The Secret Lives of Bob Dornan

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

Bennett says Dornan the Jokester is closer to his real personality than Dornan the Deranged. "People like me think his opponents intentionally distort the facts against him for a tactical advantage, but those aren't accurate depictions," Bennett said. "There are many dimensions to the man. He's great to be around. He's creative. He's funny. He likes gags. He's good-natured and he's an adventurer. He's a family man."

"Family man," of course, is an important component of Dornan's image--like "military man" and "av-erage working Joe." And, like the rest of the Dornan story, this chapter is a lot more complex than Dornan acknowledges. Information contained in four separate divorce cases Sallie Dornan filed against her husband offers a disturbing glimpse into Dornan's emotional state from ages 27 to 43. Files housed in the Los Angeles Superior Court record Sallie's testimony under oath that Dornan choked, punched, kicked and harassed her to the point of mental and physical exhaustion during a 16-year period from 1960 to 1976, ending just before he entered Congress.

Dornan's supporters dismiss the court records or say they prove Dornan's character. "Those papers have been floating around for years, ever since I've known him," said Bennett, who accepts the couple's explanation that Sallie imagined the incidents. "He stuck with Sallie as she went through Valium and other addictions and kept the family together. He didn't leave or get a divorce."

Despite the present-day denials, a judge at the time thought the facts warranted sentencing Dornan to five days in jail and, on more than one occasion, giving Sallie temporary custody of the children. Records also show that he did not live with his wife and family for extended periods, didn't pay adequate child support and violated multiple restraining orders. On one occasion, he entered the family's residence, scattered food and furniture, and destroyed Sallie's belongings. At another court filing, Sallie testified that Dornan called her "vile and obscene names," beat her, dragged her through the house by her hair, and dumped a gallon of milk on her head. In one 1966 hearing, she pleaded with the judge to keep Dornan away because she feared he might inflict "serious injuries . . . to herself and to the minor children." She told the judge that Dornan "has a violent temper and, when angered on a slight provocation, becomes violent." After listing several of her husband's violent acts and threats, Sallie said, ". . . it has been necessary for me to make the whereabouts of myself and the children unknown."

Depending on whom they're talking to, the Dornans have variously denied the records exist or denounced them as lies. During the 1994 campaign, the congressman enlisted Father Leo John Celano of St. Michael's Abbey in Silverado, California, to sign a mass-produced letter in which the priest labeled the court record "vicious lies" and closed by implying that a vote for Dornan was an obligation and a duty to God.

Regardless of whether you believe Sallie's decades-old allegations or her explanations now, the Dornan family obviously struggled through the 1950s, '60s and '70s, until Dornan found his calling as a U.S. congressman. So why does he viciously attack the personal lives of others?

"What Dornan is saying is, 'I've lived my life pretty darn good. I've pretty much done what I was supposed to do. I've been a good husband and father, let alone a good congressman,'" said Bennett. "Let's look at Clinton. Is he the right moral standard-bearer for the country? He is somebody who has obviously had affairs, avoided the draft. So I don't see where the hypocrisy is with Dornan."

So Dornan is wealthy (not poor), wimped out on military combat (but masquerades as a bloodied hero), and ridicules others' personal lives (despite his own turbulent family history). Sadly, his legislative record is consistent with that pattern of distortion. A review of special-interest-group ratings shows Dornan scores near perfect with such conservative groups as the National Taxpayers Association and the Christian Coalition but ranks dead last among environmental, civil-rights and women's organizations. If we stopped there, Dornan's image would remain intact. But closer inspection reveals glaring inconsistencies with the conservative agenda.

In campaign literature mailed to his constituents, the congressman brags of his fiscal restraint by implying that he has never voted for a congressional pay raise. However, according to Congressional Quarterly, Dornan cast the last--and deciding--vote for a $15,000 pay hike for federal politicians in 1982.

But as an example of his well-seasoned scurrility, Dornan's campaign brochures say he "has never voted himself [my emphasis] a pay raise." The congressman's statement is purposefully misleading but technically accurate: he voted for the 1982 pay raise as he was leaving the House in order to run for the Senate, a race he lost in the primary. He was not a member of Congress from 1983 to 1984.

Even today, he isn't always the tightfisted, anti-spending pol he claims to be. In July, The Orange County Register exposed Dornan's scheme to use $1,500 in taxpayer funds to pay for a two-hour local radio broadcast to tout himself before his constituents. He told the Register: "We're not paying for it. The station's giving it to us for free." After the Reg reporter uncovered records and a source contradicting him, Dornan declined further comment. The show was nixed.

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