These Ultraconservative Brothers Pulled Strings in Reagan's Washington. Then One of Them Was Outed as Gay

In the new book Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, author James Kirchick exposes how fears and prejudices around homosexuality shaped presidential politics for decades, from the Cold War-era purge of gays and lesbians from every level of government to the rise of the conservative movement.

This exclusive excerpt goes behind the scenes of Ronald Reagan’s Washington to meet the powerful Dolan brothers: Terry the fiery founder of the notorious National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), which pioneered the 30-second attack ad; older brother Tony the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned chief Reagan speechwriter.

But one of these fierce pillars of the conservative community had a secret: Terry was gay — a reality his fellow Republicans could no longer ignore after he died of AIDS a few days after Christmas, 1986. 

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Here, Kirchick traces the story of Terry Dolan’s posthumous outing in a Washington Post obituary, and Tony Dolan’s outraged response — including an allusion to Post editor Ben Bradlee’s own gay brother — that subsequently ran in the Washington Times.

 

John Terrence “Terry” Dolan’s political philosophy could be inferred from his ideal federal budget: “99 percent for defense — keep America strong — and one percent on delivering the mail. That’s it. Leave us alone.” His tactical philosophy in dealing with liberal opponents was that of a Marine drill sergeant. “Make them angry.” “Stir up hostilities.” “The shriller you are,” he liked to say, the better. “That’s the nature of our beast.”

Dolan’s confidence, if not his attitude, was well earned. By the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, the 30-year-old conservative firebrand had revolutionized American politics. As chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC, pronounced “NICK-pack”), which he had founded just five years earlier alongside fellow conservative activists Charles Black and Roger Stone, Dolan led one of the first groups to take advantage of the campaign finance loopholes created by the post-Watergate electoral reforms. NCPAC exerted its influence primarily through the medium of the 15- and 30-second television attack ad, which Dolan pioneered and made into a staple of American political campaigns. “A group like ours,” Dolan once bragged, “could lie through its teeth, and the candidate it helps stays clean.”

Adding to the Dolan mystique was the fact that he was one half of a political power tandem: As Terry advanced the banner of conservatism outside the White House, his older brother Tony, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former journalist, furthered the cause from within as the president’s chief speechwriter. Where Terry was vociferous in his views and unrestrained in throwing punches, Tony (who performed conservative folk songs at Yale and required any girl he dated to take out a subscription to National Review) preferred to place his fillips in the mouths of others. “Speechwriters should be seen and not heard” was his credo. Not since Jack and Bobby Kennedy had two brothers exercised more political influence in Washington.

Tony Dolan would serve as Reagan’s top wordsmith for all eight years of his presidency, and go onto work for a procession of powerful Republicans including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and President Donald Trump. Terry’s loyalties, however, lay not with the GOP, but the conservative movement. “I used to be a Republican,” he confessed to The Washington Post three months before Reagan’s election. “I used to be a political hack, but then in 1972, it was like a sexual awakening. I couldn’t understand these strange urgings to do conservative things.”

Tony Dolan (right, in 1989) served as Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter for all eight years of Reagan’s presidency.

HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It was an ironic comparison for Terry to draw, considering how his actual sexual awakening would come to overshadow his political one. Of all the many gay men working in the Reagan administration and conservative movement during the 1980s, none more vividly exposed the punishing contradictions of their precarious existence than Terry Dolan. By day, he attended Catholic mass and delivered speeches containing assertions like “I can think of virtually nothing that I do not endorse on the agenda of the Christian right.” By night, he frequented the Eagle and cruised the steam room at a Capitol Hill gym. Dolan spent a lot of time at these temples of bodily self-perfection (three hours in the weight room every morning and sometimes a quick cardio exercise during lunch) to maintain his footing in what author Randy Shilts called the “aristocracy of beauty” that defined the 1980s urban gay male subculture. Though Dolan was careful never to acknowledge his homosexuality outside the environs of that world, he was not exactly a model of discretion. One evening, after addressing a business trade association at a Denver hotel, Dolan descended into the lobby for a night of prowling the local leather bar scene decked out in the era’s “gay clone” uniform (tight jeans, leather cowboy boots, flannel shirt, and studded leather wristband), the attendees to whom he had, just moments earlier, served up a generous helping of right-wing rhetorical red meat none the wiser. Dolan’s organization, meanwhile, sent out fundraising letters like the one signed by far-right Republican congressman Dan Crane, declaring, “Our nation’s moral fiber is being weakened by the growing homosexual movement and the fanatical ERA pushers (many of whom publicly brag they are lesbians).”

