The Day Dornan Came to Visit
Photo by Myles RobinsonCritics have said the Republican congressman—now, thanks in part to Weekly reporter R. Scott Moxley, former congressman—was a part of our business plan from the beginning, that we couldn't have survived without an anti-hero (a hard-drinking, loudmouthed, hotheaded, right-wing, gay-baiting, red-hating, storytelling Irish-American pol), that our rising readership numbers paralleled the Weekly's weekly Dornan word count.
But in our first 52 weeks, we mentioned Dornan just three times; in the following eight weeks—leading up to his monster November defeat at the hands of Loretta Sanchez and Dornan's subsequent psychopathis politicus meltdown—we mentioned him 23 times.
Anticipating one of the first of those mentions, Dornan visited the Weekly. In the course of putting together OC's first really candid look at the guy, Moxley had talked to dozens of people around town; word obviously got back to Dornan Central—which, as Moxley's story would reveal, was in northern Virginia, where the congressman from working-class Garden Grove maintained a 12-room mansion on a five-acre demesne. One morning in early October 1996, just days before Moxley's story was scheduled to run, the Weekly's receptionist popped her head in my door.
"Bob Dornan," she said.
I looked up. I had Bob Dornan on my mind for a hundred reasons at the time, none of them particularly good, so I said, "What about Bob Dornan?"
"On the phone," I said, correcting her, because Bob Dornan doesn't belong in the actual offices of the Weekly. We are a small paper of no consequence to the man who thinks he mans the barricades of Western civilization.
"No," she said. She was nice even when she corrected you. "He's here. In the reception area. Now."
It had to be a practical joke. I stepped around the desk, went outside my office, and there—florid mug rising above the reception counter, bigger than a float in New York on St. Patrick's Day, all pink-faced and smile-creased, a token of good spirit and friendliness—was Bob Dornan.
"Hello, Congressman," I said, like I see the guy every morning when I pick up the Register from my driveway.
"Will"—ditto for Dornan: friendly, avuncular, smiley-faced, a voice like a box of broken bottles—"Will, how are you?"
I'm doing fine, he's doing fine, he's just in the neighborhood—a neighborhood miles and miles down the 22 and the 55 from his district—and though he made no mention of the upcoming story, he knew and I knew that that was what he was here about. We chatted about this and that, our conversation touching precisely on the three subjects of Moxley's forthcoming story: Dornan's expansive house in Virginia, his questionable military career and his turbulent (ask his wife) family history.
Then came the moment I'll never forget. "I haven't even played proper host," I said. "Let me show you around." Dornan—you can get Bad Bob or Nice Bob, and we quite clearly had Nice Bob—jumped up, and I took him into the newsroom.
Newsroom tours are something I do frequently, and Weekly staffers pretty much ignore them now—polish their Birkenstocks, shine their AK-47s, and generally prepare for the coming revolution. This was different: from the moment Dornan walked into a place that did not fit him—the Weekly, which one OC Republican has called "a paper for fags and communists"—the world went temporarily upside-down. He smiled and waved and shook hands with people he no doubt hates. People who dislike him smiled and waved and shook back. And everybody—Dornan and Washburn and Coker and Hilty and Schou and Moxley —everybody meant it when they said nice to meet you, and everybody—including Bob—knew that this was really weird, like some kind of early-modern French festival in which men dressed like women, the poor like the rich, the religious like the worst sinners. And for a moment, there was a wonderful feeling of peace, and when Bob walked out the door, that feeling went with him.
Dornan went down in flames, a gas can in one hand and matches in the other. Three weeks after publication of Moxley's story "The Secret Lives of Bob Dornan," Loretta Sanchez beat Dornan by about a thousand votes. You remember the rest: though the Times reprinted (sometimes, it seemed, without question) Dornan's most outlandish claims about that loss, Moxley continued to pound on the former—or as Moxley liked to put, "bitter, defeated ex-"—congressman. Dornan charged that Sanchez had won only because illegal aliens had voted for her. When Moxley questioned Dornan's numbers as reported in the Times, Dornan's legal team used an unprecedented grant of congressional subpoena power to try to kill Moxley's reporting. Schneiderman and Sigman declared war. They persuaded Stern to open his checkbook and hire a team of lawyers to tell Congress to drop dead.
It was an expensive and—because this is the Weekly, or it's a small world, or whatever—a weird act of courage: the lead attorney was D.C.-based Laura Handman, the wife of Harold Ickes Jr., a Clinton administration official we had excoriated in a May 1997 article critical of the White House. In that piece, Weekly house curmudgeon Nathan Callahan had called Ickes a man "who deserves the name he was born with." Yes, Callahan acknowledged, Ickes was the son of an esteemed official in the FDR administration. But he is also "profane, coarse and fiercely partisan," "the star of his own political Animal House."
Callahan called him "Bluto," and now his wife was keeping Moxley out of the congressional hot seat.
She did a great job, apparently holding nothing against us. She told the House of Representatives that the subpoena was illegal, that Moxley was protected by the Constitution, that he wouldn't fly to Washington for a hearing, that he wouldn't turn over his notes or even dignify the House request with his own response.
Dornan's investigation fizzled, the Times ran into a political buzz saw (for a while there, the hottest bumper sticker in town read BOYCOTT LA TIMES), every investigating agency—from the county to the Congress—dropped its probe, and we ended up with a priceless Dornan quote for the jacket of the hardcover edition of 100 Years of OC Weekly: at the height of his self-generated crisis, Dornan observed that the Weekly is "Satan's instrument . . . an evil paper spreading infected bodily fluids all over the country." Will Swaim
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