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World War II Navy vet Sen. John Warner remembered as a man dedicated to public service

The Honorable John Warner salutes after the USS John Warner (SSN 785) change of command ceremony. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jeffrey M. Richardson)

For John Warner, politics and public service was all about the personal touch.

After the commissioning in Norfolk of the submarine named in his honor, Warner invited the crew to a Mariners’ Museum party to meet the member of Congress who represented the Virginia delegation at that ceremony.

“It’s good for sailors to see the people who work in Washington to back the Navy,” Warner said, after finishing a long series of photos with crew members.

And the one-time Navy petty officer from World War II was quick to spot how his namesake submarine’s crew were standing stiffly during the boat’s christening at Newport News Shipbuilding a few years earlier.

“Put your troops at ease, will you please?” he called to the submarine’s captain. “It’s been a long evening. Relax men. Relax.”

Then, with a hint of that sense of humor he sometimes displayed, he turned to then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to say:

“See, Mr. Secretary? I still have a little authority.”

Warner, who served in the Senate for 30 years and was President Nixon’s Secretary of the Navy, had acquired plenty of authority from his years of focused attention on the details of naval policy as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and on the realities of making things happen on Capitol Hill, dating to a spell as chairman of the powerful Rules Committee.

The key, Warner once said, is knowing the other men and women in the Senate and House, and making sure they trust you.

Warner started the monthly luncheon tradition that still brings Virginia’s delegation together, said former Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia.

“I don’t think there was a finer statesman in the United States Senate than John Warner,” Rigell said.

Warner, he added, was a legislative leader who understood that even as legislators fight, it is essential to remember “that core sense of civility, that core sense that we are all in this together.”

Former Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, said one of the first things he did after joining Congress in 2001 was to send his staff over to Warner’s office to get a master class in constituent services.

Warner enlisted in the Navy during World War II, and after graduating from Washington and Lee University, signed up with the Marines to serve in the Korean War. Returning to Virginia, he earned a law degree from the University of Virginia, ran cattle and practiced law, including a term as a law clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit and as a federal prosecutor.

Running as a Republican after his service in the Nixon Administration, he won election to fill the unexpired term of Sen. William Scott in 1978 — drawing huge crowds as he campaigned with his then-wife, movie star Elizabeth Taylor. He was re-elected in 1984, 1990, 1996 and 2002.

During his tenure, the men and women of our armed services had a forceful and dedicated champion in Warner.

“It is extraordinary for one person to be so prominent for so long in Virginia politics. Senator Warner endured because the people of Virginia knew he put their interests first,” said state Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City County.

“A Navy veteran and former Secretary of the Navy, Senator Warner understood the importance of American military strength. Ever mindful of Virginia’s key role in ensuring a strong national defense, he worked to ensure Virginia remained pre-eminent in providing for our national security.”

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, said Warner’s position as the dean of Virginia’s congressional delegation set the tone for how Democrats and Republicans should work together.

“That is a tradition that our congressional delegation strives to continue today. In the Senate, John was always focused on what was best for the Commonwealth, and he could always be relied on to prioritize the people he served, not party or politics,” Scott said.

Warner, though a proud Republican, was not afraid to endorse Democrats, as he did when Sen. Mark Warner (no relation) ran in 2008 and 2014, and when Sen. Tim Kaine ran for reelection in 2018.

Kaine said when he married the daughter of Warner’s fraternity brother and fellow World War II vet, “I entered the large circle of John’s friends. From his 30-year post in the Senate, he helped me as Mayor (of Richmond) and Governor again and again … His advice on matters large and small, mostly solicited but occasionally offered even though I hadn’t asked!, was always farsighted, patriotic, and delivered in pithy and memorable phrases.”

Mark Warner noted that after he lost his 1996 challenge to John Warner, “I’ve often said since that the right Warner won that race. … And even though John Warner was already a towering institution in Virginia politics, and I was just some young upstart, he allowed me to become his friend. I felt then, as I do today, incredibly privileged. …

“In Virginia, we expect a lot of our elected officials,” Mark Warner continued. “We expect them to lead, yet remain humble. We expect them to serve, but with dignity. We expect them to fight for what they believe in, but without making it personal. John Warner was the embodiment of all that and more. … There’s little I’m prouder of than the fact that he twice endorsed me for re-election.”

Warner played a central role in developing the unusual teaming agreement between Newport News Shipbuilding and the General Dynamics Electric Boat yard to build Virginia-class submarines, said Newport News Shipbuilding President Jennifer Boykin.

“Sen. Warner, a U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, visited Newport News Shipbuilding often and was a strong advocate for the Navy and for shipbuilders throughout his career,” she said, adding that she still remembers something he said when he came for the 2014 christening of his namesake submarine and paid tribute to his wife, Jeanne, the boat’s sponsor.

What Warner said, she added, was that “Throughout life, I have received more than a share of life’s good fortunes.”

Mike Petters, president and chief executive of Huntington Ingalls Industries, called Warner an American treasure.

“A great statesman and legislator, his contributions to our nation are immeasurable,” Petters said. “He was always a strong and vocal advocate for the U.S. Navy ships that sail our globe protecting freedom and democracy, and for the men and women who build them.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, called Warner a mentor and friend.

“I’m sad to say Virginia lost a giant today. Senator Warner was a statesman among statesmen … never hesitant to share his vast knowledge or experience.” Wittman said. “Most of all, he served as an example of how American and Virginian politics should work with his level-headed, bipartisan approach to the legislative process.”

Christopher Newport University president Paul Trible served in the Senate with Warner from 1983-89.

“No one loved America and Virginia more or served our country and Commonwealth with greater dedication, enthusiasm and excellence. … Our nation desperately needs more good citizens and leaders like John Warner,” Trible said.

“A great American and a great Virginian … who fought hard for these issues,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, at a press conference to announce a comprehensive bill to expand Veterans Administration health care.

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