Warner was a long-serving senator from the commonwealth and a revered World War II and Korean War veteran who served as Navy Secretary and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He was symbolic of an era gone by: an era of bi-partisanship, patriotism, egalitarianism. The same Senate that President Biden loved, Warner loved, too. They were true centrists in their very different political parties, but they were making deals, getting legislation passed and were willing to ruffle political feathers in their own caucuses. And, despite their vast political differences, they were always faithful to the Constitution and democratic values.
How far we have fallen from that, and just in my lifetime.
The current Republican Party — nationally and here in Virginia — is not Warner’s party. It is no longer the party of Lincoln. The fledgling party that embraced voting rights and equality for Black Americans in 1854 is no more. Its embrace of Trumpism, anti-democratic values, the Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol — none of it is anything like Warner’s Republican Party. He, like late U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was a maverick. He was a moderate Virginia Republican — something I used to be before “moderate” became a dirty word. Warner was someone Americans and Virginians could trust to place the needs and concerns of constituents above party. For example, Warner opposed placing Reagan nominee Robert Bork on the Supreme Court but was part of a moderate “gang of 14” in 2006 that brokered a deal involving confirmation of controversial GOP judicial nominees.
I met Warner once, long ago. I worked as an intern for Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) in 1989. Warner was tall and handsome and spoke in a deep Virginia voice. He was well-dressed and well-coiffed. Warner had presence, panache and patriotism. He loved the military and supported our bases on the Virginia coast vigorously.
Fast forward to 2021 Virginia. Democrats have flipped the state blue both in the congressional delegation and in the General Assembly. Republicans have not won a statewide race since 2009, and the last Republican to be governor, Robert F. McDonnell, was indicted on a charge of corruption along with his wife. Worse, the state GOP has embraced former president Donald Trump.
Last year, Virginia lost a great pro-business, pro-growth, centrist Republican in former lieutenant governor John Henry Hager II. He was a moderate Republican who was forced from his office in 2008 by a conservative revolt. I had the honor of knowing Hager and was working with him on how to reform the state GOP before he died.
Warner and Hager were among a vanishing breed — now almost extinct — of center-right politicians who grappled fairly with the issues facing both their state and the nation. They were men who reached across the aisle and worked with the other party (Hager served in the cabinet of then-Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat). It didn’t matter if a “D” or a “R” followed the names of their colleagues — they understood how to build and broaden the GOP.
In an interview in 1999 after the Clinton Impeachment, Warner said that his generation had come of age during World War II and that they had learned “the very fundamental lessons of duty, honor, country.” It shaped their views of what was important in life and what was not. Boy could we use a dose of that now.
My unsolicited advice to Virginia and national Republican leaders is to take a lesson from the book of men like Warner and Hager and follow suit. Abandon men like Trump and his minions — they have no character. They have no moral courage. Focus on listening to all of the people, not just an angry and misled base of Trump followers. What we need now is political heros. We need men and women who will work to solve the problems of the people — all of us, not just some of us.