an Associated Press interview amid framed photos and paintings, hundred of books and other mementos soon to be boxed and moved from his Senate office, Warner discussed his past in politics and a dangerous future for Western democracies as they confront global terrorism.
Instinct, seasoned with a bit of disappointment in the Republican party, told Warner it was time to cede the political spotlight to others.
"I’m in good health today — strong, vigorous — but I cannot and could not have gone to the people of Virginia in a campaign and said I’m going to be just as strong when I’m 88," Warner said.
Life after the Senate will be full and not too far from Washington, Warner predicted.
There will be rose bushes to tend to in the garden of a home he shares with his wife, Jeanne Vander Myde, just outside the capital. There’s Warner’s passion for painting, "the one way I can escape from the whole world."
And duty could well call again. The former Armed Services Committee chairman could serve in any number of advisory roles to a new president confronting the threat of terrorism — fanatical, shadowy and diffuse.
"It has me greatly worried," Warner said. "It’s so different from when I started out."
The start, at least politically, came in 1969 when college friend Linwood Holton was elected Virginia’s first Republican governor.
"I was a part of that campaign and got interested in politics," Warner said.
Before then, Warner had served in the Navy in World War II and as a Marine in Korea, and the military had a big influence on him. But from Holton’s election on, the two would anchor the Virginia Republican Party in the last third of the 20th century.
Warner’s political start was rooted in tragedy. In 1978, he and Holton were half of the four-man GOP field in that year’s U.S. Senate race. They lost to Richard Obenshain – who was killed several weeks later in a plane crash. Warner became the nominee and won the seat that fall over Democrat Andrew Miller.
"That chapter in my political life is the most valued because it was old-fashioned politics," Warner said. "We just grappled for a year and we never used a lot of negative advertising."
It was also when he befriended Henry Doggett of Surry County, who became a driver for the senator throughout his career and a first-person source about the private John Warner.
Doggett has a rich collection of anecdotes about the sometimes headstrong senator defined by his years in the Navy and Marines.
It’s 1992, a cold February night, and Doggett is driving Warner north on Interstate 95 toward the 2,400-acre farm the senator owned near Middleburg. In the rural darkness, Warner tells Doggett to turn right, then right again down a back road. Then another right, Warner said.
"And that’s when I say, `Senator, we’re going in a circle,’" Doggett recalls.
Warner lowers the passenger side window, sticks his head out and looks skyward, his thick, silvery hair whipping in the bitter wind.
"He says, `I’m navigating by the moon, my boy. I’m an old Navy man. I know what I’m doing,’" Doggett said between laughs. "Next thing I know I see a sign that says Fredericksburg, 5 miles. We weren’t even close."
Doggett, who sometimes jokingly calls Warner "moon man", says he and the senator laughed about it that night, and still do.
Politics today isn’t as innocent as when he first ran, Warner said. It’s mean and unforgiving, rigidly partisan and far too expensive.
Warner said he hardly recognizes the Republican Party now. He said it seems to have little appeal to or tolerance for moderates like himself, Holton and others who made the GOP competitive in Virginia in recent years.
"I suddenly realized I had so little in common with the party that I once was proud to be among those who built it up," Warner said.
In 1987, he felt the wrath of the Republican base when he opposed Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and again in 1994 when he spurned Republican Oliver L. North’s bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb. Instead, Warner backed a Republican running as an independent.
"Let me say something about Oliver North. We had our differences at that time. But since then we’ve steered our own careers and I think he’s done a remarkable, professional job in journalism. I mean I read his material on a regular basis and admire him for the courage."
George Allen, a darling of the right, diverged from Warner several times on national policy when they both represented Virginia in the Senate. But their differences, Allen said, made no difference.
"He really is like an uncle to me," Allen said. "Some of the advice he would give me, it would remind me of my father and something he would say."
Once a bright prospect for this year’s Republican presidential nomination, Allen stumbled in his 2006 Senate re-election bid after referring to a campaign volunteer for his opponent, Democrat Jim Webb, as "Macaca," a slur in some cultures. Webb, a long-shot political novice, won by about 9,000 votes and gave the Democrats a Senate majority for the first time in 12 years.
The defeat would turn out to be devastating, to Allen and to others.
Warner probably already knew that he was not going to run again in 2008, Allen recalled. A painful possibility loomed: If Warner’s seat went to a Democrat, there would be no Republicans representing the commonwealth for some time.
Warner wanted to be with Allen that night.
"It was like telling someone, `Well, this is it,’" Allen recalled. "We didn’t cry but it was sort of like your breath catches in your throat. I still get emotional talking about it."
Fast-forward two years, to the 2008 elections: Democrat Mark Warner (no relation) finally won John Warner’s Senate seat after trying unsuccessfully a dozen year’s earlier. When the 111th Congress convenes Jan. 6, Virginia will be represented by two Democrats for the first time since 1970.
It’s 1996, and Warner is battling for his fourth term against Mark Warner in his only competitive re-election challenge.
A man approached.
"So this guy says, `Hey, you know you look kind of like that senator, John Warner,’" Doggett recalled. Warner, milking the moment, coyly replies, "Yeah, I get that a lot."
The man nods his head, Doggett remembers, then says:
"Makes you feel like hell, don’t it?"