Dolan’s rascally exterior masked a conflicted soul. “He was very private about his life,” remembered Mike Murphy, who started his career at NCPAC before going on to advise leading Republican politicians including Sen. John McCain and Governors Jeb Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger. “His sexual orientation never was discussed, at least between him and I or any staffer there that I know of that I ever spoke to . . . I did feel for him; that if he was gay and I thought the odds were that he was, it must have [been] very tough to exist in the larger conservative movement that was overtly hostile to gay rights.”

In 1982, Dolan was outed as a secret homosexual in a book criticizing the Christian right. Dolan denied the charge, and maintained his place within the conservative firmament. The following year, White House Chief of Staff James Baker personally escorted Dolan to an Oval Office photo session with the president, and the following week, Baker served as co-chairman of a $125-a-plate dinner honoring Dolan in the Riverview Room at the Watergate, where 200 of the city’s most powerful conservative luminaries roasted the young activist. “Terry Dolan is our kind of moderate,” cracked Utah Republican senator Orrin Hatch, one of the first men to benefit from Dolan’s political wizardry in 1976. Republican senator Steve Symms of Idaho blessed the honoree for the assistance NCPAC had lent his campaign to “separate Church and state,” a reference to Symms’ upset victory over Frank Church in 1980. For his services to the cause, Dolan was awarded an antique plaque adorned with an apt quote from Teddy Roosevelt: “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.”

A guest from outside the Beltway would never have guessed that the toast of conservative Washington had been exposed just a few months earlier as a homosexual. Such calculated ambiguity was important first and foremost to right-wing gays, who needed it to preserve their status in a political movement increasingly hostile to them. But the ruse also served the purposes of their straight patrons, who profited from the talents of their gay advisors while opposing the “homosexual agenda” that aimed to make them full and equal citizens. This minuet of mutual hypocrisy and deceit left Dolan and others like him serving the role of modern-day eunuchs, reliable servants to the powerful whose public denial of a personal life — according to one of his employees, Dolan took “10 to 15 pounds of polling” data home to analyze every night — and vulnerability to exposure guaranteed their steadfast loyalty.

The Dolan dinner ended as did any conservative outing in Reaganite Washington, with a word of thanks to the men and women in uniform abroad and a prayer for grace from the Lord above. “John Terrence Dolan is a patriot,” Hatch declared. “He’s an exemplary leader. God bless him and keep him.”

 

On January 8, 1987, the cream of conservative Washington once again convened to celebrate Terry Dolan. But whereas, less than four years earlier, the purpose had been to praise him, on this day, it was to bury him.

Dolan had been hospitalized the previous summer, according to his colleagues at NCPAC, for a combination of anemia and diabetes. But the signs that his malady was of a different nature were difficult to ignore. At one of his last public appearances, a celebration of NCPAC’s tenth anniversary held aboard a Potomac River cruise, the 36-year-old activist looked conspicuously lethargic and gaunt, his face heavily covered in makeup to disguise the lesions that had sprung up across it. Dolan’s debilitated condition mirrored the state of the organization he had founded, which in the weeks leading up to the 1986 midterm elections was $3.9 million in debt, enmeshed in a dispute with its direct mail consultant, and listless without its once-fiery captain at the helm. The subsequent election, in which the Republicans lost eight Senate seats along with control of the body, marked a humiliating fall for NCPAC, and the furious refusal by the man who replaced Dolan as leader to acknowledge this sobering fact revealed yet another similarity between the group and its pugnacious former president: denial. In a letter to the Post challenging a story about NCPAC’s financial woes and atrophied political muscle, L. Brent Bozell III asked if the paper had not grown “tired of writing biennial obituaries about NCPAC and other conservative groups,” answering his own rhetorical question with the statement that “expecting the Post to be consistent is like expecting the Democrats to cut wasteful spending.” Published less than two months before Dolan’s eventual demise on December 28, the headline over Bozell’s missive was morbidly ironic: “NCPAC’s Death Has Been, Well, Exaggerated.”

