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Pop Warner

One of 2008's leading contenders balks.

Mark Warner and I had each had a couple of cocktails. They say up in the air one drink feels like two, and so things were, as Warner would later remind me the day he announced he wasn’t running for president, “a little foggy.” We were aboard a campaign donor’s jet, flying back to Virginia after two intense days of New Hampshire politics. Democrats who show up to listen to presidential hopefuls stump in the dead of August two years before the election are a tough crowd. And Warner’s pitch, earnest and wonky—”We’ve fallen to sixteenth in the world in terms of broadband deployment!”—did not always electrify. Yet he seemed to impress the right people. After an event in North Conway with a state representative named Tom Buco, Warner’s political aide Mame Reiley shrieked, “Governor, Buco is having multiple orgasms!”

So were the donors. Warner raised almost $10 million, partially by tapping a network of new political money based in the Northern Virginia tech community. He was like a one-man Friendster, adding new buddies to his network everywhere he campaigned. He is the only politician I’ve seen who carried business cards. Nobody escaped a conversation without a little body contact and a card. (His aides called it “getting the full Warner.”) Everyone was a potential friend. “Here, take this,” he told a young woman at the Buco event, pressing a card into her hand. She was 17.

In Washington, Warner also had lots of new friends, especially among the class of Democratic operatives thirsty for a winner in 2008. Newcomers seemed truly enamored of him and spoke glowingly of what it was like to work for a politician who hadn’t been ruined by years inside the Beltway. “His staff loves him,” one recent hire told me, noting the contrast with Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. The press also had a crush, setting Warner up as the electable Hillary slayer and the only fresh face in the Democratic presidential field.

But, no matter how well things seemed to be going for Warner, privately he was filled with self-doubt. He had built a machine that was hurling him forward toward a presidential race that he actually didn’t want to enter. “I told him,” says his friend and longtime media adviser Jim Margolis, “if you don’t want to do this, you have to stop it all now. Because the easy thing is to just say yes. The momentum is only going to get more intense, so this is the time to stop it.”

In July, Warner took his family to Spain and Italy, where he hoped to put to rest the nagging reservations about running. His indecision consumed so much of his family’s time in Europe that his wife, Lisa Collis, banned the conversation. “There came some times when Lisa said, `Mark, you know—no more. We’re on vacation,’“ Warner told me shortly after he returned from Europe. Last week he told me, “I had come back from that vacation assuming this decision would have been put behind me. But it really wasn’t.”

Most, though not all, of his staff also assumed the decision was already made. “People like you and me don’t take seriously when guys like that say they might not run,” says Jim Jordan, a Warner adviser. In August, his political team started scheduling him at a presidential pace to get Warner adjusted to the rigors of the coming contest.

Up in the air flying home from his successful but draining trip to New Hampshire, Warner turned around in his seat to chat with me. It was his daughter’s birthday, and, instead of being with her, he had been buying garlic bread at a farmer’s market in Keene and answering hostile questions from TV reporters about why he refused to denounce the Nevada caucuses as “reprehensible.” Even worse, he was now trapped on a seven-seater airplane with a reporter who had been shadowing him for an exhausting 48 hours. I pressed him on whether he was really going to run. His response shocked me at the time. He bent in close, looked me in the eye and asked, “Would you want to do this?”

LOOKING BACK, I don’t think Warner meant that the indignities of the campaign trail were too much of a bother. He had a cheerful approach to the absurdities of life on the road. He didn’t seem to mind when a poodle dressed in a pink bow relieved itself as he courted its owner in New Hampshire. After being trapped in conversation with a September 11 conspiracy theorist at a Hardees in Virginia, he was more philosophical than disdainful, marveling at how many seemingly rational people spin similar tales.

Warner also had a way of making the campaign trail more tolerable by encouraging a jovial, almost carnival-like mood. He kissed babies but also joked about having to kiss babies. When someone suggested he buy his daughter a birthday present at a store called the Hemporium, Warner deadpanned, “I’m pro-organic hemp.” In most campaigns, at the end of the day the candidate retires to his suite to read briefing books while the staff and traveling press hit the bars. Not Warner. He personally organized the entire caravan for drinks and dinner.

