The eyes of Robert Kenneth Dornan are as blue as pilot lights. His brainpan roils with numbers.
"I was born just a few weeks after Adolf Hitler came to power. Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Reichschancellor on FDR's birthday, the 30th of January -- which happens to be the day I joined the Air Force, too -- 30 January 1933. In those days we swore our president in on March the 4th. Roosevelt was sworn in March the 4th, and I was born 29 days later. So I was alive in my mother's womb when Hitler came to power."
It is 7:30 a.m. in Dornan's hotel room in New York, two weeks after his headline-making scuffle on the House floor with Rep. Tom Downey (D-N.Y.), 1 1/2 hours before he is to appear on "Donahue." While his wife of 30 years, Sallie, dons her makeup in the bathroom, Dornan paces, annihilates a croissant and girds himself for battle.
"There's not a nerve in my body," he says. "It's not that I'm superhuman or subhuman. It's just that I've done this so much, it's like flying." Phil Donahue, he says, is a formidable foe. "He put $5,000 against me in my 1980 campaign."
"This show will be no different than a local PBS show," Dornan says, "unless Phil suddenly turns and attacks me. Then I will go into a defense mode. Watch what happens during the commercial breaks -- it's a big time for psyching. I might say, 'Phillip, you nice Catholic boy from Notre Dame helping the pro-abortionists against Bob Dornan, sorry you wasted $5,000 out of your life. You could have bought a motor ski boat. Too bad.'
"It's a gentlemanly way of saying," he adds, suddenly whirling on his visitor like Errol Flynn, "En garde!"
Bob Dornan presents himself as a knight in perpetual combat, a swashbuckler on the battlefield of History-in-the-Making. His casual conversation is riddled with bullets, strewn with bodies.
"I can remember Patton, and huge stacks of human beings, like cordwood, rolling over and over in mass graves, and the soldiers pouring lye on them for sanitation," he says over dinner, recalling a newsreel he watched at age 12. "All that impressed me so much that at the end of the Second World War, I thought, 'That's it. All the adventures are over. The best we can hope for is a helicopter in every garage.' "
Yesterday, as Dornan celebrated his 52nd birthday with a surprise party tossed by his wife and a press conference on his expedition last weekend to war-torn Central America, he could savor his return to Congress from what he calls "the political dead." And, because he is Bob Dornan, he could simply savor the date.
"I used to pine away that my birthday wasn't April 13th," he says. "That was Thomas Jefferson's birthday, and I loved Thomas Jefferson. I always wished I had a '1' in front of my '3' -- until I discovered that April 3rd was the day that Christ was crucified."
Having covered his prenatal existence during the Third Reich, off he goes into the wild blue yonder of his 12th year of life ("Christ's age when he went to the temple to talk to the elders"), his two emergency bailouts as an Air Force fighter pilot, his nine trips to Israel and four to Dachau, his zealous support for the B1 Bomber (earning him the nickname "B1 Bob"), his invention of the "POW-MIA" bracelet while an Emmy-winning TV host in Los Angeles and his four successful congressional races against liberal opposition.
"He's a man of destiny," says Sallie Dornan, who has helped run all his political campaigns. "I think he can go all the way to the White House if he wants that. It's all in God's hands. But I think he can go that far."
Just now he represents California's 38th District, an area best known for Disneyland.
First elected to Congress in 1976, Dornan was turned out six years later when his original district, California's 27th, was carved up in the reapportionment process. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1982 and, when a job in the Reagan administration was not forthcoming, became a management consultant and raised money for the defense lobby. Last November he fought his way back into another congressional seat, vanquishing the five-term incumbent in the rubble of the Reagan landslide.
He has lost no time separating himself from the pack.
On March 4, barely a month into the current session, he achieved instant fame by grabbing Tom Downey by the collar -- "straightening his tie," he later explained -- when Downey confronted him over a speech in which Dornan called him a "draft-dodging wimp."
Dornan was promptly caught in the middle of CNN's "Crossfire" when he chided Democrat Barney Frank for being a typical "New York liberal" who supports the defense of Israel more faithfully than America's. Frank, who is Jewish and from Massachusetts, branded the comment "anti-Semitic."