During his short but energetic life as a guerrilla warrior in the conservative movement, Dolan had regularly attacked the Post as a liberal rag, gleefully distributing “I Don’t Believe the Post” bumper stickers. So, it would no doubt have infuriated him that the paper essentially revealed his secret in the obituary it published on New Year’s Eve. “Widely recognized as one of the New Right’s most articulate spokesmen” and one of the leading figures to “devise and promote negative political advertising,” Dolan died of congestive heart failure at his home in Washington, the Post reported, from complications due to AIDS. Confirmation for the cause of death, the paper’s obituary editor would later say, came “from a very reliable source, on deep, deep background,” though he did offer a piece of circumstantial evidence: When Dolan was called to testify before an Alexandria courtroom a few months before his death, his lawyers told the judge that their client would be unable to do so because of an illness the details of which “would be embarrassing to his family.”

At the Catholic monastery where Dolan’s evening memorial service was held a few days after his burial, the controversy over his alleged AIDS diagnosis presented the hundreds of friends and political allies in attendance with an uncomfortable realization: Here was the conservative movement’s most effective strategist reportedly struck down by a plague many of them considered divine punishment for an immoral lifestyle. Perhaps the most incongruous of the mourners at the Dominican House of Studies was White House communications director Pat Buchanan. “The poor homosexuals,” Buchanan had written with mock sympathy in his syndicated column four years earlier. “They have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.” Vicious as those words might have been, the casualty of nature’s awful retribution whose life was being commemorated that evening had been willing to overlook them. “Terry held a deep affection for you and asked that you be invited,” Bozell wrote in the Mailgram invitation sent to Buchanan at the White House. Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, who had once tried to interest the Washington Times in publishing an exposé of Dolan’s secret gay life and AIDS diagnosis, was also in the pews. So, too, was New Hampshire senator Gordon Humphrey, who credited Dolan with playing a “pivotal” role in his 1978 election and who, the following year, attended a “Clean Up America” rally on the steps of the Capitol Building alongside Jerry Falwell. “You can tell the boys from the girls without a medical examination,” the preacher declared while looking proudly over the crowd of 8,000 gender-conforming supporters.

NCPAC President L. Brent Bozell messaged Pat Buchanan a personal invitation to Terry Dolan’s memorial service.

Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Dolan’s secret gay life was an even more uncomfortable subject for the man delivering his eulogy. Homosexuality was a touchy issue in the White House speechwriting office Tony Dolan led, something best not mentioned, even obliquely. Once, after a young speechwriter named Peggy Noonan, instructed to stop using the word “happy” in her drafts, started inserting variations of “gay” instead, a member of the president’s advance team called her in a panic. There was a problem, he explained, with the appearance of “gaiety” in an upcoming speech congratulating the U.S. Olympic swimming team.

“I think you better strike that,” the advance man told her. “Why?” Noonan asked.

“It sounds like he’s calling them gay.”

“No one will think, no one would ever think, that the President of the United States would hail our Olympic heroes by accusing them of being homosexual,” Noonan responded. “I promise you this.”

The word, alas, was removed.

Tony Dolan was used to writing speeches, not delivering them, and he began his remarks with a warning. “We are not, as they say in some parts of the government (though not in Presidential Speechwriting, I can assure you) in a ‘risk-free environment.’” Should the depths of his grief overwhelm his ability to speak, Tony continued, “please do not be embarrassed if I just sit down and send along to you later in the mail what I wanted to say — which is just to thank you for being here tonight and for praying for Terry and us.” He then proceeded to share a series of touching reminiscences about his younger brother, whom he had visited regularly during his illness on his way to and from work at the White House. Terry had worn an alarm watch around his weakened and withered wrist that reminded him to pray every hour, Tony said, and on the last night of his life, barely able to move, he sipped some milk “just to humor me I am certain.” At one point before Terry’s death, the brothers discussed the case of Father Charles Curran, a theologian who had recently been fired from a teaching position at Catholic University over his questioning church doctrine on homosexuality and other matters pertaining to sexual ethics. “Terry was usually just dismissive of those he thought in the wrong,” Tony emphasized, “but he considered the theologian gravely in error and this time Terry was solemn; it was the first occasion I could remember him so.” On his deathbed, Tony implied, Terry had renounced his homosexuality.

