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Mr. Elizabeth Taylor goes to Washington

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Courtesy of Sen. John Warner / CNP / Newscom / File

(Read caption) Elizabeth Taylor and her mother-in-law look on as Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia (l.) is sworn in by Vice President Walter Mondale (r.), in Washington, January 1979. Sometimes called 'Mr. Elizabeth Taylor' until their divorce in 1982, Senator Warner went on to serve 30 years in the United States Senate.

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Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most glamorous movie stars of all time, was also – for one hard-fought election in the late 1970s – a hot campaign issue.

By “hot,” we mean “marked by intense emotion,” in case you thought we were implying something else.

In 1978, Ms. Taylor’s sixth (or seventh, if you count Richard Burton twice) husband John Warner ran for a Senate seat in Virginia as a Republican. With few ideological differences between him and Democratic opponent Andrew Miller, reporters devoted a lot of attention to what they called the “battle of the candidate wives.”

On one side was Liz, star of “Cleopatra.” On the other was Doris Miller, who, by her own estimation, was similar to Ms. Taylor in just one respect – they were the same age. So who played the role of dutiful wife, and who starred in campaign commercials? Gold star! Taylor was the former, and Ms. Miller the latter. Welcome to the upside-down world of politics.

Here’s what happened: Critics claimed Mr. Warner used the women in his life to try to leap ahead. Ex-Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, who’d served under Warner when he was secretary of the Navy, said Warner became the GOP candidate because of “Elizabeth Taylor’s fame and [first wife] Cathy Mellon’s money.”

To disprove this, Taylor took a low-profile approach to the campaign. No TV time for her. She dragged along to every campaign stop in Virginia to prove she was a regular person. She choked on a chicken bone in Big Stone Gap, gave away a skirt in Emory, and wrenched her back in Norfolk.

Doris Miller, in contrast, held press conferences and made reference to Taylor’s lengthy marital history. Miller said she’d “led a very dull life ... with one husband and three babies.”

That November, Warner won – with a one-ply-thin margin of victory. Miller couldn’t raise the money for a recount, so Warner went on to serve for 30 years – leaving Liz to suffer the fate of so many Washington spouses, fending for themselves in a place they don’t care for. She grew bitter, started to over-indulge, eventually divorced Warner, ended up in rehab, and met a construction worker named Larry Fortensky.

Which is a whole other story.

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