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10.19.10

The Original Tea Partier

California congressman Bob Dornan was the Rand Paul and Sharron Angle of his day. He talks to Bryan Curtis about the Tea Party dos and don’ts, his invasion of Congress, and why he hates Newt.

Between Samuel Adams and Rick Santelli, you can identify a lot of fathers of the Tea Party movement. But Bob Dornan, the former Republican congressman, would like to throw his hat into the ring. "I was the first Tea Partier," he says, "and I'll lay claim to that to my grave!"

Dornan makes a convincing case. Just call him up and listen to him thunder about the state of the world for an hour. It's better than being at a rally on the Washington Mall. In the life and times of " B-1 Bob," you can see the Tea Party's right-wing tenacity; its emotional high-wire act; its almost millennial sense of urgency.

Dornan is 77 years old and has 15 grandchildren and one great-grandson. "Tom Coburn"—the Republican senator from Oklahoma—"came up to me and said, 'Oh my god, Bob, you haven't aged a day!'"

"The answer," Dornan says, "is no smoking, no drinks, and no pills! And no Ambien!"

Who has time for Ambien? Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when Dornan was an Orange County congressman and a fire-breathing presence on C-SPAN, he often felt like a "Tea Party of one," he says. He was such a singular figure that Michael Moore tried to have him committed to a mental hospital. But these days, Dornan surveys the Tea Party and feels as if history has at last caught up to him. We're all Bob Dornans now. If Dornan used to be fringe, well, the entire political scene has gone fringe.

Dornan, who spends his days reading widely and visiting old friends in Congress, says "this is the most interesting election of my life." Protesters are screaming for deficit reduction, candidates like New York's Carl Paladino are campaigning in a theatrical style that can most accurately be called Dornanism. Dornan is perhaps the best person to dispense suggestions to the nascent movement. Suggestion No. 1: Knock off the protest signs that are "blatantly racist." Suggestion No. 2: "You can bring all the American flags you want, but leave the tri-corner hats at home." That's a touch too theatrical.

Tea Partiers from Rand Paul to Sharron Angle have been tarred as wingnuts, kooks. Dornan has some advice on this front, too. The Tea Partiers should open Bartlett's and locate their economic rhetoric within mainstream conservative thought. "More Milton Friedman, less Ayn Rand," Dornan says. He has been a critic of Rand—"the atheist"—for years, ever since he had her boyfriend on The Robert K. Dornan Show.

A former fighter pilot, actor, and TV host, Dornan arrived in Congress in 1977 as flamboyantly as Paul or Angle could next year. "He was the outrageous talk-show host that was live on the air for three and four hours a day back then," says Brian Bennett, who was his chief of staff. "He would have been the Tea Party candidate in 1976."

"He was always interesting when he told Hollywood stories," says Bob Walker, a former Republican representative from Pennsylvania. "He would regale us sometimes with his experience flying jet airplanes."

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But it was the zealous way in which Dornan conducted the business of politics that makes him a precursor to the Tea Party moment. On the plus side, he would latch on to an issue like MIAs in Southeast Asia, says former adviser Al Santoli, and he would make it seem like the most important thing on the Hill. Less happily, he railed against a "Bolshevik enemy," a "lesbian spear-chucker," and, in one celebrated case, a Soviet journalist he called a "disloyal, betraying little Jew." (He apologized for the last two statements.)

"He's a good man who's a lot of fun," says Brian Bennett, "who occasionally has moments of… let's see what word should I use… irrationality."

Where the Tea Party is dotted with Barack Obama conspiracy theories, Dornan once played Inspector Javert to Bill Clinton. In Dornan's telling, Clinton was a "self-indulgent hedonist and phony," a dabbler in drugs, a letch. In our conversation, Dornan tells me that at the D-Day 50th anniversary celebration, Clinton "scoped out my wife. I swear on the life of my new great-grandson." He adds, "I did have, arguably, the most beautiful wife in Congress at that time."

“Gingrich running for president makes me sick,” Dornan says.

Chuck DeVore, who ran for U.S. Senate in California this year as a Tea Party-backed candidate, met Dornan in 1982. "I can just hear his voice as he was talking to you," DeVore says, switching to his bellowing Dornan impression. "'I am the original Tea Partier!'" It's not a crazy idea, DeVore notes. Dornan helped pioneer the 60-second C-SPAN speech, which was the YouTube video of its day. He also says Dornan presaged the Tea Party's money machine by using nationwide direct-mail fundraising. "Look at what Sharron Angle did raising $14 million," DeVore says. "Dornan had the same kind of operation going where he was appealing to people philosophically all over the country."

A central plank of the Tea Party is challenging conservatives who have strayed from the true faith. In this tactic, too, Dornan has been a trailblazer. Once upon a time, he was a loyal soldier for George H.W. Bush's 1992 reelection campaign, and he supported George W. But now…

"The father left us Bill Clinton, who corrupted the morals of high-school kids," he says. "'Oral sex is not sex.' And the son left us the Saul Alinsky community organizer. What more can a father-son do for America?"

But if there's an entrenched Republican in Dornan's sights, it is his former House mate Newt Gingrich, whom he calls "The Great Newtie." Dornan began souring on Gingrich the moment Newt was elected to the House in 1978. "It was the never the same with that geek haunting the hallways," Dornan says. He loathes Gingrich's ideological posturing; Gingrich's infidelities; the fact that Gingrich's sudden resignation bequeathed the Republicans Dennis Hastert, "the weakest, non-entity, wet paper bag I'd ever seen in the House"; and, again according to Dornan, the fact that Gingrich has blackballed him appearing on from Fox News.

"Gingrich running for president makes me sick," Dornan says. He says he might run in 2012 as a single-man kamikaze mission to take out Gingrich, which would be a very Tea Party thing to do.

As Paul and Angle and other Tea Partiers approach Election Day, one concern is whether the movement troops will remain unflinching if they attain the spoils of power. Here, Dornan has a plan. He says that in January, after the Tea Partiers have been sworn into Congress, he will use his ex-member privileges to slip into the House of Representatives and give them a talk.

How will he get past John Boehner, likely the new Speaker? "I'm going to grease the skids," Dornan confides. He's going to tell the Tea Partiers to look for him in the House and wait for a cue.

So imagine this scene next January: the 77-year-old Dornan rising from his chair amid the Republican House caucus. "I'll have to get up and say, 'Mr. Speaker, can a former member speak?'"

"And then I'll have my plants say: 'Let him speak! Let him speak!'"

At that point, the original Tea Partier will stand before the new congressmen and counsel them to remain honestly, defiantly odd.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.