Remembering John Warner

Senator John Warner of Virginia (photo credit: wikipedia)

All I had known about Senator John Warner I’d heard from my mom and dad before I came to Capitol Hill to work. I knew the Senator had been a Secretary of the Navy. I knew he’d been married to Elizabeth Taylor. I also knew my parents had a very high regard for him as our Senator from Virginia and, of course, because he was a Republican….back when, I think it’s fair to add, being Republican was something somewhat different than it is today.

All of these things went through my mind when the Senator approached me one evening in the Senate subway of the U.S. Capitol Building. This would have been around 1994, and it was my first personal encounter with Senator Warner. I was standing watch (it was my job as a U.S. Capitol Police Officer) over the senator and a small crowd of visitors on the Senate subway platform. They were waiting for a subway car. There was a reserved subway car for senators and an area marked specifically for senators to stand while waiting for the subway car. But on this day the crowd apparently didn’t see the sign and stood in the area reserved for senators waiting to board.

I started to walk over to kindly ask the visitors to move to the visitor boarding area, but before I could say something Senator Warner began speaking to the crowd. They were, as the senator happily discovered, Virginians. As the senator spoke to them he observed me off to the side waiting for him to finish. He gave me a hand motion and a nod that signaled “I got this.” The crowd was excited. They hadn’t expected to see their senator in person during their visit to the Capitol. The crowd laughed and asked questions and then took pictures with the Senator. The subway car pulled in just as the pictures were done and the Senator guided the crowd onto the reserved car. He didn’t get on, however. He said something that made the crowd laugh and then waved as the doors to the car closed and the car pulled away.

That left just the Senator and I standing there on the platform. The Senator turned and with his hands grasped behind his back, and a look of interest on his face, walked over to me and asked where I was from. I told him I was a Virginian and that my wife and I had recently purchased a home in Centreville, VA. The senator smiled and said: “Nice area. I own a farm not too far from you called Atoka Farm. Beautiful country out there.” I agreed with him about the beauty of that area and added jokingly, “If we get out that way again maybe we’ll stop in and see you.” The senator smiled and said, “Well I don’t get out to the farm as much as I use to, but if you do get out that way again please do stop in and take a look at the farm. Check on it for me. If anyone asks you tell them I sent you.” About that time the next subway car arrived and he left.

And so sometime over the next few months my wife and I made our way west again to explore more of Fauquier County, Virginia. We first pulled into what we thought was Atoka Farm. A lot of the farms in that area of Virginia are massive; they’re hundreds, in some cases thousands, of acres in size. And they don’t look like what most of us would think of when we think of a farm either. It’s more accurate to describe them as “estates.” Atoka Farm, as I recall, was about 400 acres in size at the time.

As my wife and I drove down the main entry road we were suddenly startled by a low flying plane on our immediate right. He was on final approach to a runway. I knew the Senator was a wealthy man, but the idea of him having a runway and airplane didn’t register. I stopped the car looked around. We were near a set of smaller homes on the estate and I happened to notice a small sign. We were on the wrong farm. We had pulled into Paul Mellon’s massive estate, Oak Spring Farm.

So eventually we found Atoka Farm and we drove around the grounds and took some pictures. The gardens and the scenery were beautiful. The barn, we found out, didn’t have farming equipment and other such stuff in it, but a swimming pool. One of the most noticeable features of this part of the country are all the low stones walls that crisscross the countryside. They’re everywhere and most estates are ringed by them and many of the roads are lined on both sides with them.

Months later, back on Capitol Hill, Senator Warner approached me near the Senate Chamber. I don’t recall the initial part of our conservation but I told him I’d visited his farm and I hoped he’d gotten out there to enjoy the beautiful countryside. “Oh I sold the farm” the Senator said. Surprised I said, “That was a beautiful place. What made you want to sell it?” The Senator paused for a moment and said, “Well, my daddy always told me you should never keep anything that eats while you sleep.”

Senator John Warner had an old world charm about him. He was a gentleman, an institutionalist, and a compromiser. He wanted to get things done and solve problems. He served this nation with integrity, honor, and decency.

John Warner died this past May 25th. He was 94.

Ghent’s Little Free Library

I was walking through the Ghent district of Norfolk, Virginia, the other day. Ghent is one of Norfolk’s most affluent sections of town. The streets are lined with old brick homes with stately looking facades and shrubberied lawns. Mixed among the homes are beautiful old churches, small gardens, and parks. It was a nice summer day. Not too humid and there was a nice gentle breeze. The only sounds in the air were birds chirping. It was a nice place and the perfect day to be alone with your thoughts and take in the scenery.

As I was walking up one sidewalk I saw what appeared to be, from a distance, a big birdhouse of sorts. But it wasn’t. Much to my surprise it was part of the neighborhood’s “Little Free Library.” A young lady sitting on some steps nearby saw me take the pictures and could see I was fascinated by what I’d found. She said, “Those Little Free Library boxes are all over the neighborhood.”

“the futile drivelling of mere quil driving”

I read Christopher Gilbert’s biography of the Duke of Wellington many years ago and remember thinking how the Duke’s campaign against Napoleon would make a great movie or historical novel.

It’s hard not to find some humor and fascination in a man who is confident enough—and then some—to criticize his boss with such oblique candor.

Here is an extract from a letter written by Wellington in Spain around 1810 to the Secretary of War, Lord Bradford:

My lord, if I attempted to answer the mass of futile correspondence that surrounds me, I should be debarred from all serious business of campaigning.

So long as I retain an independent position I shall see to it that no officer under my command is debarred, by attending to the futile drivelling of mere quil driving in your lordship’s officer, from attending to his first duty – which is, as always, to train the private men under his command.

Praying for Patrick Henry’s Death

Patrick Henry & Thomas Jefferson

The young William and Mary college student stood in the doorway of the Virginia legislative chamber and watched the renown man speak. The year was 1765. With the cadences and imagery and power of his words the speaker seized the spirit of the young man. Reflecting on that moment many years later Thomas Jefferson wrote “He spoke as Homer wrote.” The speaker was Patrick Henry.

Homer was the great epic poet of ancient Greece and many of the lines from the Iliad and the Odyssey were memorized by many young colonial American boys. Jefferson and Henry could, no doubt, quote large sections of the texts from memory. Ancient Greek authors wrote their poems and histories specifically to be read aloud. The words and imagery were chosen carefully for the emotive purpose of getting the audience to “move with” the author. The success of the writer, or any artist really, is when the power of his or her words (or whatever art form they use) takes you along, imaginatively, to the place that he or she intends. We’re storytelling beings who find our purpose and meaning in the stories we tell ourselves. The world and our experience are the canvas; words are the paint.

The power of great words, especially the spoken, for good or for ill, can move people to do things they might not have done otherwise. That day Jefferson could feel the seductive force of Henry’s words. The men of that chamber, at the time, were debating the one of the most consequential things you can: treason. Henry added great persuasive force to the cause.

The younger Jefferson was a great admirer of Henry and his skill as a speaker, but the later, the older and more experienced Jefferson, found Henry’s power of oratory could also pose a tremendous problem. Breaking things up is much easier than building things up. And so while Henry was an asset in bringing about the revolution and a new nation, he was a serious liability when Virginia was trying to form a new state constitution. It worried Jefferson a lot. So much so that in a letter to James Madison we find some rather candid lines about the content of Jefferson’s prayers:

“While Mr. Henry lives another bad [state] constitution would be formed, and saddled for ever on us. What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death.”

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