The True Character of a Spin Doctor?

Republican media whiz Donald Sipple has crafted campaigns for Bob Dole, George Bush and his son George W., and Pete Wilson. But do Sipple's attack ads mirror a hidden past, that of an obsessive, hot-tempered man who beat two former wives?

Regina Sipple wasn't going to lose her boy, not if she could help it. She hadn't returned to Missouri, to a small courthouse in rural Callaway County, in the middle of a steamy July, just to hand over her son to the father who, she claimed, used to forget the child's birthday. She didn't think he cared about the boy. Rather, she would say later, he just wanted to hurt her, like he used to hurt her.

Regina guessed that her ex-husband, Donald Sipple, one of the Republican Party's most successful political consultants, would do everything in his considerable power to portray her as a bad mother who didn't deserve custody of their son. In politics, Sipple was a master of manipulation -- that's why Republican senators and governors and presidential candidates had paid him millions. Sipple's skill at creating emotional and persuasive political advertisements had landed him jobs with some of the GOP's top figures, including Bob Dole, George Bush, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and California Gov. Pete Wilson. Regina, by comparison, was a single mom struggling to raise a son -- 13 years, she and Evan had been alone together. Without a lot of money, without a lot of help -- just each other. Evan didn't even want to live with his father. He wanted to stay with his mother, in California, where he played football and tooled around with computers. But in Regina's experience, her ex-husband didn't hesitate to use the skills of manipulation in his private life as well as his public one, and she worried.

So Regina was prepared to take a step she had always avoided. She was going to testify in court that during their marriage, Don had repeatedly beaten her, turning their time together into matrimonial terror. Afraid of her ex-husband's power, Regina had never before gone public with that accusation. Now Don was forcing her to.

It encouraged her that she wasn't alone in charging Don Sipple with monstrous behavior: His second ex-wife, Deborah Steelman, was also going to testify that Sipple had beaten her. And Steelman wasn't a little fish like Regina. She was one of the most respected women in the nation's capital, a prominent Washington lawyer who had worked for Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Why would Steelman, who had so much to lose and nothing to gain, say that Don had beaten her if it weren't true?

The trial of Sipple v. Sipple took place five years ago, in 1992. It passed without public notice. But Sipple's decision to initiate a custody fight set off shock waves in the lives of its participants from which they are still recovering. And it has had public implications: While Sipple was running the media strategy for Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, at least four other members of that campaign knew of the allegations in Sipple's past, and, perhaps reluctant to rock Dole's leaky boat, did nothing about them. Their knowledge hasn't hurt Sipple. This fall, he is reportedly handling the media for Vito Fossella, the Republican running to replace Staten Island congresswoman-turned-talking-head Susan Molinari in the only congressional race this year. Heading into the 1998 elections, Sipple's already at work on the media campaign for Susan Golding, a U.S. Senate candidate in California, and is expected to run the campaigns of Missouri Sen. Kit Bond and Texas Gov. Bush.

Regina SippleRegina Sipple with bruises
Regina and Don Sipple divorced in 1979. From left: Regina in an early modeling photo and after an alleged 1977 beating by Don.
It's not easy to speak up against a man who has made a living discrediting other people's public statements. Now 44 and living in Huntington Beach, California, Regina Sipple declines to speak openly about her ex-husband, saying she fears it would jeopardize Evan's fragile relationship with his father. Evan himself says, "I don't think I can talk because it would really get me in a jam with my dad."

Deborah Steelman, 42, who now advises the Republican Party on health care issues, is by all accounts a private woman loath to go public with her personal life. "I testified at the custody trial because I could not live with myself if I hadn't," she explains. "I do not speak publicly about my first marriage because doing so enables a voyeurism for which I have no respect. But I would testify again if I had to."

Sipple, meanwhile, calls the wife-beating allegations wholly false, the byproducts of a bitter custody fight. He was told, he says, that in a custody trial "there will be false allegations made against you, probably related to abuse." And, he says, those charges were never raised until the custody trial. He denies the accounts in this story in both their essentials and specifics.

This article is based on court documents, depositions, and transcripts of the custody case. It's also supported by the accounts of friends and relatives of Sipple's ex-wives. Some, worried about the consequences of speaking out within the small world of Republican politics, asked to remain anonymous. But they agreed to speak because they are disturbed that a man they believe to be violent is advising leaders of the GOP.

This is, on one level, a very private story, but it has very public consequences. In a society still uncomfortable with discussing domestic abuse, men skilled in the arts of public persuasion are formidable opponents. This may be nowhere more true than in the male-dominated world of politics, where the personal sins of a public man can be overlooked as long as that man delivers the goods. As long as he wins. And Don Sipple almost always wins.

Until recently, the press didn't write about the personal lives of political consultants. That reticence has started to fade, thanks in part to Dick Morris, who scripted Bill Clinton's family values message -- and allowed a prostitute to eavesdrop on his conversations with the president.

