Warner Bucks GOP Right On Probe of Prison Abuse
Warner, the son of a World War I field surgeon, won election to the Senate in 1978 after his state party's first choice, Richard D. Obenshain, was killed in a plane crash.
Warner is generally a loyalist and votes with a majority of Republicans on nearly all key issues, including President Bush's Iraq policies. He is also a conciliator within the party. "When things are getting pretty tense, and everyone is getting agitated, he has a very calming demeanor of leadership," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).
His military experience and familiarity with defense issues helped him move from semi-obscurity in his early years in the Senate (when he was known mainly as the husband of actress Elizabeth Taylor) to the forefront of defense policy deliberations on Capitol Hill. "Senator Warner is a military guy through and through. He volunteered twice, served in the armed forces twice -- that's twice more than a lot of members," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).
It is Warner's periodic departures from GOP orthodoxy -- on issues such as abortion, guns and Republicans' nomination of conservative hero Oliver L. North for Virginia's other Senate seat in 1994 -- that infuriate Warner's critics.
He voted against conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork in 1987 and in 1993 repudiated Virginia GOP lieutenant governor nominee Michael P. Farris, a favorite of the party's right. He has voted for some abortion rights positions and against others, and he was recently among a small minority of Republicans to vote to extend the partial ban on assault weapons.
Warner played a key behind-the-scenes role in replacing former Republican leader Trent Lott (Miss.) with Frist in 2002 after Lott made remarks that many considered racially insensitive. Most recently, he angered some Virginia Republicans by endorsing the tax-hike push by Gov. Mark D. Warner (D).
His opposition to North stirred the most controversy. Reflecting a prevalent view in the military establishment that the former Marine lieutenant colonel and Iran-contra figure was a rogue officer, Warner recruited another Republican to challenge North as an independent. Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) was reelected as a result. Conservatives later tried to deny Warner the GOP nomination for reelection, but Warner outmaneuvered them.
Despite the recurrent furors he has created within the Virginia GOP, Warner coasted to an easy victory when he ran for a fifth term in 2002 and is generally regarded as the most popular politician in the state. He says he would like to run again in 2008 but will wait until later to decide. Among possible GOP candidates to succeed him are several House members, including Davis, a close friend of Warner's. Former governor James S. Gilmore III, who has said he will be a candidate for public office again some day, is another possible candidate.
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the president's Democratic challenger, has mentioned Warner as a possible defense secretary, and there has been speculation that he may be in Bush's Cabinet list for a second term. But Warner dismissed such talk, saying running the Pentagon is a job for a younger person.
Some see Warner's intervention against North and his outrage over the prisoner abuse as dual reflections of his devotion to the military.
Warner puts it in more personal terms. He went through both undergraduate and law school under the G.I. Bill of Rights and feels he owes the military for everything he has become. "I have a tremendous obligation to the military," he said.
Staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company