The Secret Lives of Bob Dornan

Inside the Fevered Imagination of O.C.'s Most Infamous Congressman

 At 4 a.m. on Jan. 26, 1976, Robert Kenneth Owen Dornan, 42, sat working in the den of his rented Los Angeles home. Outside, the temperature dipped into the low 40s and a dense fog rolled in, eventually closing LAX to morning air traffic. Unable to sleep, Dornan--college dropout, unemployed actor, unsuccessful political candidate, originator of the nearly ubiquitous POW-MIA name bracelets sold throughout the country, and lecturer for the book-burning Citizens for Decency Through Law--contemplated his future.

Ignoring the early hour and a severe cold, he grabbed an orange ink pen and a yellow legal tablet and drafted the remarks he would give a day later when he announced his first formal candidacy for Congress. Had he checked, his astrological forecast published in the Los Angeles Times read, "Do necessary work for advancement." But Dornan--then known in L.A. for hosting raucous local radio and television talk shows from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s--didn't need the encouragement. Eighteen years earlier, back in 1957, the highly ambitious Harlem, New York, native had promised himself he would be a Republican congressman by the age of 30. He was 12 years behind.

In other ways, the day was not so propitious. The newspapers were filled with turmoil for conservatives. Richard Nixon's disgraced name was summarily removed from the 90 freeway, and conservative Newport Beach Representative Robert Hinshaw was convicted of two counts of felony bribery. But nothing could have dampened Dornan's delight: Representative Alphonso Bell, a moderate nine-term Republican representing the Los Angeles beach communities from Pacific Palisades to Palos Verdes, had finally announced his departure from the House. Dornan--who called Bell "Bozo"--had planned unrealized congressional campaigns in 1968, 1970, 1972 and 1974 and was trounced in the 1973 L.A. mayoral election and in a 1975 contest for a seat on the L.A. Community College Board. In Bell's retirement from the House, Dornan saw his chance for national acclaim and a place in history.

As he launched what would be his first victorious political campaign, an optimistic Dornan stood before seven local TV news cameras at the Los Angeles Press Club and read the words he had written in the wee hours of the previous night. Using the rhetoric that would become his trademark, he promised to be an "outspoken fighter" against "decadent Western culture" and America's "gutless passivity." Backed by the likes of Bing Crosby, Pat Boone, John Wayne, Irene Dunne and Gene Autry, Dornan confidently predicted that his election would "really make a difference."

He was wrong. In the 20 years since moving to Washington, D.C., as a freshman congressman, the man whose political star was once thought brighter than Ronald Reagan's has yet to materialize as a mainstream force. Dubbed "The Great Right Hope" three decades ago by Hollywood's embattled conservatives, Dornan has settled for a mix of politics and theater that's as far from Hollywood as, well, Branson, Missouri. While clearly a Beltway insider, he's not on anyone's Washington A-list. "Old friend" Reagan declined to appoint him to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. "Good friend" George Bush refused to name Dornan as his drug czar despite the congressman's lobbying.

But despite the high-placed snubs, Dornan has built a one-man national political machine fueled by a jarring, take-no-prisoners style that attracts significant right-wing support and distracts attention from his real life story and record.

Almost everyone in Orange County is familiar with Dornan's rhetoric--his fascination with homosexuality (remember his reference to "lesbian spearchuckers"?), his brief dalliance with anti-Semitism (how about his reference to a Soviet spokesperson as a "disloyal, betraying little Jew"?), and his easy denunciations of opponents as "un-American." So frequent is Dornan's vitriol, so casual his off-color and impolitic remarks that one Orange County company made a profit marketing a collection of them--a kind of Bartlett's Infamous Quotations called "Shut Up, Fag!": Quotations From the Files of Congressman Bob Dornan, the Man Who Would Be President.

Left intact, his self-manufactured image as a fiery patriot, sacrificing public servant, fearless military man and uncompromising defender of traditional values has helped carry him to an impressive string of 21 primary and general-election wins, the past 13 in Orange County's 46th Congressional District of Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Anaheim. And--as usual--Dornan is favored to defeat Democratic newcomer Loretta Sanchez in next month's election.

Ironically, Dornan's combative style explains why the media have never mounted any serious investigation of his claims to authority in cultural wars, military matters or conservative legislative policy. It's easier--and, frankly, more fun--to report his asinine public comments than to examine his record.

Because the incident was not reported by our two local dailies, you probably don't know about Dornan's run-in with U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had blasphemed and trespassed on Dornan's political turf: he turned up at Bill Clinton's side on July 11, 1995, as the president--whom Dornan has called a traitor--normalized relations with Vietnam.

McCain's presence was natural. A decorated combat pilot who was shot down over Vietnam, he spent five and a half years in a North Vietnam POW camp and is recognized by his peers in D.C. as a man of unquestionable motives on the Vietnam issue. Except for Dornan, who, true to form, blasted McCain for "selling out" American prisoners of war by supporting normalization.

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