A Most Excellent Honor For the Ex-Senator

The Washington Post | February 20, 2009; Page B01
By Brigid Schulte

No question, the stately John W. Warner, late of the U.S. Senate, has always been a committed Anglophile. He kept a bust of Winston Churchill on the marble mantel of his Senate office for 30 years. When he wed his current wife in 2003, he wore his ancestral plaid kilt. He regularly travels to Great Britain. And when he gets back from his next trip, planned for spring, you can call him "Knight."

Queen Elizabeth II herself is expected to meet privately with Warner at Buckingham Palace, ask him to kneel, whack him on both shoulders with a long, ornate sword and confer upon him what the British Embassy says is the highest honor that country affords. She'll pronounce him John Warner, Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

In a centuries-old ceremony, the 82-year-old Warner will be asked to rise and walk backward -- custom requires that no one turn his back on royalty -- with head bowed. According to the British Embassy, he will then become one of only a handful of foreigners ever to be honored as a British knight. (Along with the likes of U2 lead singer and AIDS activist Bono, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Bill Gates and Colin Powell.)

The usually unflappable Warner, upon hearing the news, was floored.

True, he had sat at the queen's left for an embassy dinner in her honor in 2007. And he is famous in certain circles for nearly single-handedly sweet-talking the palace and Parliament into lending the United States one of the only four remaining copies of the original Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, for this country's bicentennial in 1976. But a knight?

"I've often said, in committee hearings, on the floor of the Senate, that at this stage in my life, when I've had the opportunity to do so many things, nothing surprises me. Nothing pushes my buttons," Warner said yesterday. "But this one did."

Because he's American, Warner can't be called Sir John, said Brendan O'Grady, spokesman for the British Embassy, explaining the painstaking royal protocol of knighthood. "But we'll call him Sir anyway," O'Grady said. "I did at least when I saw him last night."

O'Grady said the idea for the knighthood came from British Ambassador Nigel Sheinwald last year, after Warner announced he would not seek another term in office. They announced it formally Wednesday night at a dinner at the British Embassy.

But why Warner?

Sheinwald, in making the announcement, put it this way: "John Warner has spent his life in the service of the American people. Throughout his long and distinguished career he has been a constant and unstinting friend of the United Kingdom, working with us on issues ranging from defense cooperation to the Northern Ireland peace process."

He also mentioned Warner's great-great uncle who, as "clerk of the works," had a hand in building Balmoral Castle for Queen Victoria.

From his perch on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Warner continually pushed for information and intelligence sharing and greater military cooperation.

Warner will be allowed to put the initials KBE, for Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, after his name. He said he hasn't decided what to do. "I would never try to use it for any self-aggrandizement," he said. "I've reached the ripe age of 82. I'm healthy, carrying right on with my life. I'm no longer interested in titles, accolades or praise."

Warner, it would seem, has the chivalry part of being a knight nailed.