This story was written by Brigid Schulte; staff writer Susan Kinzie and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.
In his nearly 30 years in office, John Warner has always looked the part, a senator right out of Hollywood's central casting. He has movie-star good looks to match his military bearing. He's dated boldface names like Barbara Walters and married a movie star. With his farm in horse country and a soft lilt to his vowels, he is, as his colleagues recounted yesterday, a Virginia gentleman through and through.
But there is steel behind that soft drawl. And the unknown who was destined for the cocktail party circuit before winning a Senate seat in 1978 - by a razor-thin margin, after a plane crash killed the original Republican nominee - surprised everyone by becoming so much more than an elder statesman.
Time and again, from his stance on withdrawing troops in Iraq to his concern about global warming, he has taken on his party and bucked conventional wisdom. He has forged alliances and created consensus on both sides of the political divide. He's stood up to the juggernaut of lobbyists and the military-industrial complex and stopped the $30 billion refueling-tanker lease deal with Boeing. It was he who long ago, despite fierce resistance, foresaw the day when unmanned airplanes would drop bombs in war zones, as Predators do today in hotspots such as Afghanistan.
The reason, he explained yesterday as he announced that he would not seek reelection, is that he never defined himself as a Republican senator, but as a representative of all the people. And he quoted Shakespeare as his guiding principle: "To thine own self be true."
So, in his mind, there was no question that he would be one of the few Republicans to vote against Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987, that he would actively campaign against Republican Oliver L. North in 1994 when North ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate from Virginia, and that, as the horrors of Abu Ghraib came to light, he would take on the Bush administration and help write legislation in 2006 to restrict the use of torture.
"We always used to say he was a United States senator who happened to be from Virginia," said Les Brownlee, a former longtime Warner aide who went on to become acting secretary of the Army. "If it was an issue of national security, he felt everything had to be second to that. That explains a lot of decisions he made that ran counter to his party, the administration or his own political interest."
Bill Whitehurst, a friend and former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Norfolk, said Warner's "courage of conviction" made him a respected independent voice on the Hill. "Throughout his career, he sought consensus," Whitehurst said. "His view was, 'Let's not just stand and hurl verbiage at each other. Let's see what we can get done.'"
Yesterday, it was difficult to hear unkind words about Warner. But in the past, conservatives have hit him hard. James C. Miller III, who took him on in a Republican primary in 1996, denounced him at the time as a "liberal."
"John Warner has all but ignored the agenda of social conservatives," Miller said. "The problem is that he's not a dependable conservative. He's just not there when the party really needs him." Still, Warner, through the political ups and downs of three decades, has remained one of the most popular politicians in the state. His approval ratings consistently hover in the 60 to 70 percent range.
People might have disagreed with him, but they didn't dislike him. And many, including Mark Warner, the Democrat who nearly bested him in 1996, call him a friend.
"They don't make politicians like him anymore," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, where Warner attended law school after serving in the Korean War and where he announced his retirement yesterday. "What's important about John Warner and what distinguishes him is that he is a centrist, along with 70 percent of Americans. Look at the Senate. How many centrists are there? I count 16 out of 100."
To understand John Warner, friends and colleagues say, is to understand his deeply ingrained sense of duty.
Born in the District, but with roots in Amherst, Va., Warner attended Washington & Lee University. At 17, he joined the Navy and served in World War II. He returned to start law school at the University of Virginia, only to leave and join the Marines Corps when the Korean War started. He later finished law school, clerked for a judge, served as assistant U.S. attorney and practiced law before Ronald Reagan made him Navy secretary.
Warner's first marriage to banking heiress Catherine Mellon, billionaire Andrew Mellon's granddaughter with whom he has three children, ended in divorce. That was followed by the union with Elizabeth Taylor that rocketed him to tabloid fame as well as a seat in the Senate. But it was Warner's taking the Senate job so seriously and working late into the night that Taylor later said broke up the marriage. He married Jeanne Vander Myde in 2003.
For years, he was a fixture at Washington black-tie functions, charity fundraisers - and local gossip columns. He could be counted on for effortless charm and good humor. But at the same time, he was quietly racking up a number of substantive firsts: first Virginia senator to support an African American for the federal bench, first to support a woman, first to author wilderness legislation.
Yesterday, Warner said he will have the rest of his life for philanthropic work and fiddling with the sunflowers in his Belle Haven garden. But first, he said, he has 16 more months in office, untethered from charges of acting for political advantage. He does not intend to go quietly.
"No one can say politics is going to dictate in one way or another how I'm going to decide and speak out about what's in the best interest of this nation," he said. "And I'm going to do that."
© 2007 The Washington Post Company