Don Sipple's story may have its own, potentially much darker hypocrisy. He has helped craft devastating attack ads despite allegations about his own past that would sink the healthiest of political candidates. He has been accused of abusing two wives, even as he has helped Republican candidates leap the gender gap with ads that exploit women's fears of violence. And his story suggests a specific kind of public-private overlap: A number of those who know him believe that the same qualities that may have led Sipple to the alleged abuse -- his aggression, his obsession with control, his gift at suasion -- are the same qualities that allow him to excel in politics. As David Steelman, Debbie's brother, puts it, "Was Don Sipple hired despite what he was -- or because of it?"

Donald Sipple and Regina Spencer met in Sacramento, California, in 1973. He was 23, she, 21. Both were starting early in politics. She was an aide to a state Senate committee. He worked for the Republican Assembly caucus. A mutual friend who realized that both had graduated from the University of Utah introduced them. They made an attractive couple -- Don, a handsome young man; Regina, a tall, slender woman with big blue eyes. Both had grown up in affluent families, and both had a love of the outdoors.

They had their differences, however. Regina was a devout Christian, while Don was, at best, a casual churchgoer. Regina came from a close family, with three siblings. Don was adopted, a fact his parents had kept from him until, as a teenager, he'd accidentally found out. When he was older, Don would watch television with Regina, and if a family came on-screen, he sometimes pointed and asked, "Do I look like them?" And Don's father could have a temper: To punish Don when he was young, his father would bend the boy over his knee and lash him with a coat hanger.

Although both Don and Regina were working for Republicans, their politics had very different origins. Regina was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, as her parents were. In the wake of the Kennedy years, Don had been a Democrat, working for Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and opposing Vietnam, avoiding the draft with the claim of a bum knee. If he hadn't gotten a tip about the Assembly job, his politics might never have veered rightward.

But in most ways Sipple appeared to be everything Regina wanted -- attentive, solicitous, funny, and going places. "He was very charming, very likable," remembers Patricia Spencer, Regina's mother. "At the time they were engaged, I thought he was a wonderful person. I really did."

Don and Regina married on December 14, 1974. Regina's father knew the chief of staff for Kit Bond, the young Republican governor of Missouri, and before long Don landed a job on the governor's staff. After the couple settled in Jefferson City, the state's capital, Regina also found government work.

The capital's social circles were small, and the couple often would attend parties at the governor's mansion. At the galas, Don, who didn't like to dance, would be left by himself while Regina took to the floor with the governor. When the couple returned home from one such evening, Don accused her of flirting with Bond. Don was furious, his anger intimidating. So at the next party, when the governor asked her to dance, Regina declined. (Kit Bond, now a U.S. senator, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Then one evening, when a male colleague drove Regina home from work, Don greeted the man at the door with a smile and a handshake. But as soon as he left, Regina said in her pretrial deposition, Don "grabbed me by the back of the neck and ground my face in the carpet." The next day, she explained the rug burns on her face by telling her co-workers she had tripped and fallen.

When Bond lost his 1976 re-election campaign, he moved to a local law firm and brought the young Sipple with him. But while Don's professional advancement seemed secure, his personal life rapidly deteriorated. It started out with jealous outbursts, accusations, and shoving, and then the shoving turned to hitting. Anything could set him off. Once, while watching television with Regina's sister and brother- in-law, Don and Regina had a disagreement. Without any warning, Don punched Regina in the shoulder -- hard. Her relatives were dumbfounded; it happened so quickly it was over before they knew what to do.

Don also began to set rules for his wife, monitoring her behavior. Regina belonged to a Bible study group, and after a while, it always met at her house, because when it convened elsewhere Don would call constantly to check on Regina's whereabouts. When she went to run errands, he would time her. And if she took longer than he thought necessary, he would hit her -- not always, but often enough to keep her on edge.

Once, while waiting in a long supermarket line, Regina could feel the fear swelling within her -- a caravan of carts in front of her, the cashier in no particular hurry -- and she started to panic, anxious about what would happen when she got home. Suddenly, while her fellow shoppers watched in stunned silence, she burst into tears.

After every scene, Don would apologize, say that if Regina hadn't done this or that, then he wouldn't have gotten angry. And soon Regina wondered if maybe he wasn't right: Maybe it was her fault. While Regina held back from telling her family about the violence, they caught on. Once, when Regina visited, says her mother, "She had bruises on her neck where he had choked her, and my husband gave her a charge card and said, 'When you're ready to leave....' I was really concerned about her safety after we saw how she'd been hurt, but [talking about it] had to be her decision."

The birth of their son, Evan, in September 1977 did nothing to assuage the problem. When Evan was close to a year old, the three vacationed at a cabin at Lake Tahoe. The first night there, as the baby lay on their bed, Don flew into a rage, telling Regina that Evan needed changing and that she was neglecting him. He threw her to the floor and started kicking and hitting her, and she feared the infant would roll off the bed.

