Robert Kenneth Dornan (born April 3, 1933) is an American politician and actor from California. A Republican, Dornan served in the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 1983 and from 1985 to 1997. He has become infamously well-known for publicly outing Republican U.S. Representative Steve Gunderson as gay on the House of Representatives floor in 1994. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for president of the United States in 1996.
A former actor and television and radio talk show host, Dornan had a flair for the dramatic that drew supporters and detractors well beyond his congressional district. Though never a major power in Washington, he became one of the most well-known members of the House of Representatives as a participant in televised “special orders” speeches and was described as “one of the leading firebrands among American politicians”.
Dornan was born in New York City, the son of Gertrude (McFadden) Dornan (1900–1967) and Harry Joseph Dornan (1892–1975). In New York, Dornan’s mother had been a vaudeville performer as part of an act called the McFadden Sisters and a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, and had performed under the stage name Bara Wilkes; her sister was the wife of actor Jack Haley. Harry Dornan owned a haberdashery, and after moving to California, he became a real estate entrepreneur in West Los Angeles and was active in harness racing, a pastime in which many celebrities participated during the 1940s and 1950s. Robert Dornan was able to take advantage of his family’s entertainment industry experience and connections after he embarked on his own acting and talk show career, and make use of celebrity endorsements and campaign contributions to launch his political career.
Dornan attended Loyola University of Los Angeles (later renamed Loyola Marymount University) from 1950 to 1953. At age 19, Robert joined the United States Air Force. He became a fighter pilot, and during his time in the Air Force, he survived two emergency parachute ejections and two “dead stick” forced landings (including one of an F-100). He was on active duty until 1958, and attained the rank of captain. He served in the California Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve until retiring in 1975. Dornan also served as a combat journalist and photographer on several missions in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Vietnam War and flew relief flights into Biafra.
Dornan was involved in the entertainment industry. He starred in the film The Starfighters, cast as Lt. Witkowski, an Air Force pilot who was the son of a U.S. congressman. The Starfighters aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000 on October 29, 1994.
In 1962, he portrayed Air Force Lieutenant Alden in the episode “Dennis at Boot Camp” of the CBS sitcom, Dennis the Menace, starring Jay North and Gale Gordon, with Roy Roberts in this segment as Captain Stone.
Dornan had a frequent role as Captain Fowler on ABC’s Twelve O’Clock High television series and smaller roles on ABC’s Bewitched and NBC’s I Dream of Jeannie. Dornan was an Emmy-award-winning television talk show host on Tempo and The Robert K. Dornan Show broadcast from Los Angeles from 1967 to 1973.
Dornan took an active role in the civil rights movement. He took part in the historic 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr. The following year he helped register African Americans to vote in Mississippi.
Dornan moved into politics in 1973 as national spokesman for the Citizens for Decency Through Law advocacy group. He made an unsuccessful run for mayor of Los Angeles the same year. In 1976, Dornan was elected to the House of Representatives, representing the 27th congressional district in western Los Angeles County. He was re-elected twice. He was such an unswerving advocate for the development of the B-1 bomber, that he was soon nicknamed “B-1 Bob”.
In November 1977, he was an opposition speaker at the 1977 National Women’s Conference with Lottie Beth Hobbs, Dr. Mildred Jefferson, Phyllis Schlafly and Nellie Gray.
After the 1980 census, California’s congressional map was redrawn. Dornan’s district, previously a Republican-leaning swing district, was made significantly more Democratic. Believing he had no chance of winning this new district, he opted to run for the United States Senate in 1982. He finished fourth in the Republican primary behind San Diego mayor and future Governor Pete Wilson, who won in November.
Dornan moved to Garden Grove, in the more Republican Orange County. In 1984, he was elected to Congress from the 38th district in central Orange County, defeating 10-year Democratic incumbent Jerry M. Patterson by a 53% to 45% margin amid Ronald Reagan’s massive landslide that year. In 1986, he won a tough race against Democratic state Assemblyman Richard Robinson, winning by a 55% to 43% margin. He was re-elected four more times and served on the Intelligence Committee.
Dornan made headlines in March 1985 for a confrontation with Representative Thomas Downey (a Democrat from New York) on the House floor. Downey asked Dornan about comments he had made calling Downey “a draft-dodging wimp”. According to Downey, Dornan, grabbing him by collar and tie, said, “It’s good you’re being protected by the sergeant-at-arms. If I saw you outside, it would be a different story” and threatened him “with some form of bodily harm”. Dornan claimed he was merely straightening Downey’s tie and refused to apologize for the incident or the derogatory comment. A Dornan aide said, “It will be a cold day in hell before he gets an apology from Bob Dornan”.
