White House AIDS Activist Falls Into Political Exile : Health: Once a symbol of change, Bob Hattoy has been pushed aside. He remains outspoken, yet loyal to Clinton.
The photograph is propped up on a window ledge, dwarfed by a broad, government-issued desk and a metal filing cabinet, but it is his reason for going on, nevertheless. It shows two people with AIDS standing together at the podium of the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York--Elizabeth Glaser in a smart black suit and pearls, and Bob Hattoy, requiring none of the three baseball caps he packed in case the chemotherapy made his hair fall out.
They were supposed to be the symbols of a new time, handpicked to send a message to America by a presidential candidate who called their disease his “passion.”
Now, nearly three years later, she is in her grave in Boston and he is in political exile, bounced out of a White House where he thought he had been brought to help make AIDS a presidential priority.
“Elizabeth Glaser and I stood before America and convinced America that Bill Clinton was a human being worth electing and who was going to do something about AIDS,” Hattoy said from his office at the Department of Interior where as White House liaison on environmental issues, he is more likely to be consulted about grazing fees than the disease that is probably killing him. “I look at that picture every day and say: ‘Oh my God, the other half is gone.’ I’m still sick and I’m not gettin’ any better. And I am the only representative voice within the Administration that speaks out on AIDS.”
Hattoy’s is the story of a bright and witty Los Angeles environmental activist who ascended to the power circles of Washington and crashed. Some say he is emblematic of the Administration’s AIDS policy itself. Others say he is a victim of his own rapier wit and sharp tongue whose personal convictions never allowed him to be a “team player.”
What began in the spotlight is now warehoused some six blocks from the White House; he is a distant voice too contentious to confront, too persistent to ignore.
He came to Washington with the Clinton team in the winter of 1993 as a 41-year-old openly gay man with AIDS--"First Fag,” as he put it. His very presence connected the new President to a population never represented in the White House; it lifted a gay and lesbian constituency that had turned out 74% for Clinton. As associate director of White House personnel, Hattoy had the Administration’s ear, was privy to 8:15 a.m. senior staff meetings, likely to bump into the chief of staff at the water cooler. He was in the loop and AIDS was his cause. He was going to get some things done.
But within months, as the White House struggled with the volatile issue of gays in the military, Hattoy became a reluctant but nettlesome Administration critic. After his characteristic zingers began appearing in print, the White House press secretary scolded him for being “off-message.” The New York Times branded him “a time bomb.” Hattoy was abruptly transferred to the benign Department of Interior.
The biting wit and clever mind that made him something of a Los Angeles legend as a Sierra Club lobbyist were in Washington considered reckless. If out West he was a Jay Leno among activists, in the East he is a Martha Mitchell, dangerously candid and hard to control.
Still fiercely loyal to his President, Hattoy has spent the past three years struggling to remain true to Clinton and to his conscience. He is trying to keep his job and spur government to action on an epidemic that ranks as the nation’s No. 1 killer of men and women between 21 and 44.
“I didn’t come to Washington to be a faceless federal bureaucrat. I came to Washington to be a bureaucrat in your face,” Hattoy said. “If a foreign enemy were killing that many people, we’d be calling out the Marines.”
The Clinton Administration, for its part, said it has made great strides in AIDS education and funding, including a 40% increase for HIV/AIDS programs. And recently, it named a national AIDS commission that includes Hattoy as a member.
Still, Hattoy’s political fall from grace is to gay community leaders further evidence of an Administration they say has forsaken them, and they see Hattoy as less a failure than an example of what happens when a person with ideals comes to a place like Washington.
“Bob Hattoy exceeded my expectations--a forthright, honest public servant stymied by a plastic President,” said Connie Norman, a Los Angeles AIDS activist who is herself deep in the throes of the disease. “His voice has been effectively stilled. Why? Because Bill Clinton’s commitment to AIDS was a lie. When you talk to Bob, tell him I said, ‘Thank you very much for trying.’ ”
He orders the fried chicken and leans forward in the booth at a chic Washington restaurant. I turn on the tape recorder. He turns it off. He will not be critical of anyone by name. He will not be critical of the President, period.
Interviewing Bob Hattoy is like listening to Leno on fast forward. His mind is amazingly quick. He is widely regarded in California environmental circles as Dial-a-Quote. When the California League of Conservation Voters honored him for his 10 years as a Sierra Club lobbyist in Los Angeles, the back of the program included “The Best of Bob.”
Among his more memorable selections:
“Substantive issues aside, naming a national forest after Ronald Reagan is like naming a day care center after W. C. Fields.”
On the Walt Disney Co.'s plan to build a Long Beach theme park: “If we have to stand in line to ride the Matterhorn, Mickey Mouse should stand in line for a Coastal Commission permit.”
On the loss of the Big Green initiative: “We were having a big environmental party and then war and recession showed up. I hate when that happens.”
On big businesses capitalizing on the environmental movement: “You can’t paint a chain saw green and say it’s good for the forest.”
On when he realized he was gay: “I was in love with Sandy on the ‘Flipper’ show.”
On his current station in political life: “When I finally tell it all in my book, I am going to call it: ‘Below the Beltway’ or ‘It’s the Economy, Faggot.’ ”
I turn the tape recorder back on.
It was just this rare flair for humor and honesty that made for love at first sight when he showed up in 1992 to work as environmental adviser for the Clinton campaign--a smiling, shaggy-haired activist in wire-rimmed glasses. His personality was magnetic, his politics exactly right. He was an environmental encyclopedia and he fit effortlessly into Clinton’s young and energetic fold.
