Robert Keith “Bob” Gray, a nationally recognized Washington lobbyist and public relations executive who started his career as an aide to President Dwight Eisenhower, died April 18 in a Miami hospital of heart disease. He was 92.
As founder and CEO of the highly influential lobbying and PR firm Gray & Company in the 1980s, Gray had close ties to the Reagan administration and Republican Party leaders. He worked on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign and co-chaired Reagan’s inaugural committee.
At the same time, according to people who worked for him, Gray was widely known among political insiders and a wide circle of friends as a gay man with ties to Washington’s gay community.
“He has always been out in his private life and among his circle of friends,” said Charles Francis, a gay Republican activist and public relations executive who worked for Gray & Company in the early and middle 1980s. “He was not out politically,” said Francis.
Bob Witeck, CEO of Witeck Communications, a D.C.-based communications and PR firm who also worked for Gray & Company in the 1980s, said Gray served as a mentor for many young and aspiring employees of his firm, both gay and straight and Republican and Democrat.
Witeck, a Democratic Party activist, said he, Francis, and gay Democratic activist and political consultant Jeff Trammell are just a few of the many gay communications professionals that worked for Gray in the 1980s and who later rose in the profession or started their own firms.
“He gave us a lot of inspiration for doing our own thing,” Witeck said.
Francis said Gray was born and raised in Nebraska. He served in the Navy during World War II and remained in the Navy Reserve, where he rose to the rank of commander. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Carleton College in Minnesota and master’s degree in business administration at Harvard University.
Francis, who interviewed Gray two years ago for an article published last week in the online newsletter of the Mattachine Society of Washington, said Gray began work at the White House in 1956 as Appointments Secretary and later as Secretary of the Cabinet to President Eisenhower.
Following the election of President John F. Kennedy, Gray left the White House to join the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm in 1961, where he rose to become director of the firm’s Washington, D.C. office. He left Hill & Knowlton in 1980 to form Gray & Company, solidifying his stature as one of the most influential lobbyists with access to the reins of power in Washington.
Trammell, who worked for Gray during the Reagan years, said Gray hired many Democrats like Trammell and Witeck and maintained a work environment in which Democrats and Republicans respected one another even though they disagreed politically.
“It was the old days in Washington when people didn’t let their party and ideological differences get in the way of their respect for one another,” Trammell said.
Trammell and Francis noted that Gray, who remained closeted in his public role, was a generous financial contributor behind the scenes to D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Clinic in the 1980s, when Gray lost many friends to AIDS.
The two said Gray also was a longtime financial supporter of famed AIDS researcher and former National Institutes of Health official Dr. Robert Gallo after Gallo founded the Institute of Human Virology as an arm of the University of Maryland’s Baltimore campus. Trammell said Gray was a member of the Institute’s board of directors at the time of his death.
In his interview with Francis in May 2012, Gray provided a glimpse into his life as a gay man that he never before shared in a public way. Among other things, he told of how he felt about being named as White House Appointments Secretary three years after then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover “outed” a closeted gay man that Eisenhower had named for that job just prior to Eisenhower taking office in 1953.
Francis, who researched the incident years later, said Eisenhower ordered that no public disclosure would be made that the appointee, Arthur Vandenberg Jr., the son of then-Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.), was a homosexual. Instead, the then president-elect said Vandenberg had to give up the job for “health reasons.”
“It took six weeks to get a clearance,” Gray said in the interview in discussing his status as a gay man being named to fill the job for which Vandenberg was rejected because of his sexual orientation.
“I tried to act as nonchalant as I could, even though my heart was pounding,” Gray said. “I was still trying to make myself straight, dating women. If I had been in any way sexually active, I would have been outed,” he said.
“I was an open book, working 20-hour days. That was fulfilling enough for me,” he said.
Near the end of the interview, Francis asked Gray what he thought of the changes that have taken place in the country on LGBT rights in the more than 50 years since he became involved in politics and about the irony of his being hired by President Eisenhower as a closeted gay man.
“I don’t want to be known as the gay guy who worked at the White House!” Gray replied. “Being gay is a minuscule part of who I am, not my whole being; nor am I a standard-bearer. I was not hired because of it, nor was I hired because I was heterosexual.”
Gray’s survivors include his partner of 20 years, Efrain Machado of Miami Beach, Fla.