A Political Giant Takes His Leave

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 2009

John W. Warner is a private citizen today. His expansive offices overlooking the Capitol are empty, his loyal staff dispersed, his 30 years in the Senate a fixture of history.

Remaining is the broad legacy of a man who came to personify the Virginia political gentleman. Remaining, too, is the question of who will fill the void he is leaving.

Warner is widely hailed as a bipartisan broker able to break ranks on principle without losing friends; a man who is at least as fierce an advocate for the state's military bases, rivers and highways as for such national issues as security and defense. No matter who among the state's congressional leaders tries to assume that mantle, it will take time for any of them to collect the expertise, good will and political acumen to fill Warner's shoes.

"This is a good man, and he reflects the best of public service," said Mark R. Warner (D), the former Virginia governor who will replace John Warner at noon tomorrow -- and who so admires his Republican predecessor that he has asked the older Warner to escort him onto the Senate chamber floor. "He just oozes Virginia in the best way possible. I may be succeeding him, but I'm not replacing him. He's not replaceable."

John Warner, 81, who will continue living in Alexandria with his wife, Jeanne, dismissed the question of life on Capitol Hill without him as he scrambled last week through the last-minute meetings, interviews and goodbyes of his final days in the Russell Senate Office Building. ("I had to sign eight pieces of paper just to get out of the Senate just now!" he declared.)

During an interview, Warner reminisced about securing money to build aircraft carriers and dredge ports, about pushing the button to explode a dam on the Rappahannock River, allowing shad and striped bass to resume their migration to some of his and many other Virginians' favorite fishing grounds.

But mostly, Warner sounded a wistful note about not being around to face the difficult challenges confronting the Senate and the nation in 2009: violence in Gaza, spiraling national debt, economic uncertainty. More than ever, Warner warned, the nation's leaders must work together.

"The gravity of the issues facing the new president -- be they in foreign affairs like the current conflict in the Middle East, the economy, the worsening situation in Afghanistan -- demand the highest degree of bipartisanship," Warner said. "I would hope -- indeed I would urge my colleagues to give the maximum bipartisanship to help his team resolve these almost unprecedented problems facing this country."

The role Virginia's federal delegation will play in facing those challenges remains unknown. The state's two senators and 11 congressmen will take on a decidedly new look tomorrow when Mark Warner takes office and his Democratic colleague, James Webb, becomes the senior senator from Virginia after just two years in office. Virginia's contingent in the House of Representatives will include three new Democrats, flipping an 8-3 Republican majority to a 6-5 Democratic one.

So who leads this crew? Is it Webb, the intellect and author who, like John Warner, is a former Navy secretary and whose leadership on last year's G.I. bill has helped brand him an independent-minded nonpartisan? Is it Mark Warner, the cellphone millionaire and former Virginia Democratic Party chairman who is more likely than Webb to be drawn to state party-building, candidate recruitment and fundraising?

Webb said the entire Virginia delegation must work together to fill Warner's shoes, as must Senate Republicans, who have lost one of their last remaining moderate voices willing to reach across the aisle.

"We need more people like John Warner, who came to the Senate because the country needs good governance rather than political rhetoric," Webb said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company