Mark Warner meets a moment in history

March 21, 2022 12:04 am

Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Vice Chairman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) listen to testimony from Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on March 10, 2022 in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on worldwide threats. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Mark Warner knows things. “Damn scary” things.

These are things he can never speak of to anyone outside the very small and tight circle of officials with the top U.S. security clearance. Things that, with a miscalculation here or a blunder there, could unleash the apocalypse.

It is the job of Virginia’s 69th governor and its senior U.S. senator to know these things. He is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a group of senators who regularly meet with the nation’s top spymasters and analysts, military minds and policymakers in an underground bunker two floors beneath the Capitol behind vault-like doors.

It’s not a job I envy. Not ever and particularly not now. Not with a deranged despot taking a crowbar to Pandora’s Box through his bloody invasion of an independent democracy in Ukraine and hinting darkly at nuclear retribution for anyone daring to stand against his crimes. One need not preside over the Intel Committee to see how those circumstances could easily ignite a World War, the first in which the major combatants possess enough thermonuclear warheads to make Earth a lifeless, radioactive cinder orbiting the sun.

I spent a lot of time with Mark Warner when he called the Executive Mansion in Richmond home. As a state capitol correspondent for The Associated Press, I was close to Warner at some of the most challenging moments of his term as governor from 2002 to 2006. That includes Hurricane Isabel (the last storm to slam Virginia while still packing hurricane-force winds), the mass shooting at the Appalachian School of Law and the D.C.-area snipers who shot and killed Virginians along the I-95 corridor.

While those crises tested him, they were nothing compared to today’s treacherous global geopolitical scene with tensions between superpowers at their highest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis – when Warner and I were both in second grade.

Last week, I watched Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy address a joint meeting of Congress. By the time it ended – after a video showing the unprovoked Russian assault against his people and the bravery of their (and his) defiant response; after addressing President Joe Biden plaintively in English – I wept. Then I wondered: if this moment and all the other horrors we’ve seen in the past month affected me this much, how was Mark holding up?

So, we spoke by phone on Thursday, and I asked him.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress by video to plead for support as his country is besieged by Russian forces at the U.S. Capitol on March 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. Zelenskyy addressed Congress as Ukraine continues to defend itself from an ongoing Russian invasion. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)

“I think during these times, you’ve got to remember it’s not …,” he said, halting an instant to mentally refine his response. Never since I’ve known him has he been comfortable speaking introspectively about himself, at least not on the record.

“People are looking for resilience,” he resumed, speaking of how he views his role. “They’re not looking to the person per se, they’re looking for someone to play the role assigned.”

In 2003, the day after Isabel ravaged huge swaths of Southside and Hampton Roads, he was in an Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter on a multi-city tour to inspect the damage. I was a pool press reporter on the chopper for what became a long, exhausting day as he served as empath-in-chief, visiting worried mayors and comforting distraught owners of flooded or destroyed homes or businesses. The countryside was a tangle of flooded roads and washed-out bridges, toppled trees and snapped utility poles.

“We weren’t bringing additional assistance that day. It wasn’t that Mark Warner was showing up, it was that the Office of the Governor was showing up,” he said, setting up a parallel to Ukraine today.

“You want to show support. You’d like to physically get over there and do what you can, but it really is a moment in history. We all want to be counted as doing as much as we possibly can to support the Ukrainian people short of setting off World War III,” he said.

All of which shows the incalculable responsibility and the impossible limitations this showdown between East and West presents.

Back in the day, I would not have imagined Warner as chair of the Intel Committee. In his life before politics and as governor, his forte was business – putting together deals and forging coalitions. He succeeded. His dealings in the embryonic era of what became the wireless communications industry before he entered elective politics makes him one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

Unlike his predecessor as governor, Jim Gilmore, Warner had no military or overseas intelligence operations experience.

But the intellectual toolkit for the role Warner now holds was there.

He has an insatiable curiosity and thirst for information. To the occasional dismay of his sleep-starved staff, he would often prowl the Internet into the wee hours in the infancy of online journalism for just-posted news dispatches.

He could sniff out a flaw in a white paper or a news story faster than a bloodhound could find a porkchop, and woe unto the staffer (or journalist) responsible for the lapse. More than once, he personally called to protest.

He’s inherently risk-averse and avoids gut reactions or reaching policy decisions absent sound supporting data.

And, as the previous quote illustrates, he’s highly disciplined in what he reveals, particularly about himself or matters he holds in confidence.

We live in times neither of us could have imagined in the dawning years of the 21st century when Capitol Square, not Capitol Hill, was his domain.

The last time brinkmanship reached this level between the United States and Russia was October of 1962. President John F. Kennedy confronted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over missiles he had sent to Cuba, barely 100 miles south of Florida.

While the nuclear war footing of both nations was higher then, the terrain now feels less certain with fewer guardrails, Warner said.

“This one, the catalyst could be so much quicker,” he said. “There are so many gradations right now. The idea – and this has been in open source – that Putin’s an isolated autocrat and he’s got very few inputs, and the idea that someone could rationally think, ‘Well, maybe I could use tactical nukes…’

“It’s not the kind of overnight Armageddon we thought about in Cuba, but it’s damn scary,” he said.

The strains on Washington have an almost existential feel. On one hand, Warner noted, Zelenskyy is desperate to save his country and wants the conflict to grow into one between NATO and Russia with a no-fly zone over Ukraine enforced by the United States and the European democracies. Arguably the most inspirational European leader since Winston Churchill during the World War II bombing of London, Zelenskyy has masterfully articulated Ukraine’s case worldwide, and it resounds here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire after a chemical warehouse was hit by Russian shelling on the eastern frontline near Kalynivka village on March 08, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Russia continues assault on Ukraine’s major cities, including the capital Kyiv, after launching a large-scale invasion of the country on February 24. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Warner concurs with Biden in opposing the use of U.S. and NATO warplanes to take out Russian aircraft or Russian surface-to-air missile batteries. So, he said, the question becomes “how do you achieve those goals without, necessarily, those tools?”

For now at least, that means equipping Ukraine with anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, he said.

Putin’s homicidal aggression, however, has helped the world see more clearly, and that benefits America and democracy, Warner said. Nations see from Russian brutality in Ukraine a sharp definition between two competing visions for the future: in one, free people govern themselves; in the other, people exist under the merciless, bloody subjugation of a dictator.

“There’s this whole sense of ‘Can liberal democracy really function in the 21st century – the idea of a free press, the idea of debate that doesn’t break down into tribalism, … the freedom to vote. Can our system work still?’” he said. “We’ve had this kind of angsty self-doubt, yet the Ukrainian people are literally voting with their lives, saying ‘We will do anything to get what you Americans accept as a way of life.’”

“This shows ours is the better system, the system people will die for,” he said.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]