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Bob Gray: Public relations executive who worked for two US presidents and became a highly sought-after lobbyist


Bob Gray was one of the most sought-after lobbyists in Washington. He housed his elite lobbying firm in a building called the Power House – it had been the site of generating facilities for the neighbourhood's tram system, and it became a centre of political power in the city.

To many observers, Gray embodied lobbying as it came to be practised in the modern era. A former aide to President Eisenhower, he joined the Hill & Knowlton PR firm in 1961. As director of the company's Washington office he helped turn the firm into an industry giant.

He had worked on Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign and co-chaired his inaugural committee, and when Reagan took office, he left to found Gray & Co. The firm distinguished itself by delivering in tandem the traditionally separate services of public relations work and lobbying. Gray provided his clients with what The Washington Post described as "unabashed promotion" in the media.

His travels on the social circuit were so extensive, he said, that he wore out two tuxedos every year. He was "a kind of legend in this town," a Washington Post reporter wrote in a profile, "the man in the black tuxedo with snow-white hair and a smile like a diamond." He was particularly well-connected within the Republican Party and also hired influential Democrats, including former Carter administration officials, to diversify his firm.

Clients included the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Teamsters union and the Church of Scientology. Farther-flung accounts included the Marxist Angolan government and the Haitians under dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, which had retained Gray & Co to "improve the Haitian image." Gray said he had turned down the Libyan government.

Some questioned Gray's tactics. He attracted attention in the 1980s when his firm distributed video news releases that strongly resembled traditional news reports, and that several TV stations presented as such. Gray & Co maintained that the firm had advised news outlets of the nature of the releases.

In 1992 he was the subject of Susan Trento's book The Power House: Robert Keith Gray and the Selling of Access and Influence in Washington. He unsuccessfully sued for defamation. In response to the charge that lobbyists sell "access", Gray argued that his profession was misunderstood and that clients received valid services. "If you have access, and I'm proud we do, it shows you are doing something right, not something wrong," he said.

Gray was born in Nebraska in 1921. He served in the Navy during the Second World War then received a degree in political science in Minnesota and a business Masters from Harvard. He worked with the US Navy in Washington as a special assistant for manpower. Under Eisenhower his positions included Secretary to the Cabinet. He wrote Eighteen Acres Under Glass (1962), about his time with Eisenhower, and Presidential Perks Gone Royal: Your Taxes Are Being Used for Obama's Re-election (2012).

Gray once explained his success: "When the young man raised in all the solid, basic virtues of the small town breaks out of his provincial cocoon into the city, he finds its variety invigorating, its cultural smorgasbord rewarding, its people mix exciting.

"The small-town work ethic is rise early and work hard. Add the stimulation of the city to that foundation and the result is high odds for career and lifestyle success."

Robert Keith Gray, lobbyist: born Hastings, Nebraska 2 September 1921; partner to Efrain Machado; died 18 April 2014.

© The Washington Post