AUTHOR’S NOTE: A few years ago, I sat down for a chat with former senator John Warner in his office at a Washington, D.C., law firm. Warner, who passed away on May 25, related to me the story of his long-forgotten stint as the head of the U.S.’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 and how this job led to his marrying Elizabeth Taylor.
In February of 1974, John Warner, then the secretary of the U.S. Navy, received an urgent message that his presence was required immediately in Key Biscayne, Florida. The island village, just across the Biscayne Bay from Miami, was the site of the architecturally undistinguished midcentury concrete-block bungalow that served as Richard Nixon’s winter White House—and, increasingly, his end-time bunker.
Warner commandeered a military aircraft, flew down to the naval base in Key West, and was limousined to the president’s quarters. There, he found the chief executive glumly passing his time indoors, the walls of his presidency closing in on him. Nixon’s only companion was his newish chief of staff, Alexander Haig, a recent replacement for the deposed, jail-bound Bob Haldeman.
Who Better than a New Bachelor?
Warner went back a ways with the president, having served as an advance man on Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy and as the director of United Citizens for Nixon-Agnew, in 1968. Still, he had no idea why he had been summoned.
Nixon, on the other hand, was fully up to speed on Warner’s personal and professional life. He knew that the dashing 46-year-old lawyer, ex-Marine, and native Washingtonian harbored political ambitions but had never held elective office. The president was also aware that Warner was newly single, his 16-year marriage to the banking heiress Catherine Conover Mellon sundered by the Vietnam War, to which she was vehemently opposed. In Nixon’s view, this made Warner a bachelor with time on his hands.
The two men got to talking about the future: conspicuously, Warner’s, rather than the president’s. Nixon brought up the subject of Warner’s congressional aspirations and reminded the navy secretary of the cautionary tale of his immediate predecessor in that post, John Chafee. In 1972, Chafee resigned his position at the Pentagon in order to jump directly into a campaign for the Senate in his native Rhode Island, challenging the popular incumbent, Claiborne Pell. Chafee got hammered; being one of the prosecutors of the war in Vietnam, it turned out, was not a great political credential in the early 70s.
Therefore, Nixon told his guest, Warner would be ill-advised to follow Chafee’s path. The president had an another plan in mind.
“You can wrap yourself in the American flag!,” Nixon explained. “Learn a lot of history. Learn how to deal with the press. Go make speeches and learn the history of this country from the bottom up.” Warner was wondering where all this buildup was headed when the president said, “Be the head of the Bicentennial!” The Bicentennial? Warner was taken aback. In government circles, the Bicentennial was something of a joke.
“You can wrap yourself in the American flag!,” Nixon explained. “Learn a lot of history.”
Yes, everyone thought it appropriate that the country should somehow, in 1976, observe the 200th anniversary of the 1776 adoption of the Declaration of Independence. But since 1966, when Lyndon Johnson signed a bill that created something called the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission—its goal to “recall to America and to the world the majestic significance of the Revolution”—the mission had been bogged down in apathy and bureaucratic inertia, with little to show for the $18 million in federal funds that had been burned through. And Watergate had just cast a further pall. Planning a big birthday party for America seemed, in 1974, like planning a 10th-anniversary party for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who were then in the process of finalizing their divorce.
But Nixon was adamant. “You’re a bachelor, John,” he told Warner. “You can travel all over this country. You speak well. This country needs an uplift, and this movement can do it. Let it spring up in every town and village in America. The people are yearning for something new and fresh!”
Nixon cited the emotional toll taken by Vietnam as the reason the country was in need of a pick-me-up. Left unspoken, though heavy in the air, was the national impact of the president’s own predicament.
Warner left the meeting with a briefing book on the Bicentennial prepared by Nixon’s staff, and a feeling of bewilderment. Had he been offered a plum position or a make-work job? In the end, he decided that he had no reason to doubt the president’s sincerity; he’d known Nixon long enough to determine when his zeal was or wasn’t authentic. And Warner liked the idea of having a job that wouldn’t bring shame and harassment upon his school-age children, as his current one did. So a few days later, he telephoned the president and announced that he would give up his naval career and accept the post.
Nixon was delighted. He promptly called a press conference in Key Biscayne, declaring, “The Bicentennial is not going to be invented in Washington, printed in triplicate by the Government Printing Office, mailed to you by the U.S. Postal Service, and filed away in your public library. Instead, we shall seek to trigger a chain reaction of tens of thousands of individual celebrations—large and small—planned and carried out by citizens in every part of America.”
Privately, Nixon promised Warner budgetary help and administrative muscle. He put forth just one demand: “Don’t let the fucking intellectuals wreck it and seize it! Go give ’em something to do off in a corner, and they’ll destroy themselves arguing over what should be done!”
In short order, Congress dissolved the existing, ineffectual 75-member American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and replaced it with the similarly named but downsized American Revolution Bicentennial Administration—ARBA for short—which was Warner plus an 11-member board. There was also a new mascot trotted out for public appearances, a four-foot-tall eagle puppet named Arba, and a new slogan for him to caw: “Get into America!”
