John Warner, former 5-term Virginia Senator, dies at 94

ANNAPOLIS, MD - OCTOBER 30:  Former U.S. Senator John Warner (R-VA) greets U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, before McCain addressed the Brigade of Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy on October 30, 2017 in Annapolis, Maryland. A Class of 1958 Naval Academy graduate, Senator McCain spoke about the importance of American leadership and service to one's country.  (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)
Former U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., greets U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, before McCain addressed the Brigade of Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy on Oct. 30, 2017 in Annapolis, Maryland. A Class of 1958 Naval Academy graduate, McCain spoke about the importance of American leadership and service to one’s country. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

john warner
Former U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., listens during a National Press Club luncheon Oct. 12, 2016 in Washington, D.C. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus discussed “the State of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps” at the luncheon. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

ALEXANDRIA, VA - NOVEMBER 3: (L - R) Former U.S. Senator John Warner (D-VA) introduces U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) during a  Get Out the Vote rally for Democratic candidates, November 3, 2014 in Alexandria, Virginia. Warner, the Democratic incumbent, is running against Republican candidate Ed Gillespie. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Former U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., introduces U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., during a Get Out the Vote rally for Democratic candidates, Nov. 3, 2014 in Alexandria, Virginia. Warner, the Democratic incumbent, is running against Republican candidate Ed Gillespie. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

NORFOLK, VA - MARCH 15: Former U.S. Sen. John Warner and his wife, Jeanne, tour the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and the Battleship Wisconsin on March 15, 2013 in Norforlk, Virginia. Warner is attending the keel laying ceremony for the Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) John Warner (SSN 785). Warner has served as an undersecretary of the Navy, a U.S. senator, a Marine Corps officer during the Korean War and  as a Navy petty officer in World War II. PCU John Warner is under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding. (Photo by Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Meshel/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
Former U.S. Sen. John Warner and his wife, Jeanne, tour the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and the Battleship Wisconsin on March 15, 2013 in Norforlk, Virginia. Warner is attending the keel laying ceremony for the Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) John Warner (SSN 785). Warner has served as an undersecretary of the Navy, a U.S. senator, a Marine Corps officer during the Korean War and as a Navy petty officer in World War II. PCU John Warner is under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding. (Photo by Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Meshel/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

** FILE ** In this April 8, 2008 file photo, then Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. John Warner, R-Va., listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington. Warner, a former Navy secretary and one of the Senate’s most influential military experts, has died at 94.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
In this April 8, 2008 file photo, then Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. John Warner, R-Va., listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington. Warner, a former Navy secretary and one of the Senate’s most influential military experts, has died at 94. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

John Warner Elizabeth Taylor
In this May 7, 1981 file photo actress Elizabeth Taylor and her husband Sen. John Warner, R-Va., arrive at Xenon disco in New York. Warner, a former Navy secretary and one of the Senate’s most influential military experts, died Tuesday, May 25, 2021, at age 94, his longtime chief of staff said Wednesday, May 26 (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Elizabeth Taylor John Warner, Taylor Warner
In this Jan. 30, 1977 file photo actress Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, former secretary of the U.S. Navy John Warner attend the 42nd New York Film Critics Circle Awards dinner in New York. Warner, one of the Senate’s most influential military experts, died Tuesday, May 25, 2021, at age 94, his longtime chief of staff said Wednesday, May 26. Warner was the sixth of Elizabeth Taylor’s seven husbands. The two were married from 1976 to 1982. (AP Photo/File)

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ANNAPOLIS, MD - OCTOBER 30:  Former U.S. Senator John Warner (R-VA) greets U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, before McCain addressed the Brigade of Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy on October 30, 2017 in Annapolis, Maryland. A Class of 1958 Naval Academy graduate, Senator McCain spoke about the importance of American leadership and service to one's country.  (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)
john warner
ALEXANDRIA, VA - NOVEMBER 3: (L - R) Former U.S. Senator John Warner (D-VA) introduces U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) during a  Get Out the Vote rally for Democratic candidates, November 3, 2014 in Alexandria, Virginia. Warner, the Democratic incumbent, is running against Republican candidate Ed Gillespie. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
NORFOLK, VA - MARCH 15: Former U.S. Sen. John Warner and his wife, Jeanne, tour the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and the Battleship Wisconsin on March 15, 2013 in Norforlk, Virginia. Warner is attending the keel laying ceremony for the Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) John Warner (SSN 785). Warner has served as an undersecretary of the Navy, a U.S. senator, a Marine Corps officer during the Korean War and  as a Navy petty officer in World War II. PCU John Warner is under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding. (Photo by Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Meshel/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
** FILE ** In this April 8, 2008 file photo, then Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. John Warner, R-Va., listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington. Warner, a former Navy secretary and one of the Senate’s most influential military experts, has died at 94.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
John Warner Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor John Warner, Taylor Warner

Former Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican who served five terms in Congress, has died at age 94.

Warner died at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, Tuesday evening, according to Warner’s former Chief of Staff Susan Magill.

“He was frail but had a lot of spirit until his last days,” Magill said.

His wife, Jeanne, and daughter, Virginia, were by his side when he died of heart failure.

Warner, a World War II Navy veteran who made foreign policy and military matters his top concern across nearly four decades of public service, is remembered as a centrist Republican who earned the respect of members of both parties.