Shortly after, Regina told her sister and brother-in-law about the abuse. The confession seemed to strengthen her. Regina packed two suitcases, took Evan and $300, and flew to Salt Lake City, where her oldest brother lived. The note she left Don read, "Please don't be angry with me, but I need to get away for a while." She never returned. "I really thought that if she stayed, he would have killed her," says her mother. "Eventually, he would have done it."

By June 1979, Don and Regina Sipple were divorced. "I had observed where Regina had bruises," says Robert Smith, the Missouri lawyer who handled her divorce. Regina didn't request alimony, and it was agreed that Don would pay $375 a month for Evan's child support.

Young and earnest and perhaps a bit naive, Deborah Steelman knew nothing about Don Sipple when she met him in 1980. A recent graduate of the University of Missouri Law School, she was working in Jefferson City as the campaign manager for John Ashcroft, a Republican who was running for state attorney general. Don was helping to run Kit Bond's third gubernatorial campaign. Debbie was 25, a striking woman with a razor-sharp intellect. Don asked her out, and soon enough the two became serious. When Don spoke of Regina, he hinted that his first wife was a little, well, unbalanced.

Don courted Debbie with an intensity and neediness she thought bordered on obsession. But Debbie had grown up as a bit of a tomboy, and guys had always treated her like one of them; Don's impassioned courtship came as a welcome change. He also seemed intellectually engaging and passionate about his work. Steelman came from an accomplished family -- her father was a Missouri trial court judge -- and she appreciated ambition. When he asked her to marry him, she said yes, somewhat to the surprise of her family and friends.

The couple were married the following March, in Steelman's hometown of Salem, Missouri, population about 5,000. The only fight they had before the wedding was over Don's propensity for calling her at home or at the office, just to check up on her. "If you don't trust me, why do you want to marry me?" Steelman asked him. That argument was never really resolved.

Both of their candidates had won in November, and, early in 1981, Don and Debbie moved to Washington, D.C., into a townhouse on Capitol Hill. He accepted an offer to join Bailey, Deardourff & Associates, the political consulting firm that had handled Bond's race and was perhaps the hottest outfit in town, while Debbie became the legislative director for Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.).

The move was a pivotal moment in Sipple's career: He ceased working as the loyal soldier of one politician and began crafting the images of many. And he won. In 1982, Sipple helped Jim Thompson become governor of Illinois. In 1984, he did the same for John Ashcroft -- Debbie Steelman's former boss -- in Missouri. In 1986, he oversaw Jim Thompson's re-election and helped Kit Bond claim a Senate seat.

Sipple left Bailey Deardourff in 1987 to start his own firm, Sipple: Strategic Communications. The move, says Doug Bailey, one of the partners of the now-defunct firm, gave Sipple more control over the campaigns he worked on. And the one-man shop was more lucrative. According to court records from the custody trial, Sipple earned $514,000 in 1988; $140,000 in 1989 (a nonelection year); and $1,222,000 in 1990. Meanwhile, the victories piled up. His satisfied clients included Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) in 1988 and 1994, and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) in 1990 and 1996.

Working solo suited Sipple, whom fellow consultants describe as a loner. "Being low-profile is his strength," says Mike Murphy, a fellow consultant who considers Sipple one of the GOP's top three media advisers. Almost all of Sipple's clients were pragmatic, moderate Republicans. In 1990, he had a banner year with three such candidates -- Pete Wilson, for governor of California; Jim Edgar, for Illinois governor; and Domenici, for senator from New Mexico.

Through these campaigns and others, Sipple acquired a reputation as an adviser who understood the importance of "character" as an issue, something that sounds clichéd today, but in the early 1980s was not. And television, Sipple realized, was a particularly effective way for a candidate to stress his character. "He does a really fine job at ads that define the candidate and add some content to a candidacy -- who this person is and what they stand for," says a colleague. "He gets into the candidate's head." As Sipple once explained to the Los Angeles Times, "Crises and issues come and go, but character and the caliber of the individual remain the same."

One of his most marketable traits was an uncanny skill at helping Republican male candidates leap the gender gap; he seemed to understand how to strike the right note to reach out to women. In one ad for Edgar's 1990 gubernatorial campaign, Sipple had an elderly female neighbor from Edgar's childhood saying, "There's no two sides to Jim Edgar. What you see is exactly what you're going to get."

Sipple's negative ads are also legendary among his peers. "Don has a reputation for using one thing to discredit someone," says a fellow consultant. Sipple created such a spot for Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994. To portray opponent Kathleen Brown as weak on immigration, the notorious ad showed waves of shadowy figures crossing the California border while an announcer intoned, "They keep coming."

