Uniquely Nasty: Washington power broker Robert Gray’s ‘double life’

Lobbyist Robert K. Gray talks on phone while riding in limousine. (Mark Meyer/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Lobbyist Robert K. Gray talks on phone while riding in limousine. (Mark Meyer/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Lobbyist Robert K. Gray talks on phone while riding in limousine. (Mark Meyer/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

By Michael Isikoff

For years, Robert Gray was the ultimate Washington power broker — a suave, white-haired lobbyist and political fixer who had instant access to presidents, senators and just about anybody else in town who mattered.

His office stationery said it all: “The Powerhouse, Washington, D.C.,” it read.

But before his death last year at the age of 92, Gray confided that there was a time early in his career when he lived in mortal fear that legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would discover his biggest secret: that he was gay.

[ Watch: Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government's War on Gays ]

“He held his breath; he was a nervous wreck,” recalls Charles Francis, a onetime associate of Gray who interviewed the master lobbyist about his experiences before his death. “He was absolutely terrified that they [the FBI] would find something.”

The time was 1954, and Gray, then a young man from Nebraska who had served as a naval assistant in the Pentagon, had just been named to a top job in the Eisenhower White House: appointments secretary.

Only a year earlier, Eisenhower had signed Executive Order 10450 declaring “sexual perversion” a threat to national security. Ike’s original pick for appointments secretary, Arthur Vandenberg Jr., had been forced to step aside — for “health reasons,” the press was told — after Hoover discovered that he too was gay.

In this environment, Gray’s wait for his security clearance turned into a gut-wrenching experience. When it finally came through, “I tried to act as nonchalant as I could, even though my heart was pounding,” Gray said, according to the notes from Francis’ interview. “I was still trying to make myself straight, dating women. If I had been in any way sexually active, I would have been outed. I was an open book, working 24-hour days. That was fulfilling enough for me.”

In the end, Gray “squeaked through,” recalls Francis, because “he had no life.… And having no life was the beginning of a solution for Bob Gray.”

Francis had a special interest in getting Gray to open up about his personal story. Like Gray, Francis had come to Washington as a young man and had gone into the public relations business, landing a coveted job with Gray's firm. Like Gray, who was famously close to President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, Francis had high-level political connections: He was a friend of George W. Bush and came out to him as gay in 1998, then served as emissary to the gay community during the 2000 presidential campaign.

But, as recounted in the new Yahoo News documentary “Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government’s War on Gays,” Francis broke with Bush in 2004 over the same-sex-marriage issue.

Ever since, Francis — now president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. — has waged a relentless campaign to gain the release of government files documenting the persecution of gay and lesbian Americans.(An earlier version of the Mattachine Society, one of the country’s first gay rights groups, was investigated for years by the FBI in an effort to identify closeted gays who worked for the government.)

To Francis, Gray’s story is a parable of sorts about the private anguish that tens of thousands of gays experienced while working in Washington until not too long ago. Francis recalls watching his friend Gray over the years with some sadness as he reached the pinnacle of influence in Washington — a debonair “man about town” who hobnobbed with Washington’s most powerful figures but never fully emerged from the closet.

“Bob lived an old-school ‘double life,’ a balancing act between being gay in his private life while consorting with close friends like Ed Meese,” said Francis, referring to President Reagan’s attorney general, a hard-line social conservative. “It became increasingly painful to behold.”