For no apparent reason, I bolted awake this morning at 1:30 AM and when I couldn’t get back to sleep, I checked my phone to see an email that my former boss, Senator John Warner, had passed away at the age of 94 on Tuesday night. What am amazing American life he lived — a veteran, a lawyer, a painter, an advance man for Nixon, the Secretary of the Navy, the head of the Bicentennial Commission, married to a Mellon and Elizabeth Taylor, and a 5-term Senator.
But beyond the positions he held, it was the way he conducted himself and dealt with people that resonated. A man who ended up being named by Queen Elizabeth as “Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” was just as comfortable buying vegetables at the local farmers market. A man who had a nuclear submarine capable of destroying an entire country named after him was so loyal to his staff that 200 of them turned out for a birthday party a decade after he left office. A man who was like Zelig in his involvement in major world events and places — Nixon’s concession to Kennedy, the Cold War, the Bork hearings, the Iraq surge, the Wilson Bridge (which ought to be renamed for Warner), Union Station, Reagan Airport — took the time to come to my house to give advice on how to get sunflowers to grow properly. He looked and played the role of a U.S. Senator so much so that a fictitious one in the first Mission Impossible movie was a dead ringer named Senator John Waltzer.
I only worked directly for the Senator for a little over two years from 1996–1998, which was barely a blip in a world of staff who served for him for decades. But between that time and the decades since, I have so many deep memories of him, some quirky, some telling.
• My first real legislative assignment was in 1996 when I arrived as Legislative Counsel in his personal office. He had somehow been convinced by a friend (or maybe a former girlfriend) to introduce a bill to provide exclusive trademark rights to the word ‘millennium’ to a private charitable organization that was planning a series of grandiose celebrations for the turn of the century on December 31, 1999. He of course got a bunch of his ‘old bull’ colleagues to sign on as cosponsors, but when I was asked to talk to the Judiciary Committee about the prospects for the bill, I was told by the lead copyright counsel (who actually knew something about copyrights) that this was the dumbest bill he had ever seen. Then the bill became a minor point of attack by his primary rival in the 1996 election, Jim Miller. I was summoned to the Senator’s apartment on a weekend to discuss the bill, and we agreed to drop any plans to pursue it. I was left to deal with the angry friend at the charity. I suppose because he felt guilty for making me work on such a strange cause, he asked me if was interested in any of the suits he was throwing away. One of them seemed really fancy, and as a fairly-low-paid government lawyer, I was happy to get a freebie. Now the Senator was a bit taller and a bit wider than I (at least then) so when I took the suit in to get tailored, the tailor asked me where on earth I had gotten this suit. Turns out it was from some very exclusive shop in London and had probably cost five figures for Elizabeth Taylor to buy for him.
• Around that same time, I was driving him in some huge 80’s style car like a Delta 88 or Oldsmobile Cutlass when another car darted into an intersection. I swerved away from the crash, only to have the boss yell ‘what are you doing?’. I asked him what he would have done. His preferred plan: “If you swerve, we could flip over and we’re toast. You’ve got 6 feet of steel in the hood — next time you ram him.” Luckily there was no next time.
• Part of the Warner routine was playing tennis in the court hidden away in the upper recesses of the Dirksen Building (yes, there is an indoor court there). The whole point was to get the boss some quick exercise between all of his appointments and hearings. He was actually a crafty player with some great angles and a sneaky flat forehand. One match he threw up a lob from the baseline, and in chasing it down, I decided to hit a swinging overhead from the baseline only to catch it flush like a line drive that would have sailed all the way into the back wall … if it hadn’t been interrupted by Senator Warner’s forehead after he had snuck into the net. Racquet, hat, armband all go flying. I thought I killed a U.S. Senator with no witnesses but instead he hops up and just yells with a wry smile, ‘You F**ker!’ There were no more overheads from me.
• Later I moved to the Rules Committee which he began chairing after the 1996 elections, finally grabbing a chairmanship after 18 years of waiting. But there had been a closely contested election in Louisiana with the loser, Republican Woody Jenkins, claiming the winner, Mary Landrieu, had nosed him out with illegal votes and campaign spending. With an ascendant conservative majority skeptical of Warner after his vote against Judge Bork and refusal to back Ollie North in the 1994 Senate race, launching a major investigation into the election became a political hot potato. With the entire Democratic caucus in opposition led by crusty Senator Wendall Ford and legend Robert Byrd, we worked for weeks on a resolution to allow an investigation that would give Jenkins a chance to prove his charges. With the hearing showing live on CNN, the committee went to vote on the resolution, only to have Senator Byrd point out that the last version authorized the committee to review votes and funding anywhere in the world. I had been in charge of the wordsmithing and in the editing process the word ‘Louisiana’ had fallen out. You can actually see the sweat emerge from my forehead in real time on the video. Rather than throw his lawyer under the bus for a dreadful error, the Senator calmly made the change.
• On a slow recess day, he invited me to play golf with him at Burning Tree, the mysterious course in Bethesda. He was having a rough day but kept doubling the bet. When we finished the 18th hole, I was up around $150 and looking forward to a small pay day. He pulls out a wad of bills, shakes my hand with the bills, then snatches them back and hands them to his decades-long caddie, saying ‘that’s Stewart’s tip for you.’
• In 1999, I was part of a small group of lawyers who helped guide the Clinton impeachment trial on the Senate floor. Day after day, I sat in a staff chair next to my new boss, the Senate Whip Don Nickles, just in front of Senator Warner’s chair. One day during a ponderous part of the proceedings, I think a debate on Clinton’s famous line, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” the Senator leaned over and joked in my ear, “I knew you were going places, but I didn’t think you’d be sitting in front of me already.”
• We all know Senator Warner’s main legacy is in the national defense space, which was never my area of specialty, but after 9/11 and President Bush nominated me for a senior policy position at the new Department of Homeland Security, it was the honor of a lifetime to have the Senator introduce me at my confirmation hearing.
• I was supposed to repay the favor a few years later at a University of Virginia School of Law event in the Kennedy Caucus Room. But the boss was running very late due floor votes and the crowd was restless when he finally arrived. I told him I was supposed to introduce him, and he asked how long my remarks would be — I said around 2 minutes. He said, “You get seven words.” So my introduction was “With no further ado, Senator John Warner.”
• After he left public office, we stayed in touch at the occasional political event or Warner reunion or lunch at his Hogan Lovells offices. I didn’t expect to need to ask for a favor, but when one of my children decided to apply to UVA for college and he heard about it, in less than 24 hours there was a letter of support from the boss in the admissions file.
Virginia has had an outsized roster of legendary Americans from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Arthur Ashe and Doug Wilder. ‘The Squire’ John Warner deserves to be remembered as one of the titans of Virginia and America. RIP to a legend, my boss, and my friend.