Shortly before they united behind John W. Warner's candidacy for the U.S. Senate, three key supporters of the late Richard D. Obenshain held a private meeting with Warner at which his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor, offered to help fund a $50,000 trust for Obenshain's children.
According to those present, one of whom describes the meeting as "a friendly chat," Warner himself voiced hope that Obenshain's staff - including campaign director Judy Peachee - would stay on to run the Republican campaign and also made clear his intention to work to retire the $80,000 Obenshain campaign debt.
Several Virginia Republican Party leaders describe the meeting, which occurred Sunday, Aug. 6, at Warner's 2,000-acre Fauquier County estate, as a key event in uniting Obenshain's conservative followers behind Warner, whom they had opposed at last June's party nominating convention.
They point out that Obenshain's supporters emerged from the meeting with assurances that they would not be shunted aside in any Warner campaign, and that Warner would help them meet what they considered the party's financial obligations to the Obenshain family.
But those present - who talk freely about the meeting - bristle at any notion that a deal of some sort was either made or discussed.
"This was partly a courtesy call . . . " said former Del. Wyatt Durrette of Fairfax, one of those present. "We wanted to keep John informed of what we were doing. No commitments of any sort were either asked for or given."
The meeting apparently grew out of the grief-spurred search by Obenshain loyalists, following the former nominee's death Aug. 3 in a plane crash, to find a more identifiable conservative than Warner for the party to nominate for the seat being vacated by Sen. William L. Scott.
The hard core loyalists became known in the party as the ABW faction: Anyone But Warner.
A few hours after Obenshain's burial Aug. 5 in Botetourt County, many of his closest friends and supporters gathered in the nearby Roanoke home of Donald W. Huffman, a longtime Obenshain friend and a member of the GOP state central committee.
One of those was Peachee, the state's GOP national committeewoman and not, she says, one of the ABW faction. "We were grouping for the name of someone who could pickup. Dick's mantle and step right into the campaign - someone already known around the state as a conservative," Durrette said. "Many names were mentioned, but the most obvious ones were those of (former Gov. Mills L.) Godwin and (Rep. J. Kenneth) Robinson."
Peachee, however, had contacted Godwin the day before, and had drawn from the "very reluctant" former governor only a promise to think about it some more during a two-week European vacation. "I was not optimistic," she remembered.
That left Robinson, and on Sunday she and Robert E. Russell of Williamsburg, drove to Washington to confer with the 7th District congressman in his office. He, too, said he could foresee almost no possibility of running, but promised to let her know definitely within 24 hours.
Then Peachee called Durrette, and asked him to set up a meeting with Warner.
Peachee, Durrette and Russell each remember slightly different motives for wanting to meet with the wealthy former Navy secretary, who had narrowly lost to Obenshain in a prolonged and tumultuous state convention June 3.
Durrette, who knew Warner best of the three, said the major motive was fear that Warner might announce the next morning while Godwin and Robinson were still thinking it over.
"We went to obtain another 24 hours," Durrette said. "Mills and Kenneth were both leaning against running. If Warner announced it would be an impediment to either of them. We knew is we had a fight for the nomination it would impair either person's ability to win."
Russell remembers that "we went down there basically to fill John in on what we were doing . . . and what kind of feelings we were getting from our people. We didn't want him to think we were going behind his back. We wanted to be open and candid about it . . . Godwin was our first choice."
Peachee remembers that she felt that "Warner should know about Godwin . . . We just went down and had a friendly chat about that." The meeting, by all three accounts, took place in the den of the Warner house and lasted from about 8 p.m. to about 11 p.m.
The three visitors, Durrette said, soon found they didn't have to buy time. Warner, Durrette said, hadn't made up his mind to run: "I definitely believe if Gov. Godwin had gotten into the race John would not have run."
They told him about their approaches to Godwin and Robinson and found Warner, Russell said, "very candid and straightforward" about the whole matter.
They discussed the Obenshain campaign debt, Russell said, and how firm the $80,000 figure was. Warner, he said, talked "about how it was everybody's commitment to help retire that debt" so it wouldn't become the responsibility of Obenshain's family.
"There was never any discussion or hint of any quid pro quo," Russell said, or any talk of Warner or his wife paying off any of the debt themselves.
They discussed the Obenshain staff and Warner asked Peachee whether the staff would stay on. "I told him I really didn't know," she said. "He said he hoped the staff would stay on intact to help whoever was nominated."
Somebody asked did he mean to include Judy," Durrette remembers "and he said 'She's part of the staff.'"
Meanwhile, across the room, Peachee and Elizabeth Taylor Warner were having a conversation of their own. Russell and Durrette say they didn't catch everything that was said, but it had to do with the educational trust fund set up for the Obenshain children.
"It was something among ourselves," Peachee said. "We were talking as women talk . . . about the loss of Dick and what it meant to all of us . . . She was telling me how she had felt when Mike Todd (the actress' third husband) had died in a plane crash.
"I told her that I was so pleased about the trust fund because it would cost at least $80,000 or more to educate the children. And she was very sympathetic and leaned forward and said "I would like to help."
"And I said 'thank you. Helen (Obenshain's widow) will be grateful to know that.'"
Peachee, Russell and Durrette say other discussions ranged over all sorts of topics, serious and light, including remembered anecdotes of Warner and Obenshain on the pre-convention campaign trail. They point out that the entire meeting should be viewed as it occurred: in the emotional aftermath of Obenshain's funeral and just four days after his death.
There was no suggestion that money was being offered for their support, they say. "It would have had exactly the wrong effect," said Durrette. "I, for one, would have walked right out of there . . . We were all still too close to Dick's death to have even listened to anything like that. And we certainly wouldn't have agreed to it."
What they did agree to, the three said, was to give Warner a briefing on the status of the Obenshain campaign organization - a a courtesy they also gave to State Sen. Nathan Miller of Harrisonburg, the last candidate to withdraw before Warner's nomination by acclamation by the GOP state central committee Aug. 12.
They also advised Warner, Russell said, "that it would be wise if he could hold off (his announcement of candidacy) for a few days . . . to let people settle down. It was only natural. It was a very emotional time.
Peachee and Durrette say that nothing during the meeting really altered their opinion of Warner, whom they had never personally objected to in the first place, Peachee, who is now Warner's campaign manager, said she simply was working the will of others in the party.
Finance manager Russell, however, said "I felt better about it," after the meeting. John knew what was involved . . . John was extremely straightforward about things and discussed everything in a clearheaded manner," he said.