Tony saved the most vivid symbolism for the end. It was a flourish one might have expected from the pen of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and presidential wordsmith responsible for such an indelible turn of phrase as “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history” and the description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” Invoking another, albeit fictional, Catholic family, Tony told the bereaved that the Dolans were suffering their own “fierce little human tragedy,” Evelyn Waugh’s description of the sorrows inflicted upon the Flyte clan in Brideshead Revisited by their wayward son, Sebastian. Terry, he continued, “was our Sebastian, through his suffering, showing us God’s goodness and mercy, leading us to deeper things and holy moments.” It was a striking association, likening the torment of his younger brother who had just died of AIDS to this literary archetype of dissolute and aristocratic homosexuality. In Waugh’s novel, Sebastian leaves the family homestead to shack up with a German deserter from the French Foreign Legion in Tangier — a destination popular with generations of gay European men in search of sexual freedom — where he nearly dies of pneumonia, which happened to be the leading opportunistic infection among AIDS victims. When the visual image of the gray and withered Sebastian, his face almost entirely drained of its once-enchanting beauty, flashed across millions of American television screens in the 1982 television adaptation of Brideshead, it had been a chilling premonition of the disease that would soon kill Terry Dolan, along with so many other young men.

A character from a 42-year-old novel was not the only allusion Tony Dolan made to homosexuality by referring to his brother as “our Sebastian.” In saying that Terry’s “suffering” had guided those around him “to deeper things and holy moments,” Tony was also invoking the Catholic saint Sebastian, a member of the 3rd-century Roman emperor Diocletian’s Praetorian Guard. Like Terry, that Sebastian had a secret — Christian faith — and its discovery led to his execution by arrows. The martyrdom of the young saint, his taut and muscular torso penetrated with sharpened projectiles, has inspired centuries of homoerotic art, from Caravaggio to the Japanese author Yukio Mishima, and the British filmmaker Derek Jarman.

Two days later, a delegation from the secret city where Terry Dolan dwelled congregated at the Cathedral of St. Matthew on Rhode Island Avenue, the cavernous Catholic church that hosted Joe McCarthy’s wedding and John F. Kennedy’s funeral. About 50 gay men and women, most of them involved with the conservative movement, gathered to remember their fallen brother. Presiding over the mass was Rev. John Gigrich, a closeted gay priest (and World War II spy) who was the diocese’s unofficial minister to people with AIDS, Dolan included. Whereas the first memorial service, attended by Dolan’s family and political allies, was held in the open, the one at St. Matthew’s was conducted in secret. Still, despite all the precautions undertaken by its organizers to keep the event from leaking to the press, some of those who had been invited stayed home. Afraid the media would hear about the ceremony and stake out the church, they, like the man they had been invited to memorialize, were desperate to protect their secret.

Terry Dolan was a public figure, and the dilemma symbolized by his dueling memorial services intrigued Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Another, more personal factor interested Bradlee: Like Tony Dolan, Bradlee had a gay brother. But unlike Dolan, Bradlee accepted his sibling’s sexual orientation — though not at first. In his memoir, Ben described his early relationship with his older brother Freddy as “a pitched battle for the first thirteen years of my life.” It was a dynamic familiar to many gay-straight sibling relationships — Ben’s world being that of “tennis, butterflies, chopping wood, girls” and Freddy’s one of “imagination, actors and actresses, theater.” Ben “scorned [Freddy’s] world, because I didn’t understand it. He ignored mine, because it bored him.” But as Ben grew older, he came to appreciate his brother more. A great mimic who performed spot-on impersonations of family members as well as of Eleanor Roosevelt, Tallulah Bankhead, and Katharine Hepburn, Freddy dropped out of Harvard after two months and got a role on Broadway at the age of 19. According to Ben’s wife, Sally Quinn, Ben “loved, adored Freddy” and “totally accepted him as gay.”

Bradlee’s relationship with his gay brother gave him a sensitive and empathetic perspective on homosexuality unusual among men of his generation. “I’m sure he made some limp-wristed jokes along the way, he’s a creature of his time,” remembered Ted Gup, one of the Post reporters Bradlee assigned to investigate a supposed “homosexual ring” controlling Ronald Reagan in the summer of 1980. “But if anybody discriminated against somebody who was gay, I would not want to be in his shoes.” One time, Gup recalled, a Post employee used the word “queer” at an editorial meeting. “‘We don’t use that word around here,” Bradlee announced. “I was so struck that a guy who came out of World War II, from his generation, would snap in a meeting of senior people and tell someone directly” not to denigrate gays, Gup said.

