Forty-five years ago Thursday — Oct. 12, 1978 — Elizabeth Taylor choked on a chicken bone in Big Stone Gap, an incident that was quickly parodied on “Saturday Night Live” and became part of Virginia political lore.
With the long view of history, we can laugh about that now and look back to see how the trajectory of Virginia politics changed that year in ways that affect us still.
That 1978 Senate campaign was no laughing matter at the time, however. It was punctuated by a tragedy — the Aug. 2, 1978 plane crash that killed Republican nominee Richard Obenshain and robbed the state of one of its rising political leaders. To replace him, Republicans turned to John Warner, then married to the movie star, thus setting in motion a long political career by a very different type of Republican.
That Senate race 45 years ago was one where Virginia politics turned in multiple ways that pointed us to where we are today. Let’s take a look.
The first thing to know is that Virginia was still very much in an active realignment. In 1978, there were still conservative Democrats and there were still the historic breed of moderate “mountain-valley Republicans.” That’s a necessary backdrop to understanding the politics of the era. For a more complete understanding, I highly recommend “The Dynamic Dominion: Realignment and the Rise of Two-Party Competition in Virginia, 1945-1980” by Frank Atkinson.
The story of 1978 really begins in 1966, when Virginia had two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot — one for the regular term held by Willis Robertson, the other to fill the remainder of the term of Harry Byrd Sr., who had retired for health reasons the previous year. Republicans at that point had yet to elect anyone to statewide office since the turbulent years in the aftermath of the Civil War. That meant the real election was the Democratic primary that year — technically, two primaries, one for each seat. Each one pitted an old-guard conservative Democrat from a rural area against a challenger from a more urban area who was well to his left, although that “left” might really have been somewhere in the political center. Harry Byrd Jr., who had been appointed to succeed his father, won his primary against Armistead Boothe of Alexandria, who called himself a “militant moderate.” But Robertson (father of future televangelist Pat Robertson) lost his primary to William Spong of Portsmouth.
Spong was considered the epitome of a new breed of Southern moderates and, under normal circumstances, might have coasted to reelection in 1972. Normal circumstances didn’t prevail, though. That was the year of Richard Nixon’s landslide over George McGovern. William Scott, a Republican congressman from Fairfax County, capitalized on that and won a narrow victory. Scott quickly made a name for himself in many unflattering ways. It was reported that he had told the Capitol Hill Placement Bureau that he didn’t intend to hire any Black staffers; he also said he had “too many” Jewish staffers to hire another. That wasn’t the worst of it. He used a racial epithet that I care not to repeat here. He also was named by New Times as one of “The Ten Dumbest Members of Congress.” Among the stories circulating around Scott: He didn’t understand the difference between a grain silo and a missile silo; on a Mideast trip, he mistook the Suez Canal for the Persian Gulf. When that story appeared, Scott held a news conference to deny the allegations, which only had the effect of putting them into wider circulation. All that’s a colorful lead-up to this: Scott retired after one term, which left an open field for both parties in 1978.
Democrats had an obvious candidate: former Attorney General Andrew Miller, who had unexpectedly lost the party’s gubernatorial primary the previous year to Henry Howell. Nonetheless, seven other candidates entered the race, running the political gamut from “Falls Church feminist Flora Crater,” as The Washington Post described her, to “Conoly Phillips, the born-again Christian who brought out hundreds of evangelical supporters.” In later years, Crater wouldn’t seem so exotic while Phillips went on to become a board member at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. In 1978, though, that’s how far the Democratic Party spanned from left to right. Miller was the son of one of Virginia’s most famous liberals, Francis Pickens Miller, who had challenged the Byrd Machine in the ’40s and ’50s. By 1978, his son was considered smack in the middle, although in later years he came to be regarded as a conservative.
Republicans also found themselves realigning just as much as the Democrats did. Linwood Holton, a classic “mountain-valley Republican” with roots in Roanoke and Big Stone Gap, had led the party to a statewide victory in the 1969 governor’s race. However, the party had shifted to the right — as it continues to do so today — and he was no longer the favorite. Instead, Obenshain was, but the nomination was by no means a done deal. There were four candidates in all — the others were Warner, a former U.S. Navy secretary, and state Sen. Nathan Miller of Rockingham County, a dark horse who was considered a rising star.
