News & Features » Cover Story

John Warner's Big Finish



The recent greening of Sen. John W. Warner was seeded more than a half-century ago in the scenic panhandle of northern Idaho.

The year was 1943, and the restless 16-year-old - temporarily thwarted in his zeal to join the battle against fascism - followed his father's urging to take a summer job out West, fighting fires with the U.S. Forest Service.

"I remember that experience to this day and the magnificent forests we worked in. They were pristine. The streams flowed and we could drink out of 'em," the 81-year-old lawmaker said earlier this summer on the eve of a debate over climate security that he hoped would crown his three decades of Senate service.

Victory eluded him. The landmark legislation, aimed at slicing greenhouse-gas emissions by more than two-thirds below current levels by 2050, went down a half-dozen votes shy of the 60 needed to advance the bill.

But if anything, the setback has only whetted the appetite of a Cold Warrior who now views global warming and energy independence as security issues on a par with terrorist threats and missile defenses.

Perhaps only experts can grasp the complex cap-and-trade formulas in the Climate Security Act of 2008, co-sponsored by Republican Warner and independent Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. But weary vacationers, sleep-deprived truckers or any 16-year-old with a driver's license and a hot date can understand the implications of Warner's encore act: a request for Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to document the potential fuel savings from a 60-mph national speed limit.

If the findings pan out as Warner expects, "I'm quite probably going to try and garner support on both sides of the aisle and push forward with this legislation," he announced on the Senate floor in early July.

And that's not all. In mid-July, Warner introduced the Gas Conservation Bill, calling for Congress and the federal government to lower gas consumption by 3 percent over the next year. A month earlier he and Virginia's junior senator, Democrat Jim Webb, sought congressional authorization for Virginia to explore and drill for natural gas - but not oil - off the state's coast. And Warner is urging a return to nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Mixed as that package might seem to ardent environmentalists, for Warner the pieces are part of a whole - a comprehensive approach to an energy crisis. His urgency is driven by developments he finds too alarming to ignore, including one very personal revelation.

A couple of years back, a political event took him to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, the site of his boyhood adventure. "I asked the Forest Service if they would, as a courtesy to an old firefighter, take me up to the camps," Warner says. "I went up there with a veteran forester, I'll never forget this.

"The forests that I knew are just suffering terribly. So much disease in the trees, owing largely to beetles. And the reason for that is, we've had all these warm winters. Those trees are dying. ?Ý The streams are virtually dried up. ?Ý And I left there with - it was just a saddening experience because I remember those days and joy in the outdoors."

The second-longest-serving U.S. senator in Virginia history could be excused if his final six months in office were nothing more than a fest of accolades and memories. Goodness knows he's earned plenty of both.

In the 30 years since Warner won a 4,721-vote squeaker on the heels of a tragic airplane crash that claimed the life of the original 1978 GOP nominee, Richard "Dick" Obenshain, he's navigated the halls of power with a blend of earnest patriotism, devil-may-care independence and theatrical flair.

Sometimes bemused, sometimes amused, and largely grateful, Virginia voters have responded by making Warner the state's most enduring politician of the modern political era. Three landslides plus one solid win separate a now-revered public figure from the days when the D-word (dilettante) and his marriage to actress Elizabeth Taylor overshadowed his congressional debut.

The crowded photo gallery in his reception room in the Russell Senate Office Building chronicles a savory life journey, seasoned with diligence and fun.

Here is the senator-to-be at age 3, already dapper in leggings and a fur-collared coat, the darling of his Washington, D.C., physician father and stalwart mother. Both parents were World War I veterans who instilled in their son a lifelong reverence for country and hard work.

Over there is Warner as secretary of the Navy (1972-74) at one of his proudest moments, signing the May 1972 Incidents at Sea Executive Agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. The document, still in effect, governs the movements of naval ships and aircraft in international sea lanes.

A picture of tall sailing ships entering the New York harbor on July 4, 1976, records his service as head of the nation's bicentennial celebration. And a host of ship christenings and signed snapshots of military leaders, not to mention a dunking by the Navy football team after the Middies whipped Army in December 1973, attest to his love affair with the nation's military.

