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.
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."
Dornan won't budge from his professed military bona fides, telling OCWeekly this week that he has never misrepresented his record. Nor will he acknowledge that, as a young man, his greatest ambition was to act, not to fight. "I have bled for my country," he told reporters in February during his failed presidential campaign. "I came as close to death as Bob Dole." There are crucial differences, of course, which Dole diplomatically pointed out. Dole faced enemy fire on foreign soil. Dornan bloodied his nose ejecting from a training plane he crashed in the Arizona desert.
After umpteen political challenges, no Orange County Democrat has managed to eject Dornan from his House seat. Sanchez says Dornan is more vulnerable than ever. Thanks in part to a quixotic presidential campaign, Dornan neglected the congressional race and finished the first 18 months of the election cycle with just $23,000 on hand--the least he's ever had entering the final months of a congressional campaign.
Sanchez, on the other hand, has been storming around the country, collecting big contributions and waving the results of a poll released this week that shows Dornan and Sanchez even at 43 percent, with 12 percent undecided and 2 percent for other candidates.
"People here are fed up with Bob Dornan's lack of interest in helping to solve the district's problems," said Sanchez, a business consultant and Anaheim native who has aired cable-TV campaign commercials touting her roots in the community. "He's out of touch. He has never lived in this district, and that's one of the reasons I think I'm going to win."
Is Dornan concerned? Hardly.
"She can't beat me," he said. "Bob Dornan is a father of five, grandfather of 10, military man, been married 41 years. She has no kids, no military, no track record. I win."
Bennett, the congressman's former chief of staff, sees a perfect match between Dornan and what he views as Dornan's conservative constituency. "Dornan fits that district," he said.
But the fit is an uneasy one for several reasons. The 46th is largely Latino, pro-choice and--at least by voter-registration numbers--Democratic. It is also working-class. Dornan, by any estimate but his own, is decidedly wealthy. Twenty years in Washington have been very good to him. He may wear cheap, worn-out suits from another era and whine about the financial burdens of public life--claiming he has zero assets--but the nine-term congressman is wealthy beyond the dreams of most of his Orange County constituents. Their median household income is barely $35,000; Dornan, the professed anti-government rebel, quietly lives the comfortable, well-to-do life of a Washington insider.
Unlike a number of congressmen who live in their districts, rent in Washington and commute weekly, Dornan long ago set up a permanent camp inside the Beltway. Thirty minutes outside the nation's capital in an upscale, rural neighborhood along the banks of the historic Occaquan River in Fairfax, Virginia, sits Donegal Hill, Dornan's 12-room, 5-acre estate. Here, in a posh community called the Hamptons, off Beaver Pond Lane, past an elegant colonial-style property entrance, up a lengthy, curved, tree-lined driveway and inside a luxurious two-story, 4,800-square-foot house with hardwood floors, Orange County's most notorious politician since Nixon plots the moves of his politically estranged yet financially lucrative empire.
When I asked Dornan, who says his income is limited to his $133,600-a-year congressional salary, how he could afford to live so comfortably, he said, "The answer is one word: mortgages." Then he complained that his biggest worry was heating the house in winter and cooling it in summer."You should see my utility bills," he said. "They are enormous."
Peppered with million-dollar mansions and four-car garages, Dornan's exclusive neighborhood stands in sharp contrast to his unnamed, nondescript, lower-middle-class house on Garden Grove's Blackthorn Street--the one he lists as his official residence. According to real-estate records, he purchased the single-story house for $104,000 in 1984 after relocating from Los Angeles to successfully unseat Jerry Patterson, a five-term incumbent congressman. Democrats say the house was bought to establish false roots in the district and complain that he's almost never there.
Even though Dornan is neither the assetless man nor the battle-hardened warrior he claims to be, I think he is fascinating--the way a live, uncaged dinosaur would be. In between careers in 1994, I spent the last weeks of the general election volunteering for Mike Farber's disorganized and doomed campaign against Dornan. During part of 1995, I also worked as a consultant for Farber. Some people might think that makes me ill-suited to report on Dornan. But these experiences have given me insight into how the man operates. To me, Dornan's crass, holier-than-thou rhetoric symbolizes the deterioration of our country's political debates. It's hard to respect a politician who calls himself a "patriot" and "American hero" while calling opponents "boot-licking wimps" or "homos." But in one of life's little ironies, I came away from that losing campaign more intrigued than resentful. I learned how personally captivating Dornan can be. On two occasions just before the November 1994 election, he telephoned our campaign office at night and--by speakerphone--traded hilarious jokes and impersonations with us for what seemed like an hour. His performances made favorable impressions on several hardcore liberal volunteers who, minutes before, had been calling him evil.
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.
Another issue is Dornan's manipulation of the term-limits debate. When Democrats controlled Congress, he led the charge for change, going so far as to become an honorary chairman of U.S. Term Limits, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative lobbying group. In the months leading up to the November 1994 election, Dornan argued that the very survival of democracy depended on term limits, calling for a maximum of three consecutive terms for representatives. In media interviews, campaign solicitations and House-floor speeches, he guaranteed that his ninth term would be his last. But in a classic political flip-flop, Dornan reneged just hours after the polls closed. Without any apparent sense of irony, he now says it's okay to seek his 19th and 20th years in Washington because he is the "champion of term limits."
