This morning, when word reached us of Elizabeth Taylor's passing, I thought back to the summer of 1978. Her husband at the time, John Warner, was seeking the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Virginia. I was a reporter at a small paper in Virginia, and one of my beats was politics.
Until he married Taylor in 1976, Warner was a fairly obscure figure who managed to wangle an appointment as secretary of the Navy for a couple of years in the Nixon administration. It probably didn't hurt his job prospects that his first marriage was to a Mellon. Once he married Taylor, he became an instant celebrity in Virginia political circles and a marketable candidate.
I remember the 1978 Republican convention in Richmond, which got more national interest than usual because of the Taylor connection. Still, Warner lost the nomination fight to Richard Obenshain, who was one of the chief architects of the Republican Party's rise in Virginia in the late 1960s and 1970s. Obenshain was a very conservative, very intense and very smart fellow who wasn't going to lose to a Northern Virginia socialite like Warner. The party's regulars had known Obenshain for a lot longer than they had known Warner, and conventions back then favored political insiders who had accumulated chits the old-fashioned way, rather than celebrity politicians. Obenshain was also seen as a reliable and staunch conservative; Warner was a more middle-of-the-road guy (and would remain so, to the enduring discomfort of many Virginia Republicans).
A couple of months after the convention, Obenshain was killed in the crash of a small plane returning from a campaign event. I recall rushing back from a vacation in Boston to cover the funeral. I can still see Warner standing outside the church in Richmond, on one of those extraordinarily humid August days. For some reason, my memory doesn't include Taylor, but she must have been there at his side.
Warner was subsequently selected by the party to replace Obenshain as the nominee, and eked out a victory by just a few thousand votes over the Democratic nominee, Andrew P. Miller. It may have been by about 5,000 votes, an incredibly close election.
It was an amazing turn of events.
Warner had gone from obscurity to the Republican nomination, by virtue of his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor and a plane crash in the dark at a small airport outside Richmond. And then he had the good fortune to be running against a somewhat charismatically challenged Democratic rival in Miller. (Who was one of the smartest politicians in Virginia, and probably would have become a powerhouse in the Senate had he won the 1978 election. Liz Taylor had quite an impact on politics in the Old Dominion.)
Warner would serve for 30 years in the Senate. His marriage to Taylor didn't quite last his first term in office. She was completely uninterested in being a senator's wife. I can imagine it was a little less exciting than her previous marriage, to Richard Burton.
The picture above is from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and shows the Warners in happier times, in 1977. Times-Dispatch reporter Tyler Whitley has written a story about the Liz Taylor years in Virginia politics, which you can read here. It includes the infamous chicken bone incident.