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At End of Road, John Warner Sticks To Middle Lane

Yellow stickies in his Senate office indicate where each piece is destined to go after John Warner closes up shop at noon on the Saturday after New Year's. Everything must go: the bust of Winston Churchill, a gift from Barry Goldwater when Warner entered the Senate in 1979; Warner's own handiwork, an oil painting of peonies; a bumper sticker from his first campaign; his father's World War I medals; a wooden arm from Saddam Hussein's throne.

At 81, Virginia's senior senator stands as erect as ever. He still spins a good yarn and knows a bill's real back story. But John Warner is not one to stay beyond his time. After five terms, he is heading home to the farm in Middleburg, exiting undefeated. These days, he is clearing out mementos that tell a story of power and process, of an institution that isn't quite what it used to be.

Treaties and resolutions, ceremonial photos and notes of tribute -- these are testaments to three decades of lawmaking the old-fashioned way. When Warner goes, there won't be many left who do business like this.

Nor will many senators remain who take pride in being a moderate. Warner's scores from the groups that track politicians' ideological purity occupy the uncoveted middle: Pro-choice folks give him a 40, while the antiabortion side puts him at 50. He's a 55 to the conservative Family Research Council and a 60 to the liberal Children's Defense Fund.

Combine middle-of-the-road politics with his graceful (detractors say pompous) manner, and Warner is not one to blast his colleagues on the way out. In our interview, I repeatedly invite parting shots, only to watch the senator search for consensus.

No, he says, American voters are not more ignorant than they were decades ago. No, our democracy has not weakened, nor has this country's power in the world. No, political candidates are not less impressive than they once were.

But when Warner does feel compelled to send up a few warning flares, they mean far more than the standard shouting from senators who live for their cable TV guest shots.

There's more than nostalgia talking as Warner recalls a Senate in which nearly every member "had his family here in Washington. The children went to school here, and we really were a big family. We'd have our differences on the floor, but in the evenings, we'd be together." Senators would travel the world together, their wives going along. The effect was to create pathways to compromise, Warner says.

Today, many senators leave their families back in their home states and zip in and out of Washington between Tuesdays and Thursdays, never really getting to know the city, the Senate byways or one another. When they are here, they're raising money, for themselves or for party colleagues, Warner says.

One result he sees is a serious distortion of the balance of power. "I see the executive branch in a creeping way taking on more and more power," he says, while Congress slips into the background.

All this is happening in a world of extraordinary change, a planet that is morphing into one economy, one complex web of security issues, with one common struggle for environmental survival -- a process that has driven Warner to become more green in his later years on the Hill. (He doesn't want anything in Virginia to be named for him, but he's proud of the one place that already bears his name: the Warner Rapids, a run of whitewater along the Rappahannock River that was exposed as a fine place for canoeing after the senator got the money to blow up an old dam that blocked the migration of spawning fish.)

Add the economic crisis to those long-term problems, and the senator finds it hard to imagine that anyone could live up to the expectations the nation has for the next president.

"There come periods of history, and we're in one right now, when the gravity of problems is so great that we've got to put aside partisan differences and give the chief executive what he asks for to govern," Warner says.

He was one of just 10 Republican senators to vote for the auto industry bailout that failed last week. Typical Warner. A military man, he can play party loyalist, but he also goes his own way if he feels it is the right thing to do.

Now, Warner urges his party to "find the maximum ability possible to work with the president," even if it means putting aside for a time Republican rhetoric about getting government out of people's lives. An America in which Washington runs Wall Street and Washington runs Detroit is "very troubling," Warner says, but "right now, what's important is to resolve this thing. The driving force in our society has always been the risk-taker, so I'm optimistic that the pendulum will swing back in time."

But that will come under someone else's watch. When Warner finishes clearing out the office, he will leave behind a brass box, a gift for the senator who will take over these rooms: John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who was a war protester when Warner was secretary of the Navy during the Vietnam War. The present is a binnacle, a tool sailors use to point out the right direction and light a path forward.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at

By Marc Fisher |  December 18, 2008; 9:02 AM ET
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