"Asinine," Dornan responded afterward, noting his own support of Israel. He went on to deride his detractors as having "puke flowing from their mouths."
It was, all in all, a vintage performance -- the kind that lends Dornan, according to his longtime fundraiser Richard Viguerie, "the status of a folk hero."
"I was raised in an age of heroes," Dornan says. "Patton, MacArthur, Audie Murphy. Audie Murphy was only five years older than I, and there he was on the cover of Life magazine with that Medal of Honor around his neck." Around Dornan's right wrist is a Vietnamese Montagnard bracelet, flashing from his belt is an Israeli Defense Force buckle. Painted on the hood of his Ford Bronco is a bristling, big-clawed eagle.
It was the kind of performance, too, that throws the Capitol Hill rumor machine into overdrive.
While one Democratic staffer blanketed the city with cassettes of Dornan on "Crossfire," others churned out stories that he had dodged the draft during the Korean War, tried to smuggle weapons out of Grenada, exaggerated his achievements in biographical data, even that he had beaten his wife. In recent weeks, both Dornans have been at pains to refute the rumors.
"I did try to divorce him," says Sallie Dornan of a 1966 proceeding, "and I did say -- it almost comes as part of the divorce -- that he abused me, to get a restraining order against him." She attributes her action to the trauma of a hysterectomy after bearing five children and her subsequent addiction to Valium.
"I should never have done it. I was an irresponsible, sick human being. He tries to cover for me and make excuses for me. It hurts me and it hurts the kids, but most of all it hurts him. He has to take the blows. They come at him." Today they seem the model of a happy couple -- he attentive to her, she protective of him.
Dornan says he did try to bring back a rusted Soviet-made Makarov pistol from Grenada in November 1983, but that when he declared the weapon at the airfield, customs officials confiscated it. He denies having evaded the draft during the Korean War, which began when he was 17. On the contrary, he says he tried to enlist as a Navy fighter pilot before finally leaving college to join the Air Force at age 19 in 1953, by which time the war was all but over. He says he later had two brushes with death, ejecting twice from out-of-control aircraft.
"So when some draft-avoiding wimp in the Democratic cloakroom is questioning my military service," Dornan says, "I want them to know it is more dangerous to fly in peacetime in jet fighters than it was to be a line surface-ship naval officer in World War II."
As for his biographical listings, Dornan says he is mystified by the errors in issues of "Who's Who in America" and "Who's Who in American Politics," which variously assert that he received a college degree and served as a deputy assistant to the secretary of state and in Southeast Asia. "I cringe when I see these things," he says.
"I did serve in Southeast Asia," he insists, "in the sense that I went over there on active duty, as a reservist recalled to active duty to ferry rescue airplanes over there. That was my first trip to Vietnam in '65." Later, pressed for details, Dornan says he took one trip as a crew member on a propeller-driven HU-16 Albatross from March Air Force Base in California to Da Nang in South Vietnam. He says he doesn't know where the misinformation in the bios came from. "It's really tacky and this is wrong."
Dornan's friends -- such as Michael Reagan, who worked briefly on his staff in California, and Faith Whittlesey, the outgoing White House director of public liaison -- praise him as quick and energetic, a brilliant speaker who tenaciously champions conservative causes.
He is the only freshman congressman, albeit a returning one, to be picked this term to sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He takes pride in his far-flung travels, 109 countries at last count, and in his fighter pilot's intimacy with military hardware. He has passed his share of legislation -- notably the Dornan Amendment, which forbids Pentagon-funded abortions for military personnel and their dependents -- and occasionally has embraced such nominally liberal causes as curtailing offshore drilling.
Last December he was among 35 conservatives who signed a letter to the South African government, warning of possible support for sanctions if human rights conditions do not improve. This term he has been soliciting advice from Arthur Laffer, the supply-side mentor of presidential hopeful Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), and setting up his very own Dornan PAC to aid worthy candidates around the country.
And now, as in the past, his reputation rests on being a lightning rod.
"I'm an easy target," Dornan says. A senior Republican staffer prefers to describe him as "a loose cannon on deck."