The day after Terry Dolan died, an editor on the Post assignment desk told a reporter in the Style section, Elizabeth Kastor, to start gathering research materials for a possible story about the life and death of a closeted gay conservative activist in the age of AIDS. Kastor read through old newspaper clippings about Dolan, interviewed friends and associates, and finished a 4,000-word draft by the end of January. On February 9, Kastor wrote a letter addressed to Tony Dolan requesting an interview; her colleague, White House correspondent David Hoffman, hand-delivered it to Dolan’s office. In a tense meeting at the Hay-Adams, Dolan attempted to persuade Kastor to abandon the profile. Kastor said she would “keep an open mind,” and over the course of the next three months, as the Post wrestled over what to do with her piece, Dolan repeatedly implored the paper’s top editors to heed the wishes of his family and spike it. “Dear Ben, We’ve suffered enough,” Dolan pleaded in a handwritten note to Bradlee. “Please. There is no journalistic good that possibly authorizes the grief you will cause.”

It would take more than emotional blackmail from a presidential speechwriter and former fellow journalist, even one as gifted with language as Dolan, to intimidate the man who successfully stood up to the Nixon administration over the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Dolan and Bradlee’s disagreement over the newsworthiness of Terry’s secret life boiled down to a set of issues — the boundary between the public and the private, the role of hypocrisy in politics, the devastating effects of an epidemic — all stemming from the increasing visibility of homosexuality in American life. “We’ve just got to get over that,” Bradlee had told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times the previous fall when asked about the propriety of listing AIDS as a cause of death in media accounts. “AIDS has the potential of a scourge, and to deny that people are dropping like flies from it is putting your head in the sand. It’s clearly news and clearly justified.” The same went for the sexual orientation of the deceased. “If you are a public figure and seek to be a public figure and thrive on being a public figure, the public has a right to know about you.” Terry Dolan fit Bradlee’s criteria perfectly.

 

By spring, Bradlee could no longer wait to publish the paper’s feature on Terry Dolan. He had far exceeded his professional obligations to the subject’s surviving brother, going so far as to send him a final version of Kastor’s article for him to review. Such courtesy was an extremely unusual departure from journalistic convention, but if Bradlee thought that extending it to Tony Dolan might bring the president’s chief speechwriter to reason, he was sorely mistaken. At one point, Dolan called Post publisher Don Graham and, portentously inverting the words John Dean had uttered to an increasingly paranoid Richard Nixon, warned, “There is a cancer on your newspaper.” Ignoring these threats, Bradlee scheduled the story for the May 11 edition. On the evening of May 10, Kastor tried one final time to get in touch with Dolan to solicit a comment for the record. She called his home phone and then, not receiving any answer, rang his office at the White House. Forty-five minutes later, she called the White House switchboard, where the operator told her she would page Dolan. Kastor left her home phone number, but Dolan never called back.

The next day, the entire front page of the Post Style section was taken up with the image of a half-open door, above which appeared the headline, “The Cautious Closet of the Gay Conservative.” The piece recounted Dolan’s astonishingly fast rise within the conservative movement, the life he led as a closeted gay man, and the conflicts these dual identities created. Kastor quoted conservatives praising Dolan as a passionate visionary, gay activists assailing him as a self-loathing hypocrite, and others who, like the subject of the article, straddled the perilous space between the secret and open cities. Sen. Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, the New Right favorite whom Dolan helped elect in 1978 and a mourner at his funeral, gave voice to a view held by many of the late activist’s ideological allies. “At one time he was one of the bright stars in the conservative movement, and I think because of these rumors some of the luster wore away,” Humphrey said. The claim that Dolan was gay disturbed Humphrey, “because if it was true, it would be a great personal tragedy. It is tragic when anyone embraces an unhealthy personal life style, whether it’s alcoholism, drug abuse, homosexuality, venality . . .”

Early that morning, an enraged Tony Dolan called Ben Bradlee. Both he and the paper he edited, Dolan fumed, stank of corruption. The Post may have brought down one president, Dolan allowed, “and thank God for that, but this was too much.” Bradlee, he said, “didn’t have the guts to listen to my sister sob.” That afternoon, Margaret Dolan, the 71-year-old family matriarch, called Bradlee. She related to him how she had “lived through hell” nursing two sons and a husband with polio in addition to a senile mother. Though she was “absolutely devastated” by the story in that morning’s paper — the author of which, she hoped, would “never have a day’s love” — she was comforted by the fact that “Terry died in God’s hand.” Through tears, she said that she felt “terribly sorry” for Bradlee and the paper, and she asked him to pass that message along to his staff.

