Robert “Bob” Bonitati, a longtime government affairs specialist in Washington who worked as White House special assistant to President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and served as a behind-the-scenes adviser to Log Cabin Republicans in the 1990s, died Oct. 31 in Tampa, Fla. He was 79.
His friend Phil Sparrow said during his retirement in recent years he spent summers in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and winters at his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Sparrow said Bonitati was participating in an experimental cancer treatment protocol in Tampa at the time of his passing.
A write-up about his career prepared by Sparrow and his longtime friend Robert Kabel says Bonitati, a native of Bridgeport, Conn., graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in political science. It says he did graduate work at Arizona State University and the University of Tennessee.
While at Tennessee he met then-U.S. Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and worked on Baker’s re-election committee before joining Baker in 1967 as his Senate chief of staff. Among the positions he held after leaving his Senate job for the private sector was heading the government affairs office for the Airline Pilots Association for six years.
According to Sparrow and Kabel’s write-up, Bonitati joined the Reagan White House as a Special Assistant to the President, where he served as White House liaison to organized labor.
The write-up says Bonitati was with Reagan on March 30, 1981 at the Washington Hilton Hotel where the president delivered a speech to the Building Trades Union.
“As they were walking out of the hotel together to return to the White House Bob was stopped momentarily by a friend just as the President exited and was shot,” says the write-up. “Bob credited his friend with saving his life.”
Minutes later Reagan was rushed to George Washington University Hospital where doctors said a gunshot wound by would-be assassin John Hinckley came close to taking his life.
Bonitati lived at the time in D.C.’s Dupont Circle area and had a wide range of Washington friends, both Republicans and Democrats, people who knew him said. Following his White House job he became part owner of a flower shop while working for the Kamber Group, a prominent public relations and government affairs firm. He later joined The Hawthorne Group, another public affairs firm.
Kabel and Rich Tafel, who served as president of the national gay group Log Cabin Republicans in the 1990s, said Bonitati played an important role as an informal, behind-the-scenes adviser to Log Cabin.
“We opened our D.C. office in 1993, and Bob was a key adviser for Log Cabin and me in the 1990s,” Tafel said. “He gave great advice, great strategy. He was particularly helpful to me, especially in the early years when I was new to D.C.”
Kabel said that in marked contrast to the current toxic, highly partisan atmosphere in Washington, Bonitati was a product of the old school mold where Republicans and Democrats were able to engage in bipartisan efforts to get things done in Congress.
“Bob enjoyed his many years as a visitor and then in retirement as a homeowner in Rehoboth and Ft. Lauderdale,” Sparrow and Kabel said in their write-up. “He was a longtime supporter of CAMP Rehoboth, the LGBT community center in Rehoboth,” the two said.
“Bob Bonitati was an amazing man who did good in his life and who made friends wherever he went,” said friend Peter Rosenstein. “He was a Republican who I could talk and communicate with. He was a member of a Republican Party that seems to no longer exist. He was a decent man who cared about people. Bob, may you rest in peace, knowing you brought joy and smiles to many during your life and that you will be remembered and missed each day by all of them.”
Bonitati is survived by his sister, Peggy Person of Tampa, Fla.; his niece, Sandra Butte; his nephew, Richard Person, and his great nephew, Ryan Butte. Sparrow and Kabel said he is also survived by “many wonderful friends in Rehoboth Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and Washington, D.C.”
A Celebration of Life for Bonitati was scheduled to be hosted by family members, Sparrow and friends on Dec. 2 from 5-7 p.m. at the Vantage View Condominium where Bonitati lived at 2841 North Ocean Blvd. in Ft. Lauderdale. Plans for a Celebration of Life in Rehoboth and D.C. were expected to be announced in the near future.