The party’s convention packed the Richmond Coliseum and took six ballots before it nominated Obenshain, who had led the whole way, although Warner came on strong toward the end after Holton and Miller exited the race. That ended Holton’s political career but set up Miller up to become his party’s candidate for lieutenant governor in 1981. Two months later, Obenshain was dead. The more conservative party leaders were never comfortable with Warner, who they considered a lightweight and an outsider and not a true conservative, but he had finished second. There was an implicit deal: They’d back Warner as long as he didn’t try to interfere with party affairs.
The campaign that follows fades into memory, except for the glamour surrounding Warner’s celebrity marriage — and, of course, the chicken bone incident. Taylor had gone into the kitchen of Fraley’s Coach House to compliment the staff on its fried chicken and share a sample. As The Washington Post told the story: “A two-inch bone caught in her throat and refused to budge, despite efforts to dislodge it with a chaser of soft bread. Accompanied by her husband, Taylor was taken to nearby Lonesome Pine Hospital, where Dr. H.T. Patel, using rubber tubing, dislodged the bone and pushed it down her esophagus into her stomach. The doctor described that as a simple, nonsurgical procedure. But while it was being performed, Patel found a pear-shaped ‘out-pouching’ of the esophagus requiring further treatment by a specialist.”
As is often the case, those who were bored by policy arguments were fascinated by the chicken bone. John Belushi portrayed Taylor on “Saturday Night Live,” choking on chicken, and even as late as 2019, Forbes ran an article that referenced the incident. Author Ryan Craig wrote: “I was asked to speak at the annual meeting of Virginia’s community colleges and had the good fortune to dine next to a recent graduate from Big Stone Gap, VA. I professed ignorance of the town, which was met with incredulity by others at the table. Big Stone Gap was famous, I was told, because it was where Elizabeth Taylor nearly choked to death on a chicken bone.”
Warner won a narrow victory — 50.2% to 49.8% — with an electoral map that looks nothing like the ones we have today. Miller won most of the counties in Southwest Virginia (including Wise County, where the chicken incident happened) and a string of other rural localities along the state’s western border. Those were different times.
Politics sometimes unfolds in unpredictable ways. Warner, viewed by many as a playboy in 1978, turned out to display a lot of gravitas in the U.S. Senate, particularly on defense-related matters.
It can unfold in predictable ways, too. Conservative party leaders were right — Warner was not really one of them. He hewed to the center-right as they tacked further right. He was one of just six Republicans who voted to reject the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork in 1987. A more dramatic break came in 1994, when Warner refused to back Republican Senate nominee Oliver North and instead pushed the independent bid of former Republican Attorney General Marshall Coleman. Nonetheless, Warner endured primary challenges and retired on his own terms after the 2008 election.
Had Obenshain lived, he would have likely held that Senate seat for a long time, too — unless he’d sought higher office, which might have been entirely possible. The Obenshain legacy lives on: His son, Mark, is a Republican state senator from Rockingham County; his daughter, Kate, once chaired the state Republican Party. One of Obenshain’s nephews is Chris Obenshain, currently the Republican nominee for a House of Delegates seat covering parts of Montgomery and Roanoke counties.
It’s hard to guess an alternative history in which Miller would have won that 1978 election; he’d have been up for reelection in 1984, another Republican landslide on the national level. Could he have survived that? We’ll never know. All we know is that the 1978 election locked up that Senate seat in Republican hands for 30 years, which is no small thing.
In terms of realignment, the 1978 race certainly showed a Republican Party moving further to the right in its initial choice of Obenshain. However, the election did not necessarily realign the Virginia electorate — that would come later. Still, electing a Republican to statewide office was a novel thing in Virginia in the 1970s, and 1978 was just the second time that Virginia had elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate.
Warner and Miller are now gone — both passed in 2021 — but the implications of that election live on. And, for better or worse, so does the story about the chicken bone.