One secret of successful celebrities is knowing when and how to walk away, the graceful exit to live life outside the limelight. The great ones do it instinctively: Paul Newman, Greta Garbo, Michael Jordan, Joe DiMaggio.
Sen. John W. Warner had that gift.
As he closed out his fifth consecutive U.S. Senate term, the movie-star handsome “senator from central casting” had already inventoried his level of energy and assessed the coarsening partisanship of American politics. He wanted to unplug, merge into the slow lane, spend time with his wife, Jeanne, and pursue his passions for gardening and oil painting.
He chose not to seek a sixth term in 2008.
The graceful exit.
Warner and Gov. Linwood Holton helped establish a beachhead that Virginia’s modern Republican Party would build upon for its ascent in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s. But he had rightly sensed he was becoming a stranger in a party already tacking hard to the right.
Warner, who passed away Tuesday at age 94, was rooted in an era when deeply held political differences didn’t preclude members of Congress from bridging partisan divides to do the necessary business of government. He could — and did — work with a Ted Kennedy and a Pat Moynihan as easily as he would a Trent Lott or a John McCain.
Back in 1979 when he was Virginia’s freshman senator, that’s how you got bills passed and things done. Over his 30 years in the Senate, Warner watched the increasing balkanization of politics, the tightening grip that mercenary political professionals held on the process, and the unconscionable sums of money (much of it opaque and untraceable) being consumed as electioneering transformed a civic exercise and an art into a scorched-earth bloodsport.
By the time he opted out, compromise got you labeled a RINO (Republican in name only) and primaried.
Once upon a time, journalists diligently guarded against betraying personal feelings toward political figures. I always deeply respected — OK, yes, liked — John.
I spent countless rewarding hours with the “Old Sea Dog,” a former Navy enlisted man and Marine Corps officer who was secretary of the Navy in the Nixon administration, covering his political career and traveling Virginia with him. He was genuinely interested in people he would meet and the stories they would tell, whether it was in a small-town hardware store, a cinder-block barbecue stand along a backroad, a boardroom in Richmond or a deli in Alexandria not far from his house. Watching him frustrate staffers tasked with keeping him on schedule was a source of amusement.
Some fellow scribes described him as “courtly” so often that it became cliché. I disliked that adjective: it implied a formality that sold his natural grace and empathy short.
Nobody saw John Warner unguarded and in his element more than his longtime aide, friend and wheel man Henry Doggett of Surry County. Together, he and Warner visited every city and county in Virginia except Highland County, Henry told me Wednesday.
But it was one cold, starry night in February 1983 that abides as one of Henry’s favorite memories. He had been asked to drive the senator from an event in Richmond to his farm near Middleburg. Warner, riding shotgun, was navigating.
“So, we’re going up I-95, we’re talking, shooting the breeze. I was going to get off on (U.S. Route) 17, and John says, ‘No, no, get off on Route 3,’” Henry said. He complied.
“We only went like five miles down the road, and he says, ‘Take a right.’ So I thought, OK, he knows a back way. Then he says, ‘Take another right.’ And then, ‘Take this right.’ So I tell him, ‘Senator, we’re going in a circle. We’re going to end up back in Fredericksburg.’”
“All of a sudden, he rolls down his window, sticks his head out with this shock of gray hair flying everywhere, and he tells me, ‘I’m an old Navy guy, Henry. You go like I’m tellin’ ya – I’m navigating by the moon!’” Henry said.
A few minutes later, they saw a sign they had passed earlier: FREDERICKSBURG 5 (miles). They got back on the beaten path, had coffee and a long laugh about it at a truck stop before finishing the trip at Warner’s farm around 2 a.m.
“We never forgot that,” Henry said. “I started calling him Moon Man.”