Robert Keith Gray had had plenty of conversations with President Dwight Eisenhower in the Oval Office but one in particular was troubling.
As appointments secretary, Gray’s job was to advise the U.S. president of his meetings for the day. But on this November 1957 morning, Gray was getting garbled responses from the commander-in-chief.
Eisenhower, then 67 with three years remaining in his second term of office, couldn’t complete his sentences. Gray, usually unflappable, was puzzled.
The “secret stroke” was determined a few days later, diagnosed as an occlusion of the left middle cerebral artery. The press, merciless in enumerating Eisenhower’s verbal gaffes, was enlightened soon enough by Gray.
Nebraska-born Gray, who died on April 18 at 92 of heart failure at the Miami Beach home he shared with partner Efrain Machado, would go on from the Eisenhower White House to become a powerful Washington lobbyist and public relations executive.
In 1961, during the Kennedy administration, he led the Washington office of the New York public relations and lobbying firm Hill + Knowlton where he remained for 20 years. The office of the White House still beckoned so Gray took occasional leaves from the firm to tackle high-profile jobs.
Among them: Gray helped manage Richard Nixon’s campaign for the presidency in 1968, advised President Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1976 and headed communications efforts as deputy director for his friend Ronald Reagan, who won the first of his two presidential terms in 1980. He was co-chairman of Reagan’s inaugural committee in 1981 and teasingly dubbed the “First Flack” during Reagan’s administration.
That year, Gray left Hill + Knowlton to found his own public relations-public affairs firm, Gray and Company, and saw it become listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1986, Gray sold the firm to Hill + Knowlton for a reported $21 million. He returned to H+K, this time installed as its chairman and CEO.
“Bob played an early role in developing what would become known as ‘public affairs.’ A moderate Republican, Bob understood the importance of providing counsel to clients with interests on both sides of the political aisle,” Jack Martin, global chairman and CEO for Hill + Knowlton Strategies, said in a release. “We owe Bob a debt of thanks for the role he played in building H+K.”
Indeed, Gray’s clients and reach in a pre-cloud world was impressive. He’d joke that he wore out two tuxes a year because of all the formal affairs he had to handle or attend. When first lady Nancy Reagan was criticized for wearing pricey designer clothes she received as gifts or had borrowed, Gray came to her defense.
“If, under that intense pressure and continuous exposure in the public spotlight of the world’s most demanding unpaid job, Mrs. Reagan had not stretched outside her own resources for wardrobe assistance, you would by now have termed her dowdy or would be keeping a running account of how many times she had been seen in the same dress,” he wrote in a letter published in The New York Times in 1988.
When Bob Dole’s campaign for presidency was crumbling in 1996, Gray played “spin doctor” in a column he wrote for the Miami Herald, directing his words toward Dole.
Among other problems, Dole’s age. He was then 73 and older than Eisenhower was at the conclusion of his presidency.
Gray wrote: “Everyone over 40 knows that the body does not have wine’s virtue of improving with age. A spin doctor’s remedy: ‘Thank God for the gift of good genes, that pure Kansas upbringing, and the decades of life to acquire deep wisdom, mature judgment, sound morals, balanced thinking, and all those other qualities that are the truly important characteristics that we want in a president.’ ”
In Gray’s case it was a classic win some, lose some scenario. President Bill Clinton defeated Dole to win a second term.
Other clients or confidants over the years included the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, American Petroleum Institute and Republican National Committee; charities Project Hope, amFAR and Feed the Children; despots like Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti’s president in the 1970s through mid-’80s; and the Canadian and Moroccan governments.
Gray had been called the “Darth Vader” of lobbying in a book for taking on many causes for hefty fees. Gray argued that his lobbyists’ clients received services that were valid.
In 1992, Gray opened a new agency in Miami, Gray & Co. II, and one of its first clients was the Cuban American National Foundation. The political and lobbying organization sought out Gray’s firm to tap its founder’s PR savvy.
“We want to get the foundation’s message across on a wider level. We feel that there has been a well-orchestrated campaign to discredit the foundation. We want to talk about how to promote peaceful democratization of Cuba. Bob Gray will help us get the debate back on track,” the foundation’s spokesman Fernando Rojas said in a 1992 Miami Herald story.
Gray, who earned his master’s in business administration at Harvard, was up for the challenge.
“The foundation leaders have traditionally been fiery and quick in their responses,” Gray said in that Herald story. “They can benefit from having their thoughts given a little more seasoning.”
But family also mattered to the Washington and Miami powerhouse.
“Family was ultimately the most important thing to him. So important, we were all spoiled terribly growing up,” said niece Robin McGrath from her home in Colorado Springs. “We’ve seen all the things he’s done in his life and career because we were fortunate because he included us in many of those cases.
“I drank my first champagne in the Italian embassy while he was being knighted by their government,” McGrath said. “When he was co-chairing Reagan’s inauguration I was sitting with the Bush family, including young President Bush before he was anybody. So these are all experiences I’ve had growing up and that’s the kind of life we had even though he didn’t have any children. We got to be his children.”
In addition to his niece and Machado, Gray is survived by his sister Jean Miller and nephew David Miller. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Trinity Cathedral, 464 NE 16th St., Miami.