The best consultants seem to have a gift for knowing how to push people's emotional buttons. Don Sipple clearly had that talent, and he used it to manufacture fantasies both bright and dark.

Not long after they arrived in Washington, Don started to scare Debbie. If he had been slightly possessive before the marriage, he soon became verbally intimidating, zeroing in on Debbie's vulnerabilities. He told her she was fat, frumpy, lazy. A lousy lover. As Debbie's star rose in Washington -- she left Sen. Heinz's office to become a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency -- Don told her it was because of him. She should appreciate her $50,000-a-year salary, he said, because she would never make that much again.

Before long, his sniping comments, laced with obscenities, turned into slapping and hitting. Once, in a supermarket, Debbie grazed Don's hand with a shopping cart, and he turned and slapped her, in the middle of the dairy section. When she asked why he had done it, his muttered response sickened her: "I was just doing to you what you did to me, you cunt." Another time, during one of his temper tantrums, Debbie headed upstairs to get away from him, and he grabbed her by one arm and yanked her down the flight of stairs.

In the summer of 1983, Debbie invited Don to her 10th high school reunion, and he appeared so uncomfortable, so angry at having to follow Debbie's lead, that when they danced he squeezed her hand hard enough to hurt. They left because the evening was spoiled, and while they were walking through the school parking lot, Sipple abruptly slapped Steelman in the face.

Debbie tried not to think about what was going on or responded in ways that were out of character for a woman who prided herself on her strength. After the stairs incident, she showed Don her bruises, almost as if they were a joke. She feared any stronger protest would set him off.

Mostly though, she tried to abide by his rules. It got to the point that when Debbie needed to go to the hairdresser, Don wanted to come along, to make sure that was really where she was going. Another time, Debbie went to a local hangout for a few beers with some co-workers. The phone at the bar rang. When the bartender handed it to Steelman and said, "It's for you," she waved her hands in front of her face and burst into tears.

The violence culminated one Friday morning in February 1984. Steelman had worked late the night before. On her way home, she picked up food for dinner, but Don criticized the meal and asked Debbie what she had been doing so late. The next morning, while she was dressing, Don came at her. He threw her onto their bed and wrapped his legs around her waist, pinning her down. Looming over her, he shouted obscenities, again asking where she had been the night before. Steelman would later remember thinking, If I can just get out of his grip....

Eventually, she was able to pull on her clothes and flee her home. Gregg Ward, a co-worker, walked by Steelman's office that morning and saw a damaged woman: Steelman was puffy-faced from crying, her hair a disheveled mess. Later that day, she told him what had happened. "Why are you putting up with this?" he asked. "Why don't you leave?" Before the day was out, Steelman was on a plane to St. Louis, where an old friend lived. She also contacted her brother David, a Missouri lawyer whose firm would help her file for divorce.

A friend from Heinz's office, John Rother, now director of legislation and public policy at the American Association of Retired Persons, remembers the decision as agonizing for Steelman. "She kept up a brave front about the marriage for some time, but I do remember very distinctly a day when she said, 'I have to leave' and started crying," Rother says. "What came out was that she had been physically abused by Don. She did not try to make excuses, she just decided to get out."

Her friend Alixe Glen, press secretary for Jack Kemp during the 1996 presidential campaign, adds, "The few people with whom she has shared her haunting past are in awe at her ability to live and work in the same small town and business as Don, without trying to destroy him the way he almost destroyed her confidence and self-image."

Steelman didn't ask for alimony. "I wanted the most expeditious way out," she would later testify. "I was embarrassed, I was afraid.... I didn't want to admit to myself what had happened." Perhaps her greatest relief was that she and Sipple had never had a child.

Still, escape would not come easily. In the years ahead, Steelman would be haunted by recurring nightmares. Her dreams were filled with knives, guns, murder, sensations of pure terror. The violence that she thought she had left behind came back with a fury when she lay down to sleep.

There's a saying in the political consulting game that when your candidate is under fire, you don't shoot down the attacking planes, you sink the aircraft carrier. Responding to negative attacks only keeps them in play. Instead, retaliate against your foe. If necessary, go for the knockout blow -- assault his character. Or hers.

When Debbie Steelman divorced him, Sipple informed a number of his friends that Debbie and her co-worker Gregg Ward had been having an affair. Steelman, Sipple proclaimed, had used him to get to Washington, then cheated on him and left him. As Sipple's friend Edward "Chip" Robertson later recalled, Sipple told him that his marriage to Debbie was "one of his major mistakes...and that he caught her in flagrante delicto...with a person who was helping her get a job." Robertson found that credible: "Debbie's ambitious."

Sipple may have been trying to save face; after all, Steelman was the second woman to leave him in a hurry. Or, he might have known what an effective inoculation such a rumor would be should Steelman's reason for her hasty departure ever come out. And the raw material for the charge of infidelity already existed: In the months after Steelman filed for divorce, she did indeed fall in love with Ward -- a man who, she told her closest friends, was kind and gentle, and who may have saved her life. Steelman and Ward married in August 1986.