He invited a rotating band of old friends out on the trail to keep him company. They were all rich and seemed to have names like Rex D. VanMiddlesworth, a guy who tagged along on the trip to New Hampshire. “One thing you’ll have to get used to when hanging out with Warner,” said a journalist who had spent lots of time with the governor and his traveling party, “is the fact that his fabulously wealthy friends are always trying to pay for things.” They served as a life raft for Warner when he was feeling adrift on the road. “They help me keep it real,” he told me. “Because most of my friends are not political. Sometimes, at the end of the day, the person you want to have the beer with—[to them] you’re not a candidate. You’re not anything else. You’re just hanging out with a buddy. And you need honest feedback ... if you’ve got something you don’t feel comfortable sharing with a staff person.” But, in hindsight, Warner’s effort to create a bubble of normality around him was also a sign that he craved a normal life more than he craved being president.

Of course, nobody believed Warner when he said a yearning for a real life was the reason he decided to skip the race. Immediately, the entire presidential-industrial complex, including many of Warner’s own staffers, began pinging each other with queries about the “real reason” he was folding one of the sturdiest tents in the ‘08 field. Was there a skeleton? My own experience with Warner suggests that he was, at the very least, wary of the modern-day vetting process for presidential candidates. When I first interviewed him in a hotel suite in Las Vegas back in June, he turned serious at the end of our chat and made a point of reminding me about the enormous responsibility that a journalist has when writing about a public figure. That same day, he summoned another national reporter to his suite to complain about a profile this person had written months earlier.

One night in New Hampshire, after a few drinks at a pool hall in a college town, the conversation turned to the political troubles of another potential ‘08 contender. I told a story that had been making the rounds about how this politician once spit on his wife. Warner’s huge jaw dropped and his face blanched. The table fell silent. “I guess that’s not that funny to you, is it?” I muttered. He shook his head.

After his announcement, I asked Warner if he had been worried about the vetting process. “Not really,” he insisted. “You know, politics is a body contact sport. I’ve run for elective office twice. ... I sat with my family and said, `If we go through with this, there will be people—who knows what kind of attacks people will make.’ But, you know, I think my family and I were ready to take that on.”

Margolis says he spent the day Warner dropped out on the phone with reporters explaining that there was no scandal that sidelined Warner. “There was nothing that anyone was concerned about,” he told me. “In fact, I sent an e-mail on Thursday afternoon to Mark and others saying I’ve now told like 20 reporters that there is absolutely no truth that he is gay, that he has a health problem, that he is about to have a sex-change operation, or that the oppo research was really bad.”

Another staffer offered the more interesting theory that part of Warner’s decision may have been about whether he actually wants to be president at this moment. “Who really wants this job?” the adviser asked. “Do you want to be the one to extricate America out of Iraq, decide whether to strike Iran? It’s big-boy time. I believe Mark Warner is up to it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of the ingredients in the soup. This isn’t going to be fun.” Warner once hinted at this same idea in an interview. We were talking about his foreign policy experience, and I noted that, compared with some other Democrats in the field, he wasn’t really that inexperienced. He said that wasn’t the important question. “If you do this,” he told me, “having the notion that you might be able to do it better than Person X doesn’t get you through the night. You’ve gotta feel it in your own gut.”

THIS WEEK, WHEN I listened to that same August interview with Warner again, I realized Warner was already hinting at the decision he would make. In between campaign stops in New Hampshire, he brooded over what being president would do to his three daughters, ages 16, 15, and 12. “At some point, being the governor’s daughter, that fades,” he told me, sounding in hindsight like a guy who had already made up his mind. “You can move out of the state, you can move somewhere else and redefine who you are. If you are ever a child of a president, that’s who you are for the rest of your life.”

Every governor or senator thinks about running for president. Most do so because they are ambitious and see the presidency as the next rung on America’s political ladder. The big question they often ask is strategic. How can I make it through the process and get elected? In the end, that’s not the question Warner asked. His advisers swear that the nuances of the primaries and the details of how to topple Hillary Clinton never came up in his final deliberations. Warner asked not whether he could be president, but whether he should be president. The irony of Warner’s answer is that the kind of person who dwells on that question is the kind of person you want to be president.

This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.