“Virginia, and America, have lost a giant,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), said in a statement Wednesday morning.

“As a sailor, a senator, a statesman, and a gentleman, former U.S. Sen. John Warner spent his life in public service,” Northam said.

“John helped build up his political party and always remained an independent voice,” Northam said. “He used that voice in the Senate to forge bipartisan compromise, knowing how and when to reach across the aisle. And he always put Virginia first.”

No funeral arrangements have been announced, but Northam said he has ordered flags to be flown at half-staff over the Virginia Capitol on the day of Warner’s funeral.

Warner served in the Senate from 1979 until January 2009, when he retired. Read Warner’s letter to Virginians when he announced his retirement plans.

In his letter announcing his retirement from the Senate, Warner expressed gratitude to his constituents, the University of Virginia and the military.

“One’s achievements in life are largely owed to all who helped along the way. That’s why I shared with you my lifetime of gratitude for what I learned in Virginia’s educational institutions and from our U.S. military. They forged my character; they forged my sense of values,” Warner wrote.

“Public service is a privilege. As I look back over my long career, may generous opportunities have been given to me. As I now add up all the years of public service it totals 45 years!”

More recently, Warner, a lawyer, had retired from the law firm of Hogan Lovells in June 2020. He served as a senior adviser and former partner in the firm’s government relations practice.

Warner also was the sixth of movie star Elizabeth Taylor’s seven husbands. The two were married from 1976 to 1982.

Before being elected, he served as secretary of the Navy from 1972 to 1974.

Warner enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and served during World War II. He reenlisted in the Marine Corps as an officer in 1950 and served two years during the Korean War.

Warner’s experience in the military would prove valuable in the Senate, where he served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Warner was known for having an independent streak that sometimes angered more conservative GOP leaders, but he was well-respected on both sides of the aisle.

In 1994, Warner angered conservatives by opposing GOP nominee Oliver North’s bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb. Warner declared the Iran-Contra figure unfit for public office and backed independent J. Marshall Coleman, who drew enough independent and moderate GOP votes to ensure Robb’s reelection.

Steamed by what they viewed as disloyalty to the party, GOP conservatives tried to deny him a fourth term in 1996, backing a challenge by former Reagan administration budget director Jim Miller.

But Warner prevailed.

“Although he was a strong Republican, and on most issues came down on the Republican side, there were some notable issues where he parted company because he didn’t feel it was in the best interests of the state,” said former Virginia Republican Congressman Tom Davis, who served as the campaign chairman for Warner’s 1996 renomination bid.

“He represented I think what the Founders wanted, and that was a senator who represented states, not parties and he was just a great spokesman for Virginia,” Davis said.

Davis recalled Warner’s efforts to secure funding for Metro’s Silver Line to Dulles and of how he haggled tirelessly to secure millions to rehabilitate the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. When his efforts proved successful, and it came time for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, other officials took the spotlight. “He just said, ‘Don’t worry about it’ … He didn’t care about who got the credit. That was John Warner.”

In recent years, Warner broke ranks further with his party, endorsing Democrats Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden over President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Senators from Virginia who followed Warner said they will miss his friendship and counsel.

“Virginia has lost an unmatched leader, and my family has lost a dear friend,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, who added that Warner helped him throughout his political career, noting that Warner helped save the Metro Silver Line project.

“Once I came to the Senate, I understood even more deeply the influence of John Warner. I came to know John McCain, Carl Levin, and so many others who served with him and attested to his integrity and outsized influence in a body he loved so dearly. In particular, John’s service in the Navy during World War II, as a Marine during the Korean War, and as Secretary of the Navy, made him a steady hand as Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Kaine said.

Democrat Mark Warner, who had challenged Warner for the Senate in 1996 and went on to serve a term as Virginia’s governor, won the election to succeed him in 2008. After years of rivalry, the two became good friends, and John Warner attended his swearing-in in January 2009. Mark Warner, who is not related to John Warner, said his friend “epitomizes what it means to be a senator.'”

Mark Warner said, “John’s service to our country never ended; he remained an active participant in public affairs. He was always available with a keen ear, sound judgment, good humor and a few words of encouragement and advice. The last time I saw him just a few weeks ago, he was full of questions about the latest in the Senate and in Virginia.

“In Virginia, we expect a lot of our elected officials. We expect them to lead, yet remain humble. We expect them to serve, but with dignity. We expect them to fight for what they believe in, but without making it personal. John Warner was the embodiment of all that and more. I firmly believe that we could use more role models like him today,” Mark Warner said.

The Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus issued a statement saying, “Political party didn’t matter to Sen. Warner; he valued forward-thinking ideas, hard work, and good governance. Sen. Warner will be missed, and remembered as the titan he was in Virginia.”

Additionally, the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus released a statement from Senate Republican Leader Thomas Norment (James City) that said: “It is extraordinary for one person to be so prominent for so long in Virginia politics. Senator Warner endured because the people of Virginia knew he put their interests first.”

WTOP’s Matt Small and Jack Moore and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Colleen Kelleher

Colleen Kelleher is an award-winning journalist who has been with WTOP since 1996. Kelleher joined WTOP as the afternoon radio writer and night and weekend editor and made the move to WTOP.com in 2001. Now she works early mornings as the site's Senior Digital Editor.

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