Steelman heard the rumors but chose not to respond. As she explains now, "No one wins a fight with a skunk. Once I decided to leave Don Sipple, there was no reason to confront him about his abusive behavior and every reason not to."

Although she heard about the divorce, Regina Sipple knew little about Don's second marriage: She was busy enough trying to hold her own life together. After leaving Don, she and Evan had moved back to Salt Lake City, her college town, where she worked in a health club, was a substitute teacher, and did some modeling. There was never enough money, and in 1985 Regina moved to Santa Ana, California, to work on a documentary video series. But that didn't last long either, and a string of jobs followed, including selling clothes at Nordstrom and, ironically, working as a résumé writer for a job counseling service.

At some point in the mid-'80s, Regina started to drink too much. It wasn't a consistent problem, but there were times when she would get drunk at home, alone. In 1988, she checked into a hospital and dried herself out.

The legacies of a nasty divorce also took their toll on Evan. The boy did poorly in school and seemed to get sick more than most children. Still, people who knew him in California describe him as a sweet, caring kid who loved to draw and dreamed of being an architect. And Regina doted on her son, driving him to Los Angeles so that he could sketch buildings.

Sipple, meanwhile, had a low profile in his son's life. And when father and son did see each other, they didn't always get along. In his pretrial deposition, Evan spoke of how he and his father clashed, how his father would get angry and say, "If you don't want to have a relationship with your dad, then fuck you." Evan also remembered, once when he was younger, riding in a car with his father when Don became angry at another driver. "[He] gets real upset when he's driving, he starts screaming and swearing and giving people the bird," Evan said. "It's pretty scary for a little kid."

In 1991, Regina ran into a friend of hers and Don's. The friend knew how successful Don had become and told Regina that he had made $1 million the year before. Regina, meanwhile, was receiving $500 a month in child support from Don, plus a couple of thousand dollars for Evan's school and medical expenses. She would be crazy, her friend told her, not to ask Sipple for more.

So Regina steeled up her nerve and, in March 1991, filed suit for increased support. Don responded by filing a countersuit for custody of his son. Evan's situation, he stated, "has bothered me for many, many years." But to Regina, Don's actions seemed purely retaliatory, the consequence of daring to stand up to him.

Sipple v. Sipple took place in Callaway County, Missouri, in July 1992. The divorce had taken place in Missouri, so there was some cause for having the trial there. But the sleepy location was also an enormous help to Don Sipple. First, it was less likely to draw press attention, which he seemed intent on avoiding, having just resigned as media strategist for George Bush's presidential campaign. At the time, he explained that he was overcommitted and needed more time to work on his other campaigns, and this was, in a sense, true. But Don also knew from pretrial depositions that Regina planned to raise the issue of domestic abuse. Had he still worked for the campaign, such allegations could have made devastating news.

At the start of the trial, Regina was confident she would prevail. Her lawyer Colly Durley believed the odds were in her favor. For one, the dramatic ups and downs in Regina's life were over: She had settled down in Huntington Beach with a steady job. Also, it's rare in postdivorce custody cases to remove a child from a home near his closest relatives -- in this case, Evan's aunt and grandmother on Regina's side. Plus, Evan, whose grades had improved, wanted to stay with his mother. He had begun referring to his father as "Donald."

"I'm happy where I am," Evan told Judge Gene Hamilton. Sipple, he said, "hasn't been around when I've been sick or, you know, when I want to go camping or, you know, learn how to play sports.... Donald has been doing his own thing in Washington, D.C."

Surely, Regina thought, after hearing her stories of abuse, the judge would not give custody of the boy to a man Evan didn't want to live with. She couldn't imagine a more explosive combination.

Under Durley's questioning, she testified about the violence. "Were you physically abused by Don?" Durley asked.

"Yes," she said.

"Did he, in addition to [hitting] you, did he push you, kick you, pull you?"

"All of the above."

"Is that the reason you left Don and asked for the divorce?"

"Yes."

Durley submitted as evidence a photograph, dated April 1977 on the back, of Regina, her face puffy and decorated with ugly black-and-blue bruises.

Sipple, meanwhile, had advantages of his own. One was financial: Participants in the trial estimate that Sipple spent between $250,000 and $500,000 on legal fees. He hired a psychiatrist to testify as an expert witness on his behalf. And his lawyer, a local attorney named Lori Levine, had a reputation as one of the toughest, savviest divorce lawyers in the state. By contrast, Colly Durley had never before handled a custody suit.

