WASHINGTON — Former Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the genteel former Navy secretary who shed the image of a dilettante to become a leading Republican voice on military policy during 30 years in the Senate, died Tuesday night at his home in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 94.
Susan Magill, his former chief of staff, said the cause was heart failure.
For a time, Warner may have been best known nationally as the dashing sixth husband of actress Elizabeth Taylor. Her celebrity was a draw on the campaign trail during his difficult first race for the Senate in 1978, an election he won narrowly to start his political career. The couple divorced in 1982.
In the latter stages of his congressional service, Warner was recognized as a protector of the Senate’s traditions and credited with trying to forge bipartisan consensus on knotty issues like the Iraq War, judicial nominations and the treatment of terror detainees.
Though a popular figure in his state, Warner was often at odds with Virginia conservatives. He became the Republican nominee in his first campaign only after the man who had defeated him at a state party convention was killed in a plane crash.
He angered the National Rifle Association with his backing of an assault weapons ban. He infuriated some state Republicans in 1994 when he refused to support Oliver L. North, the former White House aide at the center of the Iran-contra scandal during the Reagan administration, in North’s bid for the Senate. And he opposed Reagan’s ultimately unsuccessful Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork.
In his retirement years, the rightward shift of the Republican Party further alienated Warner, prompting him to endorse select Democrats, including his former Senate colleagues Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in their presidential runs against Donald Trump.
But his support within the party mainstream during his Senate years, coupled with backing from independents who were attracted by his moderate views on social issues like abortion and gay rights, allowed him to fend off challenges from both the right and left. He won election to his fifth and final term in 2002 against only token opposition.
Warner announced in August 2007 that he would not run in 2008, noting that he would be 88 if he finished his term and telling friends that he questioned whether he could continue to have the energy for the job.
The peak of his power in the Senate began in 1999, when he became chairperson of the Armed Services Committee. Although his chairmanship was interrupted briefly when Democrats took back control, he evolved into a Republican force on military issues. His credibility was enhanced by his reputation for solid contacts in the Pentagon, his previous work there and his own service in both the Navy and the Marines.
Warner was ahead of others on the terrorism issue and created a subcommittee to focus on the threat. He was among Republicans who expressed reservations about the Iraq War, and he convened hearings on the abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad when many of his fellow Republicans were hoping that the issue would disappear.
Warner was also skeptical about President George W. Bush’s 2007 troop buildup in Iraq. But he never broke with the administration to back a fixed deadline for troop withdrawals. That position frustrated Democrats, who had hoped that Warner would lend his influence to their opposition to the war, and they accused him of not following through on strong talk against the conflict.
Joining with Sen. John McCain, who had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Warner thwarted Bush administration efforts to reinterpret the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners in wartime, an approach that the senators said would open captured U.S. military personnel to abuse.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said in a statement on Wednesday that Warner’s “steadfast support for our men and women in uniform made a difference in their lives and in the security of our country,” and that Warner had “set an example for all of bipartisan leadership.”
Warner was not averse to stepping into difficult political situations in the Senate. In 2002, he was among the first to come out against Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., after Lott had made a racially charged comment; Warner’s stand contributed to Lott’s decision to step aside as majority leader. He was also a leading member of the so-called Gang of 14, a bipartisan group of senators who struck an independent agreement on judicial nominations in 2005 and averted a fight over the future of the Senate filibuster.
A debonair Virginian, Warner was sometimes called the senator from central casting; his ramrod military posture, distinguished gray hair and occasionally overblown speaking style fit the Hollywood model.
John William Warner III was born on Feb. 18, 1927, in Washington to Dr. John Warner Jr. and Martha (Budd) Warner. His father was an obstetrician-gynecologist in Washington, his mother a homemaker.
Warner attended St. Albans boarding school in Washington but left at age 17 to join the Navy and serve in the final months of World War II. He never formally received a high school diploma. He went on to enroll at Washington and Lee University, graduating in 1949, and at the University of Virginia School of Law, before interrupting his studies there to join the Marines during the Korean War.
After military service, he returned to law school and was awarded a degree in 1953. He then became a law clerk with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and, from 1956 to 1960, an assistant U.S. attorney in the district. He worked in private law practice for most of the 1960s until being appointed undersecretary of the Navy by President Richard Nixon. He became secretary in 1972 and served for two years. In 1976 he was the federal coordinator of the national bicentennial celebration.
For many years he raised beef cattle on a farm in Middleburg, Virginia.
Warner endured a reputation as something of a playboy after his divorce from a member of the wealthy Mellon family, his marriage to Taylor and a public relationship with newscaster Barbara Walters. But his long service in the Senate and a record marked by an independent streak ultimately overshadowed much of that image.
He is survived by his wife, Jeanne (Vander Myde) Warner; three children from his first marriage, to Catherine Mellon — John Warner IV, Virginia Warner and Mary Conover; and two grandsons.
Virginia’s current senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, praised Warner on Wednesday as a friend, ally and informal adviser and described him as a model of what a politician should be. Mark Warner, who is no relation, had once tried to unseat him.
“John Warner and I ran against each other back in 1996,” Warner said in a statement. “I’ve often said since that the right Warner won that race.”