Here, too, are legions of political mementos: a 1984 Richmond News Leader front page proclaiming Warner "the Top Vote-Getter in Virginia"; former President George H.W. Bush, holding aloft Warner's arm at a picnic at Atoka, his former country estate; Nancy and Ronald Reagan, "with appreciation for showing us the beauty of Virginia and warmest friendship, Ron"; a Saturday Evening Post cover depicting Warner and then-wife Taylor as the subjects of Grant Wood's "American Gothic" painting. "Liz Tayor's Next Role: Senator's Wife," the cover teases.

Over the course of the years, Warner's chiseled jaw softens. Sporty bangs give way to a combed-back 'do. The sideburns transition from long and full (circa 1976) to top of the ear, and the thick hair evolves from salt-and-pepper to gray to silvery white.

What the office gallery cannot convey are the countless committee hearings, floor debates and weighty votes that accompanied, and in some cases, probably speeded the aging. Reliably conservative on a wide range of matters, Warner has nonetheless broken with Republican Party orthodoxy on enough hot-button issues to merit the disdain heaped upon him by some in the party's right flank.

From his 1987 litmus-test rejection of Robert Bork's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court to his 2006 pre-election truth-telling on the dismal state of affairs in Iraq to his recent worry that America's post-9/11 treatment of some foreign prisoners smacked of torture, Warner has repeatedly leveled courteous but pointed critiques at fellow Republicans.

His most blatant apostasy - recruiting an independent Republican to challenge Republican Oliver North in the 1994 U.S. Senate race against Democrat Chuck Robb - likely cost North the election.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Warner's promise when he stood on the steps of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia a little less than a year ago and announced his voluntary retirement with a bit of tongue-in-cheek flourish - "I'm going to quietly step aside" - has not quite turned out to be true.

Warner is not fading quietly into the sweet night of Senate retirement, but doing his level best to go out with a bang.

"We live rather frugally," Warner says. "We have a modest-size house. We don't keep the air conditioner as low as we used to. We're big recyclers. ?Ý I'm not saying we're covered head to toe with green paint."

But, all in all, "we're very environmentally conscious."

Warner is describing life with his bride of more than four years, third wife Jeanne Vander Myde. Coincidentally, the marriage roughly coincides with his awakening on global warming.

In 2003 when Sens. John McCain and Lieberman orchestrated the first serious Senate attempt to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, Warner was still unconvinced. He joined 54 other senators in squelching the effort.

Five years later, he has not only switched sides but also become a lead patron on an even more far-reaching effort to curb America's carbon footprint. The transformation, according to Warner, began at Coeur d'Alene.

Bred on James Fenimore Cooper's adventure stories and a romantic by nature, Warner found himself stunned by the blighting. Meanwhile, his worries about freakish, worldwide weather catastrophes mounted, as did a pesky sense that the Bush administration's staunch refusal to link carbon emissions and climate change was costing America dearly.

"The United States, its leadership in the world today by almost any objective analysis has been badly tarnished for several reasons, and one of 'em is this inability to come to some objective position on global climate change to participate with the rest of the world," Warner says. He's relaxing - feet up, ankles crossed - in a worn, black leather recliner in his Senate office building on the eve of the Climate Security Act debate.

As a steward of American military might, the former chairman and now second-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee sees international disdain for U.S. energy policies as a creeping poison, too toxic to be ignored. Historic conflicts linked to water and food shortages trouble him as well.

"The severity of the droughts in Africa alone have precipitated tremendous strife among people, and we're called to give aid," he says. While stopping short of blaming the recent typhoon in Burma on global warming, he finds the situation instructive: "It shows how when a large population is deprived of basic needs, our military is often called to help."

The Warner-Lieberman legislation offered a complex mix of mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases, emissions credits to be bought and sold by polluters, investments in new technologies, and so forth. As befits major legislation affecting the environment and impinging on corporate fortunes, the plan generated firestorms.

The Nature Conservancy termed its introduction "a watershed moment" and said passage "would represent the most significant investment in American conservation in our generation." Some other environmental groups thought otherwise. "Dirty energy in the name of climate protection," one blogger fumed. Free-market forces cemented the defeat by warning of higher energy prices, lost jobs and reduced gross national product.