Levine wasted no time attacking the reliability of the photograph, saying its legitimacy could not be verified. Levine also set out to discredit Regina's character, suggesting she was a lax mother, a problem drinker, emotionally unstable, and chronically unemployed. She called the psychiatrist, Dr. A.E. Daniel, who testified that Don was no wife-beater. Daniel reported that Don Sipple fit the profile of a person "concerned with public appearances" who would "downplay any distressing inner emotions," but found nothing to suggest that Don was "a violent individual."

Then, on the second day of the trial, Don Sipple unveiled his star witness: Missouri Supreme Court Justice Chip Robertson. Sipple and Robertson had become friends while working for John Ashcroft's 1984 gubernatorial campaign. When Ashcroft won, he made Robertson his chief of staff, then appointed him to the state Supreme Court. By 1992, Chip Robertson was the court's chief justice, and it was rumored that he, too, might want to run for governor someday.

That the chief justice of the state Supreme Court would testify on Sipple's behalf in front of a trial judge, Gene Hamilton, who fell under his authority, stunned Regina's supporters. According to one prominent Missouri lawyer, "Because of his relationship to the governor, Chip Robertson was viewed as the gateway to the appellate court." Hamilton, in other words, was expected to impartially weigh the testimony of the man who influenced his own career advancement. Missouri, like most states, has a means of handling such conflicts of interest: It allows retired judges to hear cases. But Hamilton did not recuse himself.

According to a legal expert, Robertson's decision to testify appears highly unusual at best. "There's a rule of thumb which requires the judge to avoid the appearance of impropriety," says Deborah Rhode, professor of law and director of the Keck Center for Legal Ethics and the Legal Profession at Stanford University. Robertson's testimony is controversial because he did more than just confirm simple facts; he addressed Don's character. Says Rhode, "The trial court should not have permitted it, and [Robertson] should not have done it."

Robertson testified that he knew Don well, that Don cared very deeply about Evan and had worried about him for a long time. On a couple of occasions, Robertson said, he had been at Don's house when Evan was visiting, and "a United States senator would call and ask Don to come in, and Don would say, 'I can't, I've got my son here.'" Robertson also said he had seen evidence that Regina wasn't such a great mom -- though he admitted that he had never met her.

Still, Regina's case looked strong when Debbie Steelman, a last-minute witness, arrived. Her presence there was the result of a sad instinct; Regina had told Durley that if Don had beaten her, he might well have done the same to Steelman. So Durley called Steelman, who hesitantly admitted that she, too, had been beaten by Don.

Even so, Steelman was a reluctant witness. "She was very worried, very nervous about being involved," remembers her friend Ellen Sweeney, who accompanied Steelman to give her support. "She just kept saying that she had to testify for the best interests of Evan." In the end, Steelman would fly to Missouri for one morning's testimony and depart immediately thereafter. When she was on the stand, however, her testimony was unflinching.

"During the time you were married to [Sipple]," Colly Durley asked, "did he physically abuse you?"

"Yes."

"Were you afraid of Don?"

"Yes."

"Did you leave Don because of the abuse?"

"The day I left him," Steelman replied, "was very difficult, and I never looked back. No matter what he said about me later, no matter what he'll say about me after this, it was because I was hit."

Levine immediately attacked Steelman's character, using Don Sipple's old accusations of infidelity. "You commenced an affair with Mr. Ward during your marriage to Don Sipple?" Levine asked. Durley objected, arguing that "Mrs. Steelman is not on trial." Hamilton overruled Durley.

"I don't mind answering," Steelman interjected. "I never had an affair with Gregg while I was with Don. Never.

"I was accused of infidelity throughout my relationship with Don on various occasions. It was a constant theme in my marriage; why he felt he couldn't trust me." She added, "In any case, such behavior, if it were true, is not a defense for what occurred during my marriage."

After Steelman returned to Washington, Don Sipple took the stand and explained Steelman's motives by repeating his charge of infidelity and claiming that she was professionally competitive with him.

Sipple further testified that he never hit Regina. Rather, he said, he had far exceeded his responsibilities as a divorced father. "I have done nothing more than try to be a good father to a son under very difficult circumstances...and I take nothing but crap." What the boy needed, Don claimed, was a more disciplined, structured household, in which he would be rewarded for going to school on time and getting his homework done, and punished if he didn't.

Even more convincing to the judge, apparently, was the testimony of Don's third wife, Joyce Pippert Sipple. A self-described "compulsive" given to structuring elaborate rules for Evan to abide by when he visited, Joyce supported her husband. Don had never beaten her, she said. About the only time she'd seen Don get mad, she joked, was "every time I take his coffee cup and put it in the dishwasher before he's done." And the former part-time model and TV producer -- who had once worked on a game show hosted by Regis Philbin called "So You Think You Know St. Louis?" -- said that she'd been able to give up her career after marrying Don. She had a beautiful home, tropical vacations, a Mercedes. Life with Don was good.