As a newly arrived freshman in 1977 he volunteered himself as a replacement hostage during the Hanafi Muslim siege, and canvassed the House in an effort to recruit fellow members. He later introduced a bill to require record companies to place warning labels on rock 'n' roll albums against "backward masking," lest listeners fall prey to Satanic messages hidden among the grooves.
In his most memorable antiabortion speech he stunned his colleagues with a graphic description of the murder of Sharon Tate, claiming her killers wanted to perform a Cesarean section on the pregnant actress to "take the living baby back to Charlie Manson at his deserted ranch hideaway." He added, "Are we here any less observant or intelligent than a drugged-up, pathetic young killer?"
Dornan's Chappaquiddick speech in 1979, the day after Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) announced his presidential candidacy, provoked a similar response. Telling his colleagues that he had personally investigated the accident and swum the famous channel as a TV journalist, he accused Kennedy of "a massive coverup, including the blocking of an autopsy of Mary Jo Kopechne " and called Kennedy's televised explanation a "pathetic lying speech."
In the ensuing uproar over his violation of congressional protocol against personal attacks, Dornan traveled to Pennsylvania to confer with the father of Mary Jo Kopechne in an attempt to set the record straight. He says he arrived unannounced and found Joe Kopechne raking leaves.
Dornan's opening line, as he later recounted: "I'm a United States congressman, and I think I have a problem."
"He gives flamboyance a new meaning and dimension," says Dornan's friend and ally, Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois. "He is a diamond in a sea of zircons."
"It's a 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' kind of scene for me," says singer Pat Boone, who has served as honorary chairman of Dornan's last three successful campaigns. "I see Bob very much like the character Jimmy Stewart played. He feels deeply, he takes controversial stands, he's willing to commit everything, and he runs against the tide."
Others are not so enamored.
Rep. Jim Bates (D-Calif.) says that in 1983 he refused to board a plane at New York's Kennedy Airport for a long-planned trip to Israel when he learned that Dornan would also be along.
"It was so late at night, there were no more flights back to Washington, so I grabbed a taxi to Penn Station and got on the train with all my luggage," he says. "I didn't get home till 6 o'clock in the morning. I just didn't think I could stand a week of steady ideological harangues from Bob Dornan."
"He's a funny guy," says former Rep. James Shannon, a Boston Democrat. "Not funny ha ha. Funny different."
"He's kind of a stunt man of the far right," says California Assemblyman Tom Hayden, husband of Jane Fonda. "He comes from a Hollywood family, a TV background. He's certainly not dangerous -- except possibly to himself."
"He has darting, beady eyes," says the man Dornan most recently defeated, a five-term Democrat named Jerry Patterson. "He's just a nasty man, as nasty a person as you can imagine."
That 1984 campaign culminated in a visit to Patterson's headquarters the day after Halloween by Dornan, sporting Groucho glasses, and half a dozen volunteers in rented cat costumes. The ensuing melee involved an ambulance and three squad cars and resulted in one of the more voluminous incident reports in the history of the Garden Grove Police Department.
In his losing race for the Republican nomination to the Senate in 1982, Dornan attacked front-runner Barry Goldwater Jr. for attending a fete at the Playboy Mansion -- where partygoers, he claimed, regularly indulge in bestiality. He then accused Barry Sr. of signing a letter for Planned Parenthood, a charge the elder Goldwater called "a damnable lie."
"Why did I ever take him on?" Dornan says today of Barry Sr. "If I ever made a mistake in my eight years on Capitol Hill, it was to take on a living legend."
He says the living legend told him, "I'm going to wreck your life" -- and did just that, using his clout to deny Dornan a string of White House jobs. The experience was "shattering," says Robin Griffin, Dornan's daughter. A spokesman for the senator says he has no comment. But Barry Jr. says, "My father was pretty pissed off . . . Bob was just getting the quid pro quo of politics."
"He does have a characteristic of going to the sounds of the guns," says Dornan's older brother Don, a political consultant in Los Angeles.
The public Dornan is wildly at odds with the private one.
His family knows him as a devoted husband, a loving father of five and grandfather of three whose bleeding heart would be the envy of Alan Alda (who signed a fund-raising letter against Dornan in 1980).