Taking to the Senate floor June 5, Warner interpreted this year's setback as a crucial milestone on the road to eventual victory. Significantly, he noted, unlike years past, no senator challenged the scientific underpinnings of the legislation. With presidential nominees-in-waiting from both parties favoring mandatory cuts in greenhouse emissions, it's only a matter of time, he believes, before some version of this year's legislation becomes law.

Warner says he has no regrets about devoting "basically a year of my career" to the effort, because "we're moving forward."

No one would confuse Warner with the zealous environmentalists he once described as "wonderful green people or mossy people." His support of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off the Virginia coast probably takes care of that.

His League of Conservation Voters rating for the first half of the 110th Congress - he sided with the organization on key votes 47 percent of the time - put him squarely in the middle of the Senate pack, although ahead of most Republicans. His rating is significantly better than in previous years.

He gets poorer ratings than some others - in part because he'd rather rely on an energy source in hand, nuclear, than renewables such as solar and wind that are still in the experimental bush. "I don't know how big a question mark you can put," he says, when asked about Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens' emerging plan to solve America's energy problems with wind power, "but mine's 6 feet tall."

What Warner has less of a problem with is asking Americans, and their leaders, to shoulder some of the burden of conserving energy. "We've got to all pull together as a nation," he says, recalling the spirit of World War II.

If that means letting off on the gas pedal, so be it.

In early July, Warner proposed the possibility of returning to a 55 mph national speed limit, as established in 1974 during the Arab oil embargo and repealed in 1995. He cited studies showing that the reduction saved 167,000 barrels of oil a day, 2 percent of the nation's highway fuel consumption, while preventing 4,000 traffic deaths.

Later, after conversations with his race-car driver son - who hates the idea of the lowered limit, by the way - Warner adjusted the proposal to 60 mph to allow for technological improvements in auto motors.

He's waiting for updated information about the estimated savings before formally introducing legislation. The proposal has triggered an outpouring of letters, half positive, half negative. As with other controversies he's stirred, Warner is undeterred.

"You make these judgment calls and you ride it out," he says. "It's like a great ship. You go through typhoons now and then, but you keep your bow pointed straight into the wind and you keep plowing ahead."

After 30 years at sea, Warner's great ship will soon be reaching safe harbor.

He smiles ruefully, fiddles with the eyeglasses in his right hand and adopts a chipper tone.

"Of course, it's been my life," he says. "I'll miss it. But it's like a lot of other things in life. There'll be a number of opportunities which will fill the void of the Senate, and I'll be very happy to pursue 'em."

Retirement will include gardening, for sure, and also painting.

"I got up this morning at 6:30 and I was out in my garden," he says. "I've got a beautiful rose garden. I've always liked nature and being close to the soil. ?Ý Painting ?Ý I'm doing the Christmas card, way ahead of time. ?Ý I know exactly what it's going to be. I picked five of the most beautiful tulips that I had in my garden this year and photographed them over a series of several days and several lights."

Perhaps a memoir?

"Hell, hell, hell, no," he thunders. "All they want to hear about's the ladies."

And while it's too early to say what boards or commissions he might join - Senate ethics rules prohibit early consideration - it's doubtful that all Warner's military and foreign policy expertise will be let lie.

Ironically, perhaps, it's not the altered war plans, the improved living conditions for servicemen and-women, the mighty carriers or weapons built that Warner cites as his proudest legislative achievement. That distinction goes to helping blow up (literally) the Embry Dam on the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg.

The deconstruction in February 2004 removed the river's only man-made impediment to fish migration.

"Now the fish come from various parts of the oceans of the world and migrate, migrate all the way beyond Fredericksburg to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountain," he says, "and I go down every year and watch 'em coming."

And that's his greatest legacy?

"That's it; that's it."

Spoken like a true Rachel Carson devotee.

Perhaps John Warner is greener than he lets on, even a little mossy, after all. S

Richmond resident Margaret Edds is a former staff writer for The Virginian-Pilot, first covering state government and politics and then switching to editorial writing before retiring in 2007. She is the author of three books, including "An Expendable Man: The Near-Execution of Earl Washington, Jr." (NYU Press, 2003).