Bradlee reassured his team that they had done everything by the book. “This is one of these cutting edge pieces, which are far more easily left unwritten, but when written sensitively, shed light on an important area of our society,” he wrote in an all-staff memo. But Tony Dolan was far from finished with Ben Bradlee and the Post. Somehow, amid his heavy duties as chief speechwriter to the president of the United States, he found the time over the course of the following week to dash off an 8,000-word essay, comprised mostly of a painstaking rehash of his interactions with various Post staffers and a diatribe about the pernicious place of homosexuality in journalism and public life. The finished manuscript occupied 29 double-spaced pages, and Dolan demanded that the Post publish it, in its entirety, as a correction. When the paper asked Dolan to trim it to seven hundred fifty words, the length of an op-ed, he sent it to the conservative Washington Times.

Dolan declined to cut his treatise by a word, the so the Times offered a compromise: It would print the piece in its entirety, but only as a paid advertisement. The sprawling essay would require two full pages, a rarely afforded chunk of newspaper real estate known in the industry as a “double-truck,” and it set Dolan back 5,000 dollars. On May 22, Washington Times readers — the most prominent of whom, editor Arnaud de Borchgrave boasted, was the president of the United States — happened upon an extremely unusual tableau in their morning paper, positioned between the roundup of political news and the box scores. There, on pages eight and nine, the tiny letters spelling “ADVERTISEMENT” inside a very thin banner along the top the only indication that it was not an editorial feature of massive significance, was a work unprecedented in the annals of presidential speechwriting, an exclusive guild wherein anonymity is a sacred code. As Dolan himself had said at the outset of his tenure working for Ronald Reagan, “Speechwriters should be seen and not heard.” On this day, Tony Dolan would be heard.

Reading “What the Washington Post Doesn’t Tell Its Readers” was like rubbernecking at a car crash, if the accident site were the pages of a national newspaper and its victim the president’s chief speechwriter. In publishing an exposé of his brother, Dolan declared, the Washington Post had been “disrespectful of the public’s right to know; incapable of self-examination or introspection; self-righteous; arrogant and heartless in the relentless pursuit of those on its own enemy’s [sic] list.” He further charged that “homosexual intrigue” in the Post newsroom was so intense that “poor Ben Bradlee has no one on whom he dares turn his back” and that the paper “subordinates its public and journalistic responsibilities to its role as a political and ideological power-center promoting an anti-conservative, pro-gay agenda.” Pushing that agenda was “a special interest who wanted to claim my brother as well as other prominent people as one of their own,” an ultimately futile endeavor because, as he lay dying, “my brother had a deeply religious conversion and had completely rejected homosexuality.”

Dolan also alluded to something that helped explain the massive gulf between him and Bradlee concerning the controversy at hand: their gay brothers. “Mr. Bradlee has repeated often and in writing his view that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality,” Dolan asserted. “This feeling runs very deep in him and he has told me why. It does not concern his personal sexuality but it is a private matter. I leave it to Mr. Bradlee to decide whether he will fully discuss this with the public.” Dolan ended on a note of Christian charity, telling conservatives that the best way to honor the legacy of his late brother, who had died “a courageous, holy — and I use the word advisedly — glorious death,” was to “reform” the Post. “But remember: your ultimate duty to Terry Dolan is a duty to Ben Bradlee, Len Downie, and all those who have a part in this terrible moment. Forgive them. Help them make a change, if you can. But forgive them.”

This fusillade against his newspaper by the president’s chief speechwriter prompted Post publisher Don Graham to ask ombudsman Joseph Laitin to review the process by which the profile of Terry Dolan had been published. “Anthony Dolan’s niagara of words, his 10,000 word diatribe against . . . the Post, should have been a catharsis for him — the long bitter letter most of us would have written at least once, and were smart enough not to mail,” Laitin wrote. “My reading of that missive is that it is tormented, it is sick, it is threatening, it is unreasonable and should be ignored. One doesn’t have to be a psychiatrist or a psychologist to speculate that the real target of Anthony Dolan’s venom and hatred is his own brother for having humiliated him and his family.” The only possible error in judgment on the part of the Post that Laitin could conceive of was that, in waiting two months to publish its story in deference to Dolan, the paper had been overly solicitous toward the man now accusing it of high journalistic crimes.

“As an irrelevant postscript,” Laitin added, “I shudder to think that the author of that document also puts words into the mouth of the President.”

 

Excerpted from SECRET CITY: The Hidden History of Gay Washington by James Kirchick. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2022 by James Kirchick. All rights reserved.

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