On August 17, 1992, Judge Hamilton issued his decision. As transcribed in the court docket, it reads: "Court finds that it is in the best interests of Evan that he be in the custody of Respondent [Sipple]. Custody of Evan transferred to Respondent." Hamilton never explained whether he believed the abuse allegations.

Dr. Daniel, the psychiatrist Sipple hired for the trial, had testified that Evan would make a healthy transition to his father's home, but he was wrong. As soon as he arrived at Sipple's home in Virginia, Evan rebelled. Son and father and stepmother fought constantly. Once, Evan called the police to intervene.

So Sipple sent Evan to a psychiatric hospital for two months, and after that, to a Massachusetts boarding school for troubled boys. In early 1993, Evan left the school for a court-sanctioned visit to his mother in California, and once there he refused to return. Sipple responded by having a warrant issued for his ex-wife's arrest, but it was never enforced. After less than a year with his father, Evan was back home.

If Don Sipple did beat his first two wives, then the custody trial sent him a dangerous message: He got away with it. His ex-wives had gone public with their stories, and the judge had either not believed them or considered their accusations irrelevant. As Sipple says now, "The only forum in which these false allegations were made was in that custody case. And I won."

And so his career progressed to even greater heights. But in his next round of political battles, the turmoil of the custody case seemed to spill over into Sipple's political advertising. The themes of violence and punishment that pervaded Sipple v. Sipple repeatedly showed up in Don's political ads.

In 1994, Don Sipple managed three gubernatorial campaigns. Coincidentally or not, he worked for three male candidates -- Wilson in California, Edgar in Illinois, and Bush in Texas -- who all happened to be running against female opponents: California state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, and Texas Gov. Ann Richards. In all three campaigns, Sipple used gender-based advertising that exploited what he considered a weakness of female candidates: a softness on crime, or what could be described as an inability to discipline.

Against all three candidates, Sipple used essentially the same ad. One depicted a man holding up a woman in a parking garage, another showed a woman being chased into her apartment by a shadowy figure. Another ad used that same image, along with a shot of a policeman draping a sheet over a young boy's body.

What was striking about the ads was that they seemed to have little basis in objective reality: Ann Richards, for example, vigorously supported tough-on-crime laws, and the crime rate in her state had dropped 8.8 percent in 1993. But Sipple knew how to exploit popular stereotypes about women. In California, he hammered away at Brown's opposition to the death penalty, which was, he told the New York Times, "a very powerful symbolic issue having to do with one's attitudinal dispositions toward punishment."

After the elections, when all his candidates won, Sipple told the Washington Times that the GOP had succeeded that year because Republicans came across to the public as "disciplinarians," while Democrats sounded more like "therapists." The election, Sipple explained, "came down to discipline versus therapy."

Hotter than ever, Sipple next pursued one of his dreams: to elect a president. After his first candidate, Pete Wilson, dropped out early, Sipple signed on with Bob Dole in November 1995. Once again, his past threatened to catch up to him: While Sipple worked on the campaign, at least four other staffers, including Dole's two closest aides, knew of the wife-beating allegations.

Sipple had already told his version of the story to two of the staffers. One was Jill Hanson, the political director. "Don told me about it, back in '92 or '93," Hanson says of the allegations. "It just is bull. He was fighting a custody battle for his son."

The other was Steve Goldberg, who was in charge of the Dole campaign's phone-bank operations. "I heard about this when he was going through the custody hearing for Evan. I didn't believe a word of it. Don Sipple's a great guy."

Neither Hanson nor Goldberg would provide an on-the-record explanation for Steelman's testimony.

Hanson and Goldberg were old friends of Sipple's. But two other members of Dole's team, campaign manager Scott Reed and Sheila Burke, Dole's longtime Senate chief of staff -- neither of whom knew Sipple well -- also came to learn of the accusations. And neither paid very much attention to them.

When she found out Don had been hired by Bob Dole, Regina, a Dole supporter, wrote a letter to the senator's office with information she thought the candidate should know: Sipple was a lousy father and had abused two wives. The letter made its way to Reed, who called Sipple into his office to ask him about it. Sipple vigorously denied its contents, and Reed let the matter drop.

Reed, who would come to clash with Sipple over political matters, will now say only, "Sipple and I had many differences during the campaign over both style and substance, but our political differences had nothing to do with issues of a personal nature."

The other person aware of the charges against Sipple was Burke, who knew because Debbie Steelman had told her. In the early summer of 1996, the Dole campaign was considering Steelman for a high-level post as a policy adviser. Steelman felt obligated to tell Burke the unseemly stories that might surface in the press about her former marriage.

"Debbie and I spoke about her possibly joining the campaign," Burke confirms. "She shared with me that she had been married to Don, which I did not know. She did indicate that there had been problems of that nature, physical abuse, in the past. All of that was news to me." Burke took the information that Steelman told her and sat on it. In the end, Steelman never got the campaign job and never really found out why.

