Virginia Republican senatorial candidate John Werner, campaigning in western Virginia yesterday, vigorously retracted his recent controversial statement that he tried to slow down integration in the Navy when he was Navy secretary.
Warner maintained that he had misunderstood the last question in an interview taped Thursday night and broadcast yesterday morning on WJLA-TV, Channel 7. An interviewer asked him if he tried to slow down the integration efforts of Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, then chief of naval operations, and Warner replied that he had.
Warner said yesterday he had failed to hear the last part of the question, missing the words that tied it to integration.
"I jumped the question," Warner said at a candidates' forum of the Seventh Congressional District Black Caucus where he appeared in a brief debate with his Democratic opponent, Andrew P. Miller.
Miller avoided raising the controversial remarks during the debate, but they came up at a press conference before the debate and during the caucus meeting, which ironically fell on the day that the controversial interview was broadcast.
"I'm glad that question was put to me, because while it did not hurt my campaign, it hurt me deeply," Warner said during the debate when asked from the floor about his statement. Warner earlier had been quoted by the television station as protesting that the broadcast of his statement could "cost me the election."
Warner said he thought the questioner was asking whether he had tried to slow down Zumwalt's attempts to change the Navy generally. He said he did not realize it concerned his performance on race relations, which he defended strenuously yesterday. Warner pointed out that the Navy was integrated already when he became secretary.
"Our work was really in affirmative action," he said. "We've had integration in the services for a long time. Zumwalt and I can't take credit for that."
Warner said he had asked the television station if he could clarify his remarks after an aide pointed out that the question had concerned integration. He said a station official had told him to write a letter expressing his views.
If the controversy surronding his televised statement bothered Warner, it did not seem to have much impact on the largely black crowd of about 300 at the forum. Both Warner and Miller received warm applause during their debate. Afterward, one black spectator, retired navy chief petty officer Landon Allen, came to Warner's defense.
"How could you slow down something that was already supposed to have been completed?" asked Landon, a Charlottesville resident who worked as a race relations specialist for the Navy while Warner was secretary. Warner, who met Landon after the debate, personally brought Landon to a reporter and asked him to explain his view on the questioN.
"He was just tired and slipped up," an aide to Warner's opponent Miller said after the debate. "We aren't going to use it in the campaign."