"To me, as a kid growing up," says the eldest, Robin, 29, "he was the perfect combination of both sensitive compassion and being very emotional in the sense of being very loving and demonstrative. He's a ' '50s man' who's not afraid to cry."
"The man is inexhaustible," Sallie Dornan says, noting that he regularly gets by on five hours of sleep. "Reporters have asked me, 'Does this man take medication?' And I say, 'No, this is a natural high . . .'
"He is -- and I know nobody believes this -- shy. Now don't laugh. This is a shy man! At a cocktail party he is like a duck out of water. I have to push him and shove him through the crowds. He's self-conscious in a social situation . . . You see, because he wants to be liked. He doesn't want to be thought of as this crazy, screaming thing."
It is almost airtime on "Donahue," and Dornan is in makeup with Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) and Sister Peggy Healy, a Maryknoll nun. He prepares to confront them both, live on TV, over the issue of American aid to anti-Sandinista contras. Gejdenson and Healy are against it. Dornan is for it.
"All right, 12 seconds to blastoff," he says, smoothing his red hair in front of the mirror.
"Some people say you've already blasted off," Gejdenson says. "You're not going to grab me like you did Downey, are you?"
"Are you kidding? I am so weak from people coming up to me on the House floor and recommending that I check out their sartorial splendor." The broadcast is boisterous. Donahue baits Dornan, repeatedly calling him a "wimp." Dornan pushes his voice to the ragged edge. Donahue smiles wanly when, during a commercial break, Dornan gets off his line about the $5,000 contribution. Everything seems to be going well for Dornan until he blurts out, "There's no middle class left -- every single Jewish person has been driven out of Nicaragua," followed by a moment of awkward airspace.
When the show ends and Dornan bounds from the stage to shake hands with members of the audience, two matronly women take him to task for the remark. Sallie Dornan, who has been squabbling nearby with Sister Peggy, chimes in, "He's never said anything anti-Semitic in his life."
Dornan is red-faced.
"Will you answer me a question?" he rages at the women. "Why is the PLO in Nicaragua? Do you know? Do you give a shit? Do you care?"
"Let's get out of here," mutters Brian O'Leary Bennett, his administrative assistant.
"Sorry to be so intense," Dornan says later with a sheepish grin. "I'm not like this all the time."
During the course of a day, Dornan will say half a dozen times that his father, Harry ("The Rock") Dornan, a successful entrepreneur who served as an artillery officer in World War I, raised him and his two brothers to be "fearless but not foolhardy."
"Fearless but not foolhardy," he repeats like a mantra.
The middle son of a Ziegfeld Follies chorine and a nephew of Jack Haley, who played the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz," he spent his childhood on the sidewalks of New York. He was fearless even then.
"One day, and I'll never forget this, a group of boys threw a dart right into Bob's leg," Don Dornan says. "Bob pulled it out, threw it down in a rage and he cried. And then he chased the biggest kid down the street. I was astonished."
When Bob Dornan was 10 the family moved to Beverly Hills, where the brothers played with Bing Crosby's kids, indulged their infatuation for Hollywood films and attended parochial school. Bob discovered airplanes, got a job raking leaves at Hughes Aircraft just to be close to them, and earned his pilot's license at 16, Don says. Bob followed him into the Air Force.
"Before my brother was thinking of running for poltiical office," says Don, "I would see him among his peers at the officers' clubs on air bases. And everybody had a helluva time trading war stories, stories about hairy flights, and always told in expanded language. It was a way of life -- hyperbole. That's how one guy would get a few minutes up on the other guy."
Bob Dornan married Sallie Hansen of Santa Monica in 1955, the year he got his wings. The couple settled in Los Angeles after his active duty, and Dornan worked as a cab driver and gym teacher before trying his luck in Hollywood.
In the early '60s he played a copilot in "12 O'Clock High," a TV show of the time. He wrote for B movies, including a never-produced screenplay about Vietnam titled "Yankee Station" -- "the story of a Navy fighter pilot on a carrier in the Tonkin Gulf who teams with an Air Force pilot named Robert Kittinger, which is pretty obvious, since my initials are 'R.K.' "
Dornan seems to take an almost numerological interest in letters of the alphabet, dates and numbers. He finds it interesting, for instance, that the number stenciled onto one of his Air Force flight helmets was "435," the number of representatives in the House. He is equally fascinated by his office phone number. "I kept thinking '2966, 2966,' and then it hit me. If you look at the dial, it's 'Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines.' It's the group I once toured with in Vietnam."