Almost immediately, Warner got a taste of the dithering and intransigence he was up against. One project he inherited from the old group was the design and planning of the National Bicentennial Medal, a commemorative oversize coin that would be issued in gold, silver, and bronze, the proceeds from its sales intended to fund Bicentennial activities across the country. A committee of 40 numismatists had been convened to design it.
“I went to one of their meetings,” Warner said, “and they screamed at each other and fought like the Knesset. I just sat there and thought, Oh, God, this’ll never get me a coin; and if I do it myself, they’ll pee all over it and ridicule it as not being their design. So I disbanded them, much to everybody’s shock, and sat down and thought, What’s the simplest thing? And that was to put the Great Seal of the United States on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other side.”
The medal, so designed, sold briskly, a welcome boon to ARBA’s coffers. Warner presented a framed version to every member of Congress to raise Bicentennial awareness and heighten the credibility of his campaign. But alas, this early success didn’t prove to be a portent of smooth sailing.
At sea in his own personal life, Warner saw the Bicentennial as a therapeutic opportunity for both himself and the American people. He dove into the job, taking to the highways and skyways, visiting all 50 states and meeting with all 50 governors between the time of his appointment and the actual big day, July 4, 1976. Audaciously for a D.C. bureaucrat, he didn’t shy away from discussing Watergate.
Just over a month into his tenure, with Nixon still his boss, he stunned the Washington press corps by holding forth at length on the subject. “I think the people are in a state of despair about the government,” he said. “We’re in one of the most tumultuous periods in our history as a consequence of the Watergate and the impeachment proceedings.” The Bicentennial celebrations, he said, “will provide something of real substance for the people to embrace, something to hold on to, to get their bearings from, to start off again.”
Planning a big birthday party for America seemed, in 1974, like planning a 10th-anniversary party for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who were then in the process of finalizing their divorce.
Among Warner’s initiatives was a series of regional Bicentennial forums in which historians, civic leaders, townspeople, and—yes—intellectuals would gather to discuss aspects of American history and character. The forums, he said, would be “a vehicle to focus attention on all the issues of our time, including Watergate, and to go back and determine why this country has survived 200 years.”
Warner got more than he bargained for when, at a Bicentennial forum held in Boston in the spring of 1975, the German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt, in one of her last public appearances before her death later that year, lamented “the fearful distance that separates us from our extraordinary beginnings.”
It wasn’t quite the sort of sunny, park-gazebo oratory that ARBA was hoping for. Arendt blasted the American penchant for “image-making as global policy,” essentially equating the U.S. government’s attempts to put a positive spin on Vietnam with the misinformation campaigns of the totalitarian Nazi regime she had fled as a young woman. While the U.S. wasn’t as bad as the Germans or the Soviets, who killed millions “to bury unwelcome facts and events,” her adopted country had appropriated advertising techniques—“the seemingly harmless lying of Madison Avenue,” in her words—to lull citizens into buying an unjust war that was waged solely for “the needs of a superpower to create for itself an image which would convince the world that it was indeed ‘the mightiest power on earth.’”
Happy birthday, America!
As Warner was discovering, the looming Bicentennial did indeed provide occasion for frank, open talk about the American experiment, but uplift wasn’t necessarily a by-product of this process.
When a group of American Indian leaders came to Washington to press their case for more aid from the Ford administration, Warner seized the opportunity to invite them to a public ARBA rap session about how Native Americans might be represented in the Bicentennial celebrations. This gathering turned out to be about as uplifting as Arendt’s speech.
“What you don’t seem to understand, Mr. Warner, is that Indians are fighting a day-to-day battle just to survive. We just are not very interested in celebrating anything,” said Jerry Flute, a Sioux representative from South Dakota. Another Sioux leader, Robert Burnette, complained, “This Bicentennial is hypocritical, because it makes heroes out of men who have stolen our land and our lives. I simply cannot celebrate the name or the deeds of such men.”
Warner sought to make nice by bringing out a box of freebie lapel pins that featured the official Bicentennial logo: a stylized five-corner star. This prompted another tribal representative, a Cheyenne named Doreen Bond, to caustically evoke Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan. “Hooray,” she said, “here come the beads and trinkets.”
Ships in the Night
Not even jaded Manhattanites could deny the splendor of the sailing vessels, more than 200 strong, that filled New York Harbor on July 4, 1976, a hazy Sunday. Operation Sail 1976 saw an extraordinary floating procession of oceangoing brigantines, barkentines, barks, ketches, topsail schooners, and assorted very big yachts up the Hudson River. The star attractions were 16 high-masted tall ships from nations as disparate as Chile, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Germany, Romania, and Portugal. Even two Soviet tall ships, the Tovarisch and the Kruzenshtern, joined in, though they would end up leaving in a huff, skipping Op Sail’s planned post-Fourth port calls to Baltimore and Boston after their skippers claimed they’d endured threats in New York waters.
