At last week's Armed Services hearing, Senator John Warner appeared
to have a Bulworth moment. After acidly noting that last January's
National Intelligence Estimate judged that political progress in
Iraq was an impossible dream, the patrician Republican attacked
General David Petraeus's very conscience: "I hope, in the recesses
of your heart," Warner said, his white eyebrows furrowing gravely,
"you know that [the surge] will continue the casualties, stress on
our forces, stress on military families, stress on all Americans.
Are you able to say ... if we continue what you have laid before
the Congress here as a strategy--do you feel that that is making
America safer?"Petraeus, stunned, spat out a line about "achieving objectives," but
Warner cut back in. "Does that make America safer?"
This was the John Warner Unplugged that the 80-year-old senator
promised in a recent speech at the University of Virginia, where he
announced his plans to retire in 2008. "By taking this action," he
declared portentously, "no one can say politics is going to
dictate, in one way or another, how I'm going to decide to speak
out about what's in the best interest of this nation." The speech
gave hope to Democrats desperate to have Warner on their side on
Iraq and dreaming that he'll bring other Republicans with him.
Warner fanned the flames further at the end of last month,
declaring that Bush should begin a small troop withdrawal by
Any student of Warner's career knows that this sort of renegade
behavior hardly comes naturally to him. And, since Senate Majority
Leader Harry Reid says he wants to work more closely with
Republicans on Iraq in the fall, the direction of the war debate in
the Senate could hinge on whether Warner will shed his legendary
courtliness and actually make a break.
In the mid 1990s, John Warner confessed that he had been questioned
by a police officer in the middle of the night. But Warner's crime
wasn't crashing his car in a prescriptiondrug-induced haze, nor was
it tapping his foot suggestively in a men's bathroom: Rather, the
senator had attempted to pluck a red-and-orange tulip from a
Capitol flowerbed, hoping to use it as a model for an oil
When he showed up to the Senate in 1979, Warner was an eccentric
caricature of the Virginia gentleman. Born into a wealthy
Washington family and educated at hoity-toity St. Albans, Warner
spent his early career in the military--he volunteered for the Navy
at 17, served in the Marines in Korea, and became Richard Nixon's
secretary of the Navy. But instead of embracing the brusque, hoo-ah
style of the modern military, he looked and acted as though he
stepped out of the Duke of Wellington's detail at Waterloo. "He
wears those English- style three-piece suits and he had a lot of
money and rode horses," an aide of his at the Pentagon told The
Washington Post, when asked why colleagues ridiculed him. Antiquely
dashing, with an Andrew Jackson-esque shock of white hair, he
romanced Elizabeth Taylor (who nicknamed him "Stuffed Shirt") and
bedded down at a country estate that boasted 600 head of Hereford
cattle and a nature preserve.
But, as his career progressed, Warner began to cultivate the more
substantive side of his gentlemanly persona: a love of respect and
honor and a distaste for partisanship. In 1994, he barnstormed
Virginia against the dishonorable Oliver North, destroying North
and de facto installing a Democrat in the Senate. "I stood on my
principle," Warner said, explaining why he risked political
destruction at the hands of angry conservatives. "That's the price
Since then, wherever the higher ground is, you can find John Warner.
He declined to join his colleagues in pursuit of Bill Clinton. He
spearheaded the Gang of 14 that broke up the fight over judicial
nominations. And, as Armed Services chairman, he forged a close
partnership with liberal ranking member Carl Levin. "That
relationship typifies the way things were meant to operate up here
on Capitol Hill," says an otherwise hostile Democratic aide.
Warner's status as venerable Senate patriarch is what made Democrats
hope that he could lead Republicans out of their slavery to Bush.
Last October, after a disappointing trip to Iraq, he said the war
was "drifting sideways" and that "I think we've got to make some
bold decisions." Warner may have "open[ed] the floodgates to GOP
criticism," the AP reported. "He is like an aircraft carrier,"
explains a friend of Warner's. "He moves a tiny bit, but it makes a
And yet, this term, Warner's decisions haven't been particularly
bold nor his wake very powerful. In February, he worked with the
Democratic leadership to draft their nonbinding resolution
condemning the surge but, in the end, voted against opening debate
on his own legislation. ("No matter how strongly I feel about my
resolution, I shall vote with my leader," he explained.) In April,
he again engaged Democrats to create language restricting the
president's war spending but, under White House pressure, added a
deal-breaking provision letting Bush waive the restrictions. ("Let
it rest, and wait until July.") In July, he hinted that he might
prepare a debate-shifting bill with Dick Lugar but then decided to
sit tight until September. ("The president indicated to me that he
would respect" Petraeus's report.)
"He is not aggressive enough," complains an aide--to a Republican
senator. "You listen to his words and you see the
headlines--'Warner is jumping ship,' 'Warner is changing
course'--and then you get the draft of his legislation and there's
nothing there." Even a friend, Representative Jim Moran, admits it
sometimes looks like Warner "has been singing off the same song
sheet as the White House." But a Senate aide, speaking to Time, put
it best: "Trying to know exactly what Warner is up to is like
reading the proverbial entrails of goats."
In keeping with history, Warner's questioning at the Armed Services
hearing wasn't quite as rough-and-tumble as it sometimes seemed.
Despite his pique, he also appeared to evince sincere trust that
Petraeus would start doing the right thing. "I know you will [take
my suggestions to heart]," he said, adding that the general gave
"an extraordinary performance."
Why give someone who has let you down the benefit of the doubt?
Those who know Warner say it's his veneration of respect as the
highest political virtue. But, in dealing with a president who's
deaf to good advice, that particular virtue doesn't yield much
The entrails, in short, foresee Warner remaining the man he's always
been. A few weeks ago, knowing he had just called for withdrawal,
Tim Russert asked him: "If the president, on September 15, receives
these reports but decides not to withdraw troops ... what do you
do?" "That's his right to do that," Warner replied, "and I will
It's a frustrating paradox. The same statesmanlike character that
makes Warner the man Democrats need to break with the White House
makes him too respectful to do it.