Did Bob Dole know about his adviser's troubled history? His advisers say that they didn't tell him. (Dole did not return phone calls for this story.) But that four high-ranking members of Dole '96 knew of the allegations in Sipple's past and did nothing is, politically speaking, highly unusual. Keeping Sipple on the campaign was an act of political Russian roulette: Bob Dole was losing to Bill Clinton, and he couldn't afford a scandal like having a top adviser be accused of spousal abuse -- especially since he was losing among women by 20 points. And if it had come out that one of the ex-wives making the allegations, Deborah Steelman, had been considered for a campaign job that was all but offered yet never materialized -- well, that would have looked like a cover-up.

Ironically, Sipple himself was urging Dole to make character an issue -- Bill Clinton's character. The theme of the entire campaign, Sipple argued, should be the president's moral failings, the moral decline of America, and Bob Dole's ability to reverse that decline. So he made one ad in which Dole praised "basic values like honesty and decency and responsibility and self-reliance." In a memo he wrote for Dole, Sipple suggested an ad that would mention all of President Clinton's various scandals "to connect the dots for the American people -- to demonstrate a pattern of behavior." In another memo, Sipple proposed "ending decades of social decay by rediscovering the difference between right and wrong."

If Reed and Burke found it odd that a consultant alleged to have committed spousal abuse was criticizing America's moral status, they didn't say so. Still, they might have felt some anxiety when, during the GOP's convention week in August, Elizabeth Dole held an emotional and much-publicized meeting with a battered woman who was living in a shelter with her two children.

Meanwhile, Sipple was having other problems. Multiple campaign sources say he was frustrated with his inability to control the campaign's message and that the rest of Dole's team was frustrated with Sipple's unwillingness to work with them. Deprived of complete control, he became sullen and stopped attending staff meetings. In early September, Sipple resigned.

Just before the election, Sipple gave an unusually blunt interview to Newsweek in which he criticized Dole. "His clock stopped in the late 1950s or early 1960s," Sipple said. Certainly, Dole would not make a good president. "There's the lack of communications skills, the indecisiveness, the obsession with self-reliance." The widely quoted remarks made an already difficult month for Dole even more so. Others in the political business found Sipple's remarks bizarre, a professional no-no. But Debbie Steelman and Regina Sipple probably would not have been surprised. Sipple had called Regina unbalanced, Debbie unfaithful. He had a record of making pre-emptive accusations against those who might fault him.

On election night, Sipple and fellow consultant Mike Murphy co-hosted a consolation party at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington. The site of the party was a little joke: They threw it in the same suite where Dick Morris had trysted with prostitute Sherry Rowlands.

In ways large and small, the lives of those who came into contact with Don Sipple have changed. Colly Durley, Regina Sipple's lawyer, gave up divorce and custody law following the trial.

Evan Sipple has graduated from high school, and he and his father are still trying to repair their relationship.

Regina Sipple is an editor at a computer publishing house and has never remarried. Her mother, Patricia Spencer, began volunteering at a shelter for battered women after her daughter left Sipple. Sometimes, Spencer says, it saddens her to think of how her daughter's life has turned out. "If she'd married someone else she might have had a good life, instead of one that's been difficult. She's frightened, and I think she always will be."

Debbie Steelman lives happily with her husband and their two adopted children in Virginia. Beginning in 1992, the year of the custody trial, she stopped watching movies and television. Her friends say that she has grown increasingly spiritual, struggling to provide a sanctuary for her children in a culture that seems pervaded by violence.

Despite his awkward exit from the Dole campaign, Don Sipple is prospering. Besides his current campaigns, two of his ongoing clients, Gov. Bush and Sen. Ashcroft, are being talked about as presidential candidates in the year 2000.

Which may be why, sitting behind a desk in his Watergate office, his hands clasped in front of him, Sipple is particularly unhappy to answer questions about his past marriages. "Could I just say at the outset that those allegations are not true?" he says.

He is wearing casual clothes, as he almost always does -- jeans, Top-Siders, a blue shirt, no tie, a sport jacket. The clothes make him appear younger than his 46 years. He is said to be a chain-smoker, but he gives no sign of it during this conversation. He has thinning blond hair and a lean, intelligent face -- frowning, at the moment, as he says that he will only talk about what happened at the trial, because the trial was the only time the allegations were raised in public, and everything else is nobody's business.

"I won," he says. "And I think if the judge or any other party to the action believed there was validity to those false allegations, I would not have had the result that I had." (Actually, his attorney, Lori Levine, could have asked for a specific ruling on the validity of the abuse allegations. She chose not to.)

But, he is asked, why would his ex-wives lie? And why would so many other people vouch for them? Sipple shakes his head and sighs. "I cannot speak for them. All I can say is it never happened. It's fiction. It never happened."