How does such a guy keep getting elected? Money. Years of working the radical Right's rubber-chicken circuit have paid off handsomely. In the last general election, not even Oliver North or Michael Huffington, two free-spending Republican Senate hopefuls in Virginia and California respectively, spent more per vote than Dornan's $45. No one else in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives--and only two others in U.S. history (President Ronald Reagan and Senator Jesse Helms)--has plowed the lush conservative fund-raising fields like Dornan. From 1976 to 1995, neither House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) nor Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.)--both shameless money magnets--raised more than Dornan for their congressional campaigns.
Since that first campaign in 1976, Dornan has raked in a record $13 million, often raising in a couple of days more than some of his Democratic opponents collected in their entire campaigns, according to disclosure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in Washington, D.C. Not counting the ongoing race against Sanchez, the resources of his five most recent general-election opponents cumulatively didn't come close to what he raises in a single election cycle.
Twenty years ago, when the average cost of a House campaign was less than $250,000, Dornan was already raising and spending more than $1 million per election. The funds poured in primarily from targeted, nationwide direct-mail solicitations and, to a much lesser extent, corporate political action committees (PACs). Every two years--until this election cycle--Dornan has plodded back to his district loaded with millions in contributions ($2.3 million in the last election) to face the next penniless novice put forward by disorganized local Democrats. In 1994, the Dornan for Congress committee couldn't open contribution envelopes fast enough. The average monthly take: $96,000.
As improbable as it may seem at first glance, powerful special-interest groups like having Dornan in Washington. The outspoken advocate for ever-increasing Pentagon budgets lures sizable contributions from such military contractors as General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, Martin Marietta, Grumman, Litton, Rockwell International, Hughes Aircraft, Raytheon, Westinghouse, Northrop and Lockheed. Other powerful special interests like to give to Dornan too, including AT&T, Texaco, American Bankers Association, UPS, American Medical Association, Archer Daniel's Midland, Pacific Telesis and the Realtors PAC. A hard-line stance against abortion under any circumstances earns him high marks and steady financial support from the National Right to Life PAC.
But most of his money comes in amounts less than $200 from individual contributors. Ninety-seven percent of them live outside Dornan's district, and two-thirds of them don't even live in California, according to a 1994 Democratic Party analysis of Dornan's FEC records. By saying things no one with common sense or good taste would say, he attracts loyal nationwide support from the Right's wacky fringe. These individual backers are for the most part not wealthy conservative businessmen but include an assortment of religious fundamentalists, sexists, gun nuts, homophobes, military enthusiasts and global-conspiracy theorists--a modern-day diaspora of the John Birch Society.
"He plays to the trailer parks in Oklahoma and Nebraska or wherever else he thinks his right-wing, bogeyman conspiracy theories will sell," said Mike Kaspar, who manages "Dump Dornan," a local guerrilla marketing campaign unaffiliated with Sanchez, and who teamed up with OC Weekly contributor Nathan Callahan in 1994 to publish "Shut Up, Fag!" "I have no doubt that he understands exactly how and why his message sells to certain people. He manipulates and strokes their baseless fears for money."
A review of contributors listed on his disclosure reports shows the No. 1 source of money for Dornan is senior citizens, who--it's safe to assume--must be susceptible to political flag-waving and his overblown, anti-abortion, anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-liberal, anti-communist sales pitch. According to sources on his mailing list, Dornan sends a steady stream of solicitations--sometimes several a week--to this nationwide constituency. The letters display the same style as his speeches: rambling and tinged with paranoia and a heavy dose of sanctimony.
A standard Dornan pitch says the congressman desperately needs $50, $250 or $1,000 today!, since he is all that prevents liberals from ruining America. "They hate everything that you and I stand for," he wrote in a 1994 solicitation. "You and I must move fast, because the liberals aren't wasting any time. . . . I need to get my campaign war chest together as fast as humanly possible so that I can begin countering their ridiculous charges and defending our conservative cultural values." In another six-page, hand-written, mimeographed letter, Dornan referred to the president as "Billary" and "Slick Willie" and claimed, "The Clintons have personally demanded, 'Get rid of Bob Dornan!'"
Roy T. Hultman of Omaha, Nebraska, is a representative contributor, writing checks to Dornan for small amounts with great frequency. During the 1994 campaign, Hultman sent Dornan $10 on July 5, 15, 22, 25 and 29; Aug. 8, 9, 15, 22, 26; and Sept. 6, 7, 13 (twice), 16, 23 and 30. He also made $10 contributions 24 times in 1993. Why would a Nebraska man send more than $400 to a California politician like Dornan?
Hultman, an amiable, elderly man who said he was on a fixed income, answered my call on the first ring. He turned down the volume on his blaring radio when I asked if he had given money to Congressman Robert K. Dornan.
"Who?" he said. I repeated the name. "Not that I know of."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
After I explained that he is listed as a contributor, Hultman said his memory had been fading in recent years and that he probably had sent the money. I asked what sparked the contributions. "I really couldn't tell you," he said. "This man's name doesn't quite click in my mind. What does he stand for?"
Dornan stands for himself. After 20 years, his rebarbative rhetoric still hypnotizes the media, which ignore his failings and promote his feisty image, which excites the fringe, who contribute the millions that keep him in office. As long as this circle remains unbroken, Dornan will escape much-deserved scrutiny and continue as congressman for life in the 46th Congressional District--and presumptive spokesman for term limits. One GOP presidential-primary voter put it best after hearing one of Dornan's stump speeches earlier this year. Dornan's message, the fellow Republican said, is "more appropriate for a lounge act."