It’s just after 3 a.m., and a navy blue Cadillac Coupe DeVille glides westward on an otherwise empty stretch of Interstate 64, slicing through ghostly pools of mid-April mist gathered just above the blacktop.
At the wheel is John Henry Hager, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, and he’s hell-bent on making it to Bluefield, Virginia, about four and a half hours away, for a local Republican Party breakfast.
His youngest son, Henry, rides shotgun for the grueling itinerary of another busy day in John’s campaign for the 2001 GOP gubernatorial nomination. Henry helps his dad with the wheelchair he has used since polio robbed him of the use of his legs in the early ‘70s. I was the reporter sharing the back seat with the wheelchair, traveling with John for an Associated Press profile piece about him.
A few hours later, John’s opponent in that nomination battle, then-Attorney General Mark L. Earley, would climb aboard a loaned corporate jet and cover the distance to the town on the West Virginia border in less than an hour. John was waiting for Earley when he arrived and was conspicuously among the first to greet him.
“That made it all worth it,” John, grinning contentedly, told me later.
I followed John and Henry through stops in other cities (a civic club luncheon in Danville, a meeting with business leaders in South Boston among them) and returned exhausted with them to Richmond, where the trip had begun 20 hours earlier.
I was dragging for two days afterward, but John was back at it again the next morning, well before sun-up. From that point on, I would greet John with a nickname borrowed from James Brown — the hardest-working man in politics — because he was.
Back when there was the money and time for journalists to tag along with candidates for extended periods, such trips yielded the best insights into those individuals, the person beyond the politico. Unguarded moments spoke volumes about character, intellect, temperament and extemporaneous judgment, and the longer a day wore on, the better the insights. That marathon spring swing with the Hagers gave me an abiding admiration for John that made the shocking news of his passing Sunday difficult to take.
John had two choices after he was stricken with lower-body paralysis: He could retreat into bitterness and self-pity, or he could engage in life to its fullest and make a positive qualitative difference. He immersed himself in the latter.
It seems hard to believe today, but at the end of the 20th century and the start of this one, Republicans dominated Virginia’s legislative and executive branches of government the way Democrats do now. John Hager was integral to that GOP ascendancy — a pragmatic, pro-business conservative whose 1997 come-from-behind victory over an established Democratic congressman gave the GOP control of all three statewide elective offices for the first time.
His politics were in tune with the GOP’s messaging of the era: fiscally conservative prescriptions for kitchen-table problems, including welfare reform, parole abolition and relief from the despised personal property tax on privately owned vehicles.
He was a tireless infantryman for fellow Republicans in the 1998 U.S. House midterms, the 1999 legislative election that produced the first Republican House of Delegates majority since Reconstruction, and the 2000 campaign for “the two Georges” (Bush for the presidency and Allen’s successful challenge to Sen. Chuck Robb). In each of those years, John logged tens of thousands of miles in his DeVille, specially outfitted for hand controls of braking and acceleration.
When it was his time to run in 2001, John believed he could mitigate Earley’s intraparty advantages among evangelicals, with law-enforcement and among donors by his sacrificial support for other GOP candidates and his resolve to outwork Earley. In a statewide convention, where moderates are at a disadvantage, Earley prevailed. John would watch Earley’s campaign stumble through that summer and fall, disrupted by 9/11, and lose to Democrat Mark R. Warner.
John’s conservative positions never shifted. He advocated classic GOP precepts: less centralized government and greater local control, fewer regulations on free enterprise, lower taxes, personal responsibility and accountability. He was genuinely brave and unflaggingly optimistic. He was warm and kind without regard for partisan tags. He believed passionately in a just and fair Virginia, a position informed by his own struggles, and in a government that afforded opportunity to all who would work for it, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or — pointedly — disability.
He had a playful, impish side, too. Reporters covering the Senate sit at crescent-shaped tables in the well of the chamber just to the right and left of the two-tiered dais where clerks work and the lieutenant governor presides. One balmy early March afternoon as the 2000 General Assembly lurched toward adjournment sine die, the Senate stood at ease awaiting communications from the House.
As tired senators stretched and milled about the floor, I heard John say to me, “Lewis, you holding up OK?” I stood, leaned onto the dais, exchanged pleasantries and then dared a little levity.
“Show me the secret button, Governor,” I said.
“What button?” John replied, bewildered. I pointed to the desk of a then-senator known for an intermittent facial tic that stretched his lips thinly across his teeth in a momentary rictus.
“The one that sends an electrical current through the chair that Senator (name withheld) sits in and makes him do this,” I said, replicating the grimace.
John bent over laughing. “Lewis, you’re terrible!” he said as he buried his face in his hands and tried to stifle his guffaws. But then he’d look back my way and laugh harder, and the harder he laughed, the harder I laughed.
Susan Schaar, the Senate’s venerable clerk and keeper of its traditions and decorum, scowled at us, giving me a glance that made it clear I would be ejected if I could not curb my mirth, and giving John a look of mild disappointment that wordlessly implored, “Sir, really?”
Honor defined John, and his word enjoyed equal currency among Democrats and Republicans. On his final day presiding over the state Senate in January 2002, senators from both parties fought back tears in tribute speeches to him.
His life after elective office, however, may say even more about a principled Republican who was a Virginian first. In 2002, Warner made Hager the state’s first cabinet-level advisor for commonwealth preparedness. Five years later, he was elected chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, serving only one year before a rebellion on the GOP right forced him out. He served as director of the Sorensen Institute, based at the University of Virginia, and actively promoted its mission of developing aspiring public officeholders dedicated to effective constructive and collaborative governance from Capitol Hill to city halls.
John’s abiding instinct was to bring people together, to work toward consensus, to grow the tent – whether it was for a nonprofit or a powerful deliberative body.
That seems incompatible with the Trump-era GOP. Even so, John refused to indulge pessimism. The last time I saw him, he still believed that good will, good deeds and hard work would win out, for his party, his country and his commonwealth.