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Remembering Ex-Sen. John Warner, a Gracious Loser Who Became a Big Winner

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There was much to remember about John Warner following the news Wednesday morning that the last Republican senator from Virginia and its second-longest-serving senator (1978-2008) had died at age 94.

But those who watched Warner through the years were sure to recall and retell how he began his political career in defeat, but unexpectedly got another chance when a tragedy took the life of the man who beat him for nomination. 

Warner would not have gotten his “second chance” had he not behaved like a “class act” after his loss — something even his bitter opponents recall warmly.

With his tailored suits from Savile Row, his silver hair, good looks, and polished speaking style, John William Warner III seemed every inch a senator, to use Donald Trump’s phrase, “out of Central Casting.” 

Warner, who joined the Navy at age 18 during World War II and served as a Marine in the Korean War, was Richard Nixon’s secretary of the Navy before going into politics himself and seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. senator from Virginia.

He was also married to Elizabeth Taylor — in fact, he was the last surviving of the legendary actress’ seven husbands. She no doubt helped draw the overflow crowds for first-time candidate Warner, who often joked about her celebrity persona outshining his.

(Speaking at a breakfast in 1982, the year he and Taylor divorced, Warner recalled how a political foe, Democratic Rep. Norm Sisisky, came to a hotel in his hometown were Warner was staying. As Warner told it, “Norm was less interested that I was there, than the fact I was accompanied by a lady named Elizabeth Taylor. He asked if he could go to my room and put his shoes under the bed. I said ‘Fine, Norm, but why?’ And he said: ‘So I can tell my friends my shoes were under Elizabeth Taylor’s bed.’”).

Warner came to the state convention with considerable enthusiasm among his supporters. But his views were more moderate than those of most Old Dominion State Republicans — strongly pro-civil rights, favoring the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, and supporting Henry Kissinger’s “detente” policy toward the Soviet Union. On the second ballot, he lost to former state Party Chairman Dick Obenshain, a good-as-Goldwater conservative who had run Ronald Reagan’s insurgent campaign in the state against President Gerald Ford two years before.

With Obenshain’s nomination a cinch, Warner took to the convention stage and graciously endorsed the nominee. As if to underscore his point that it was critical to keep the Senate seat in Republican hands, Warner wrote a $1,000 check to Obenshain’s campaign.

Two months later, Virginia and the conservative movement nationwide were rocked over the news: The plane that was taking Obenshain to a campaign stop crashed, killing the candidate and pilots Rick Neel and Ronald Edelen.

As the state mourned the man who might have been a swashbuckling conservative senator in the mold of North Carolina’s Sen. Jesse Helms, discussions quietly began among Virginia Republicans over who would replace Obenshain on their ticket. 

There was talk of the nominee’s widow, Helen Obenshain, but she quickly made it clear that, with three children to raise, she wasn’t interested. As party leaders recalled Warner’s “class act” in defeat, talk of his being nominated grew.

“Warner was gracious in defeat and supported Dick Obenshain for the general election” is how former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) explained the premier reason for Warner’s resurrection, “When Dick was later tragically killed, Republicans remembered Warner’s loyalty and [the GOP State Committee] awarded him the Republican nomination to continue the campaign for U.S. Senate.”

Even Republican backers far to the right of Warner rolled up their sleeves and volunteered to canvass their neighborhoods or work phone banks for him. His decency in defeat by their late hero was enough for them.

In the polls, Warner consistently trailed his Democratic foe, former state Attorney General Andrew Miller. In one televised debate, Miller dismissed the Republican nominee as a “gentleman farmer”— one who owns farm property for the sole purpose of calling himself a farmer.

“You’re right — I am a ‘gentleman farmer,’” Warner shot back. “And I never met a farmer in Virginia who wasn’t a gentleman!”

In the closest Senate election that year — not to mention the closest in Virginia history — Warner won in a photo-finish by under 4,000 votes out of more than 1.2 million cast.

In his 30 years in the Senate, Warner would irk, sometimes severely, the conservatives who worked for his first election. He opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and supported an independent candidate rather than endorse Iran-Contra figure and fellow Republican Oliver North for Virginia’s other Senate seat. (North lost narrowly to Democrat Chuck Robb in 1994.)

A “Never Trumper” from the start, Warner endorsed Democrats Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020.

Warner began his political career as a loser, but because of his graciousness toward a triumphant opponent, his recognition of defeat and the need for his party to “move on,” he ended up a winner.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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