Dornan was staunchly conservative. However, he did hold some positions that some might call liberal, including sponsoring animal protection acts, earning him the recognition of PETA in 1988.
In 1994, during his final successful run for Congress, it was reported that Dornan’s wife, Sallie, had made multiple allegations of domestic violence against him earlier in their marriage. In 1966, Dornan had been convicted of a domestic violence offense and sentenced to jail time; however, it was unclear whether his sentence had ever been served. After the allegations were made public, Sallie Dornan retracted them, stating that she had made false claims about her husband during a period when she was struggling with prescription drug addiction. The Dornans’ five children asserted that their father had not been physically abusive. During the same campaign, Dornan had signs posted at polling places that warned voters in Spanish that they should be prepared to prove their citizenship in order to vote. The signs suggested that immigration officials would be present at the polls. The success of this action was believed to have kept enough Latino voters away from the polls to eke out a victory for Dornan against Mike Farber.
In 1995, Dornan received a minor reprimand from the House for stating in a floor speech that President Bill Clinton had “given aid and comfort to the enemy” during the Vietnam War.
Dornan was a dark horse candidate for president of the United States in 1996. In a GOP debate in Iowa on January 13, Dornan called Clinton a “criminal” and a “pathological liar”. Dornan later dropped out of the presidential race and ran for reelection to his seat in the House; he was defeated by Democrat Loretta Sanchez by less than 1,000 votes.
Following the narrow defeat, Dornan alleged that Sanchez’s winning margin was provided by illegal voting from non-U.S. citizens. A thirteen-month House of Representatives investigation ensued, during which Sanchez was seated provisionally, pending the inquiry. A task force found 748 votes that had been cast illegally—624 from non-citizens in addition to 124 that had already been thrown out by California officials. This was not enough to overturn Sanchez’s margin of victory and she was allowed to keep her seat. However, in consultation with the INS, the House committee identified 4,762 questionable registration affidavits.
During his political career, Dornan became known for his controversial or offensive statements. Among his remarks:
In 1994, a 120-page book of quotations of Dornan was compiled by Nathan Callahan and William Payton and published as Shut Up, Fag! The quotation that gives the book the title was actually shouted by Dornan’s wife, Sallie, at an AIDS activist during an Orange County town forum. Dornan claimed the book was backed by director Oliver Stone, whom Dornan labeled “a Bolshevik enemy”.
Dornan’s comments and behavior have led his political opponents to question his mental health. Mike Kaspar of the Orange County Democratic Party said, “The primary issue is Bob Dornan, himself. I think his character and his own sanity are an issue here.” At a White House Correspondents Dinner, Al Franken (who is actually a friend of Dornan’s) joked “having Al D’Amato leading an ethics investigation is like getting Bob Dornan to head up a mental health task force.” Michael Moore devoted an entire chapter of his book Downsize This! to his efforts to get Dornan involuntarily committed for psychiatric examination.
Dornan ran against Loretta Sanchez again in 1998, but was defeated.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dornan hosted The Bob Dornan Show, a radio talk show syndicated nationally by Talk Radio Network.
In 2004, Dornan challenged Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a fellow Republican, in the primary. Dornan charged Rohrabacher with being soft on terrorism and being too close to Islamic extremists. However, he lost by 84% to 16%.
During the summer of 2005, Dornan briefly expressed interest in the 48th congressional district seat that became vacant when then U.S. Congressman Christopher Cox resigned to become chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He was interested in running as the nominee of the American Independent Party but did not, allegedly rebuffed by party officials.
|1960||The Great Impostor||Reporter||Uncredited|
|1963||A Gathering of Eagles||Non-Com|
|1964||The Starfighters||Lt. John Witkowski|
|1966||To the Shores of Hell||Dr. Gary Donahue|
|1967||Hell on Wheels||Steve Robbins|
|2005||Missing, Presumed Dead: The Search for America’s POWs||Himself||Documentary|
|1960||Men into Space||Radio Operator||Episode: “Verdict in Orbit”|
|1962||Have Gun – Will Travel||Dandy||Episode: “Darwin’s Man”|
|1962||Dennis the Menace||Lt. Alden||Episode: “Dennis at Boot Camp”|
|1965||Bewitched||Policeman||Episode: “Red Light, Green Light”|
|1965||I Dream of Jeannie||Carson||Episode: “The Yacht Murder Case”|
|1965–1967||12 O’Clock High||Bob Fowler||25 episodes|
|1966||The Fugitive||Doctor||Episode: “Shadow of the Swan”|
|1968||The Rat Patrol||German Sergeant||Episode: “The Touch and Go Raid”|
|1971||Ironside||Paul (The Body)||Episode: “If a Body See a Body”|
In 1955, Dornan married Sallie Hansen. They have five children.