Mr. Warner Bows Out

Saturday, September 1, 2007

TO PLENTY of his detractors of the 1970s and '80s, Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia was a figure of fun -- wealthy and glamorous by dint of marriage, self-righteous, grandiloquent, comically ceremonious. Some, even in his own Republican Party, dismissed him as a preening lightweight, amiable but lacking in intellectual heft. They would have been astounded had they known the senator he became.

Through 28 years in the Senate, Mr. Warner, who announced yesterday he would not seek reelection next year to a sixth term, has built a towering reputation as one of the most honest and independent-minded lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He was a leading Senate expert on military matters, and his views on the armed forces and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could shake the political firmament, as they did just a week ago when he urged the Bush administration to commence troop withdrawals from Iraq by Christmas. Admired for his honesty and, beyond the confines of his party's hard-liners, his relative moderation, he commands respect as a voice of reason, tolerance and pragmatic bipartisanship in an era when all three are increasingly rare.

At the age of 80, Mr. Warner is retiring for the right reasons. He would almost certainly have won reelection without breaking a sweat. In a statement noteworthy for its humility and generosity, he said he had decided to go simply to make room for others and to ensure that someone with the requisite stamina would continue to hold the job.

He returned only last month from his 10th trip to Iraq. His journeys there have led him to reassess his once-steadfast support for the president's policy on the war. And he signaled that in his remaining 16 months in office, he will continue to be outspoken; no one would be able to say that politics had shaped his stance. As a veteran of World War II and the Korean War and as a former undersecretary and secretary of the Navy, Mr. Warner, who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee until the Democrats took control of Congress this year, has demonstrated repeatedly his heartfelt commitment to the nation's fighting men and women and to the reputation and honor of the armed forces.

It was largely that commitment that led Mr. Warner to play an instrumental role, despite fierce White House resistance, in the passage two years ago of the "McCain amendment," which prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of all prisoners in American custody worldwide. He vowed to trace responsibility for the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq up the military chain of command, saying he would "go where the evidence leads us."

Ultimately, though, unwilling to push the military too hard, he was deflected by Pentagon


Mr. Warner is a conservative but hardly an ideologue, and he has repeatedly infuriated his party's strident right-wingers -- by standing against the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, by opposing the leadership of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in the Senate, and, in 1994, by repudiating Oliver L. North's Senate candidacy in Virginia. Many Virginia Republicans saw him as a heretic -- a RINO (Republican In Name Only). Mr. Warner saw himself as more committed to principle than party.

He lacked any fixed worldview or guiding political philosophy. His commitment, he often said, was to the traditions and institution of the Senate and to the people of Virginia, whose support he repaid handsomely. He guided billions of dollars in defense contracts to Virginia, making it the country's largest recipient of military spending per capita, and he safeguarded the state's huge naval and air bases. Through it all, his steady civility, dignity and courtesy seemed almost quaint, a throwback to more courtly times. But the absence of such qualities nowadays is much noted and mourned. So, too, will Mr. Warner's absence be.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company