He says he visited Vietnam frequently as a radio talk show host, television journalist and on behalf of the families of captured and missing American soldiers.
Dornan likes to tell stories, especially stories in which he figures prominently, usually as the protagonist. One of his favorites is about how he wore his Air Force captain's uniform to march on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. Another is the saga of walking the precincts in Alabama, registering black voters as Republicans. Asked how long he did that, he says, "Oh, not long. I had five kids and a wife. Maybe three weekends."
A typical Dornan tale is rich in dramatic detail, overflowing with historical allusion and full of surprises. For example:
"The best compliment I've ever had on the House floor -- now brace yourself -- was from Henry Hyde. He was sitting with Rep. Chuck Dougherty R-Pa. in the front row after a Dornan speech -- Henry's like a brother to me -- and he goes, 'Dornan, we decided that if we were Indians in the Plains Wars and you were a cavalry trooper, we would kill you just to cut out your heart and eat it.' And I said, 'Now wait a minute, run that by me one more time. Okay, I guess that's a compliment. Thanks.'
"And they meant it as a compliment. No, no, no, no. I'm sorry, I turned it into an Aztec thing, too much. What Henry said was, 'If we were Indians in the Plains Wars and you were a cavalry trooper, we would kill you just to drink your blood.' And that sounds a little better than 'cut your heart out.'
"And, of course, this is what Indians did do in lots of primitive cultures, when they really respected a warrior. As a matter of fact, all the Custer guys were chopped up on the battlefield because the Indians thought they fought bravely and didn't want them to come back. And they turned the women loose on the field and they cut off their private parts, cut their arms and hands and feet off, cut their heads off, and then separated the parts so they could not come together on the ground.
"So I really rate that as the nicest compliment I've had yet."
Dornan is still performing on the flight back to Washington after the "Donahue" show. Walking down the aisle on the 11 a.m. Eastern shuttle, he spots Ted Kennedy in conversation with Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).
"How wonderful to see two important people like you traveling in coach!" he chirps.
Kennedy, on the aisle, looks up in surprise. "OH, MY GOD!" he shouts, rolling his eyes. "I've been reading about you."
Dodd just giggles.
Dornan takes his place a row behind Kennedy on the the other side of the aisle, where Sallie has saved him a seat. For most of the flight he keeps his eyes on Kennedy. The eyes go wide when a young woman approaches, plants a kiss on Kennedy's face and flounces down beside him. Dornan relaxes when told it is Maria Shriver, one of Kennedy's nieces. "Boy, is she beautiful!"
Soon Pat Caddell, the Democratic pollster, stops by to pay his respects. "Sallie," Dornan shouts, "here's your favorite guy! Pat Caddell! Sallie thinks he should dye that white patch in his beard. It really looks funny -- like whipped cream coming out of the corner of his mouth."
Before long Dornan is eagerly discussing Chappaquiddick.
"I just cannot conceive of the thought of this guy being the president," he says, waving at Kennedy's back a few feet away. "As a television journalist, I swam the channel on the 26th of July, 1969. I went to the Shiretown Inn and sat at a table and asked the waitress, 'I understand that Ted Kennedy had breakfast here,' and she said, 'Yes, at this table.' I said, 'Am I sitting in his seat?' She said, 'No, over here.' I moved into that seat. And I said, 'I'd like the same breakfast he had.' And she brought me the identical breakfast. I think it was scrambled eggs or something. And I said, 'What did he do?' and she said, 'He read the paper.'
"READING THE PAPER? WHEN HE KNOWS THAT HER BODY IS WASHING AROUND IN THE BACK OF A DARK CAR UPSIDE DOWN IN POUCHA POND?"
Congressman, do you think he can hear us?
"No, no," Dornan says, shaking his head. "The engines are covering everything. And we're speaking sotto voce."
Hours later, on the ground, Dornan is still ebullient. "You want the bottom line?" he says. "I've got a fantastic life. I got five great kids. I got three munchkin grandchildren.
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world."