The Secret Lives of Bob Dornan

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

It was an odd move, even for Dornan. In attacking McCain, he might have drawn attention to his own military record--a record that, despite Dornan's claims, is a reverse image of McCain's. But Dornan had two things working for him in l'affaire McCain: McCain, a genuine war hero if there ever was one, is also somewhat gentlemanly, refusing to engage in Dornan's style of personal politics. Nor were the media likely to do more than they have ever done with Dornan: broadcast his outrages as mere sideshow entertainment, discount his relevance in any debate, and move on without a serious investigation into his record or his motives.

McCain's response to Dornan's attack was angry but subdued: "For him to allege that I could somehow abandon the families of my squadron mates is so offensive that I have no words for it," he said simply.

An unimpressed--and unashamed--Dornan shot back: "John thinks he owns the issue. He should stop torturing the families. . . . We had to push him out of the way. And I won. He didn't."

What makes the McCain incident even more outrageous is Bob Dornan's military record. In public, he talks as if he were a war hero. In an Aug. 19, 1994, speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Dornan characterized his military resume this way: "[I] went into the Air Force and volunteered for whatever dangerous assignment there was." Another time, he explained that he narrowly missed combat duty in Korea because he wasn't old enough to serve. "Only God sets birthdays," he said. On at least one occasion, he has implied that he fought in combat.

Few have challenged that autobiography. According to Brian Bennett, Dornan's chief of staff for 12 years until 1989, and still a close friend, "It makes him angry when people question his military record."

No wonder. The same man who called himself a "shit-hot fighter pilot" and sanctimoniously lambasted Clinton for attending Oxford during the Vietnam War did not jump at the chance to put his life on the line in combat either.

As hundreds of thousands of American men his age (18 and 19 years old) were dying or nursing combat wounds suffered in Korea in 1951 and 1952, Dornan ignored repeated Pentagon pleas for able-bodied men to enlist. Instead, he attempted to follow in the footsteps of his actor-uncle Jack Haley, the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz, by enrolling in the drama department at Loyola College (now Loyola Marymount University) in Los Angeles. As a member of the school's theater group--the Del Rey Players--he played Biff Loman in Death of a Salesman and Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts. Loyola yearbook photos show a young, handsome Dornan posing on auditorium stages with theater classmates, one of whom would later die from AIDS. While the war raged across the Korean peninsula, from September 1950 to January 1953, Dornan performed in seven off-campus plays at the Westchester Community Theater, including the leads in The Hasty Heart, Butter and Egg Man, Ten Little Indians and The Man Who Came to Dinner.

In January 1953, according to the congressman's current biography, he dropped out of Loyola and entered the Air Force. (Dornan said in Congress that he entered the service in October 1952 and school records show he was a student until March 1953.) He says he became a jetfighter pilot and intelligence officer who earned his wings only after the war was over. That biography conveniently neglects to mention that Dornan could have skipped drama school and enlisted in the Army two years earlier. (He never earned his college degree.)

Dornan also downplays his entertaining stateside military activities. According to a resume Dornan put together sometime around 1959 or '60, he served as the "writer, director and MC" of an Air Force impersonation and singing act that toured the southern United States, performing a near life-threatening 64 engagements. The resume shows that Lieutenant Dornan's career as a pilot was ignoble at best (he crashed three jets and a helicopter during pilot training after the war's end) and that the greater part of his energy was directed toward the dramatic arts, commanding variety shows and directing and acting in military-training films. He found time to star in four plays (Julius Caesar, Stalag 17, All My Sons and Detective Story) off base at the Sarasota Community Theater in Florida. In 1958, when U.S. advisers first began appearing in Vietnam, Dornan transferred to a National Guard base in California, where he played Dorsey, the lead in Lo and Behold, with the Apple Valley Players. After leaving the service, Dornan got roles in two war movies, To the Shores of Hell and The Starfighters, the latter so screamingly awful it was pantsed on Comedy Central's Mystery Science Theater 3000. And, as he likes to say, he traveled to Vietnam--but only as a Los Angeles talk-show host.

The facts of Dornan's military career--that he avoided combat in Korea in order to attend school and act--don't stop him from describing himself in terms that would shame the worst con man. In an August 1994 piece he wrote for the Congressional Record, Dornan began by describing himself as a man who "could have been one of the most colorful military figures since George Patton." Caught up in his own significance, he wound up writing in the third person: "Dornan is a man who may wish he had lived in more stirring times--during the medieval Crusades, perhaps, or circa King Arthur's Camelot. He would gladly have been with Davy Crockett at the Alamo, with Clive in India . . . scaling the Pointe du Hoc cliffs on D-Day, or have flown against Hitler's Luftwaffe . . . or against Tojo with the Flying Tigers in China, and certainly Dornan would have been with Horatio at the bridge."

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