New York was the third and final stop on President Ford’s itinerary that day, after appearances at Valley Forge and in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The president and his entourage traveled by helicopter, and before they pulled out of New York City airspace, Ford ordered that Marine One sweep as low as possible over Fifth Avenue so he could review the masses of people in the streets and on the rooftops, flags waving. He became overcome with emotion at the sight; for one day, at least, the long national nightmare really did seem, finally, to be over.
Warner, who had joined Ford for the day trip, saw the evening out at the Washington Monument, where Vice President Rockefeller introduced the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Ford stayed in; Bob Hope had a special on NBC that night, Bob Hope’s Bicentennial Star Spangled Spectacular, featuring Debbie Reynolds, Donny and Marie Osmond, Angie Dickinson, Don Knotts, Ron Howard, Jimmie Walker, and the Captain & Tennille, the former of whom wore a powdered wig beneath his captain’s hat as the duo performed a verse of Hope’s signature song, “Thanks for the Memory.”
Nightfall brought elaborate fireworks displays across the nation, and in Los Angeles its own Bicentennial Spectacular, held at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. The eclectic bill included Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, who led the crowd in a sing-along of “Happy Birthday America,” plus KC and the Sunshine Band, who performed “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty,” Mark Spitz, Sandy Duncan, and Jim Backus. A helicopter materialized overhead to lower Evel Knievel, on his motorcycle, into the stadium.
Back in the District of Columbia, after midnight, Warner declined the vice president’s offer of a ride and a nightcap at the Naval Observatory. Still an unrecognizable figure to the public, he wanted to wander through the crowded streets and soak up the ebullience and (for once) cynicism-free atmosphere. From the Washington Monument, Warner, his tie loosened and his suit soggy with summer humidity, walked all the way to his bachelor home in Georgetown. Alone in his house, he paused long enough to think, We accomplished our mission, before falling into a deep sleep.
Three days later, on July 7, Warner attended his final event in his capacity as ARBA director: a Bicentennial dinner at the White House for Queen Elizabeth. Her Majesty had expressly stated her position that, while Great Britain would indeed join in the celebration of its former colonies’ independence, she would not make her official visit until after all the commotion of the Fourth. Bob Hope and the Captain & Tennille were reconvened to provide live entertainment.
Shortly before the dinner, Warner’s friend Sir Peter Ramsbotham, then the British ambassador to the United States, telephoned and asked the ARBA chief if he would escort a member of Queen Elizabeth’s party: Elizabeth Taylor. In less time than had elapsed between Warner’s acceptance of the ARBA post and the terminus of his job, Taylor had re-married Richard Burton and begun the process of re-divorcing him. Hence her need for an unattached man.
“The ambassador gave me quite a prep talk,” Warner said. “He said, ‘Now, look—this is Elizabeth Taylor. And we want to have only one queen here tonight. Do the best you can to keep her at bay.’”
Warner, who had never met Taylor, agreed to the task. At the appointed hour, he duly showed up to collect the actress at her hotel—in his own beat-up Lincoln, which he drove himself. Taylor, appalled, reluctantly slid into the front passenger seat.
The evening proceeded pleasantly for the Queen, Prince Philip, and the Fords, if somewhat tumultuously for Warner. At one juncture, he found himself having to contain Taylor’s tantrum when she was told that protocol forbade her from accompanying the Queen as she walked into the Rose Garden. A short while later, he found himself marking time in an anteroom with a brandy and a cigar while the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting hastily mended a hem Taylor had torn while stomping her foot in indignation. Nevertheless, at the evening’s conclusion, Taylor decided she’d had a delightful time.
“She said, ‘When do we get to see each other again? I’ll be in town for a while,’” Warner said. “I said, ‘Well, Ms. Elizabeth, or whatever you’re called, I’ve had a long journey, and it finished tonight. I’m going down to my farm. And I’m not gonna shave, not gonna bathe. I’m gonna ride my horses and punch my cattle. Maybe my children will come down. But I’m not gonna see anyone.’ She said, ‘Oh, really? Well, could I say hello before I leave?’”
Warner intuited that he was in no position to turn down Taylor’s self-invitation. En route to Dulles International Airport, Taylor called on Warner at his Virginia estate. She was impressed, noting that it reminded her of the Cotswolds in her native England. She couldn’t wait, she told the divorcé, for her next visit.
“So she came back down,” Warner said. “And when she came back down, I noticed that they unloaded a lot of suitcases. She never left.”
Taylor and Warner were married on December 4 of that year. Two years later, in his first-ever run for elective office, Warner narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent and won a seat in the U.S. Senate, representing the state of Virginia. Richard Nixon’s instincts had proved correct: all that shoe leather and hand-shaking on behalf of the Bicentennial had taught Warner how to talk to people, how to be a politician.
The Warner-Taylor union lasted only four years beyond that first election victory, but his career as a senator proved more durable. He served five terms as a pragmatic, principled centrist respected by both parties. His distinguished Senate tenure and his marriage to Taylor all but eclipsed any popular memory of his Bicentennial duties.
David Kamp is a New York–based writer and the author of Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America