IT’S DIFFICULT now to remember there was a time when John W. Warner was widely dismissed as an empty suit, notable more for his wealthy wives, square jaw and sartorial elegance than for any claim to gravitas in national affairs. That image of suave playboy and lord of a massive horse-country estate made a nice hook for some early profile writers, but it wasn’t long into his 30-year tenure representing Virginia in the U.S. Senate that the reassessments began. Fusing a tendency for grandiloquence with real gravitas and unquestioned integrity, Mr. Warner, who died Monday at age 94, became a force on military affairs, a standard-bearer for Senate traditions and a Washington personage not beholden to tribal alliance.

He was, to be sure, a rock-ribbed Republican. Yet the Warner brand of Republicanism — suspicious of populism, repelled by extremists, prizing principle over partisanship — is all but unrecognizable today. After a five-term career in the Senate marked by frequent breaks with GOP orthodoxy, it was hardly a shock when, shunning Donald Trump in both his presidential campaigns, he endorsed Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden last year.

No doubt, Mr. Warner’s political career was turbocharged by his six-year marriage to Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor, whom he wed two years before running for the Senate. She was more than his equal as a draw on the campaign trail, and for a time they were the capital’s It couple. Without the glamour she lent him, it’s unlikely he would have prevailed in that first Senate race, in 1978; he won by just 0.4 percent of the 1.2 million votes cast.

He was a new breed of senator for Virginia: just the second Republican from the commonwealth to serve in the upper chamber after a nearly unbroken century of hidebound Dixiecrats. Once in office, however, Mr. Warner swiftly gained influence as a voice on issues affecting the armed forces, having served in the Navy during World War II, a Marine in Korea, and, during the Nixon administration, as both undersecretary and secretary of the Navy.

It wasn’t just that he looked the part of a senator; he fully inhabited the role. No one doubted his rectitude or his willingness to break with his party. He did so repeatedly, embracing abortion rights and gun control (including a federal ban on assault weapons) and rejecting the legal basis for impeaching President Bill Clinton, the then-prevalent GOP view of homosexuality as immoral and President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork. In 1994, when Mr. Warner spurned the GOP’s nominee for Virginia’s other Senate seat, Oliver North, and endorsed an independent, it helped split the Republican vote and sealed the race for the Democratic candidate, former governor Charles Robb. Many Republicans were furious; Mr. Warner had the stature to ignore them.

That stature was hard won, and well deserved. Today, in an era of lockstep party loyalty, Mr. Warner may look like a throwback. In fact, he was the embodiment of patriotic public service.

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