He had been openly gay since college and aware for two years that he was HIV-positive. Still, Hattoy was less a gay activist than an environmental activist who happened to be gay. Then in late May, 1992, while campaigning with Clinton in Portland, Ore., Hattoy found a lump under his right arm.
The virus had progressed to AIDS-related lymphoma. A doctor told him he had three months to live, advised him to get his affairs in order and go toward God.
"---- you,” he replied. “I’m going to an oncologist.” The cancer specialist ordered chemotherapy.
One month later, he was standing before the Democratic National Convention, bestowed all at once with an opportunity to help push the country in a new direction on AIDS and with a medical diagnosis that was probably fatal. He fought the latter and seized the former, diving tirelessly into the campaign. On Wednesday mornings he took his chemotherapy treatment in Los Angeles. Thursdays he spent at home violently ill. Friday through Tuesday he crisscrossed the country for Clinton. Tuesday night he flew home to begin the cycle again.
As in most campaigns, the staff was bonded like a family, and the mission was clean and focused: Get Clinton elected. They did. With his cancer in remission, Hattoy was going to Washington.
By all indications, AIDS would be a front-burner issue. When he walked five blocks from his 1940s-style apartment every morning and put his security card in the White House gate, he considered himself a lucky man. As assistant director of personnel, he was making sure qualified gay and lesbian candidates were considered for top federal posts.
Then, in one of his first actions as President, Clinton moved to lift the ban on gays in the military, and the issue exploded. His poll numbers in the South slid at the very mention of the matter. The White House, stung by it all, settled for a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and promptly distanced itself from gay issues thereafter, critics charge.
Hattoy’s keen wit turned inward--not at the President, to whom he remains unfailingly devoted--but at the “straight white boys at the White House” he blamed for failing to press the President’s agenda. In his estimation, the issue of AIDS had fallen off the White House radar screen. It was not the topic of senior staff meetings. No AIDS commission was being appointed. There were not sufficient demands for more research funds, more housing, more care for people with AIDS. Hattoy and the Administration seemed to be operating at two speeds when it came to AIDS: one impatient, the other cautious.
Hattoy started speaking his mind. Dee Dee Myers, then White House press secretary, was regularly summoning him to her office in the West Wing to scold him for remarks unsuitable to a White House staffer. The dam broke when Hattoy--on the front page of the New York Times--compared restricted duty for homosexuals in the military to “restricting gays and lesbians to jobs as florists and hairdressers.” It was seen as internal criticism of a White House in no mood for dissension.
“I was constantly calling him up and going: ‘Bob, come on Bob, what is this?’ ” said Myers, who left the post late last year. “He would walk out of the office and say he would try not to be so dang quotable. But he couldn’t. He’s very loyal to the President, but on matters of life and death, he has to speak his conscience. You can only ask so much of a dying person.”
So ended his hopes of landing another White House appointment working with community groups on health care or welfare reform or lobbying on the Hill. He was moved to the Department of Interior, where his environmental expertise came in handy. But he was out of the loop, his pointed remarks no longer a reflection on the President. His phone did not ring with calls from reporters. Politically speaking, he was an outsider.
One summer morning at 8, I dial his apartment in the funky Kalorama section of northwest Washington to confirm an interview later that day. The machine picks up. Hattoy is out jogging, trying to work off the 30 pounds he put on since his cancer went into remission. Something unexpected happened since he stood at that convention podium at Clinton’s behest: He lived.
“I think when I first got diagnosed with AIDS, they were all shocked too, as I was, and they thought, ‘We have to let him get away with all this because he’s sick and he has the right to say what he wants.’ And then later I’m still saying it. Not that they wanted me to die, not that they wished it, but they were not prepared for it to go on this long.”
He hasn’t died; he has changed. The environment is no longer his first mission, AIDS is. Although he jogs 15 miles a week and works out regularly at the gym, a lung infection and a dangerously low T-cell count serve as sufficient reminders that the virus does not wait for government protocol.
When it came to the environment, he could play politics and compromise politely. When it comes to AIDS, he cannot, an attitude that has earned him a reputation in some circles as demanding and hard to please.
“No matter what you do about AIDS, you haven’t done enough. I don’t mean there is no pleasing him, but people are still dying and still getting infected,” one Administration staffer said. “Bob has a lot of energy and sometimes he defeats his own purpose when he mouths off. He’s a very bright guy. Smart people can think of five put-downs, but is it useful to use any of them?”
“People are afraid of Bob because of his fearlessness and the quotability,” another official said. “Bob has created this persona for himself that he is going to hold their feet to the fire and let them know it when they fall short.”
Hattoy shakes his head at such logic. He is not the problem, he responds, AIDS is the problem. “I’ll compromise a little on environmental stuff, everything is not a bottom-line thing for me. But AIDS is a bottom-line life or death thing for me and hundreds of thousands of Americans. And no one else at the White House is speaking out on this. No one else is.”
The President’s Office of National AIDS Policy argues that Clinton has taken numerous steps toward “a loud, clear and consistent war on AIDS,” turning around more than a decade of policies that were “at best apathetic and at worst hostile” to people with the virus.
The President’s office reports investments in AIDS programs that include more than doubling the Ryan White CARE money, a 26% increase in research funds and a 33% hike in prevention money. It also cites strides in areas ranging from blood safety and consumer protection to drug development and housing, as well as a presidential directive requiring every federal employee to receive comprehensive AIDS training.
But critics say that is not enough to combat an epidemic that international health officials say has infected more than 22 million people globally. They note the mandatory workplace training was reduced to voluntary status after conservatives complained. And if the gay population once regarded Hattoy as a symbol of the Administration’s concern about AIDS, he is now a symbol of its neglect.
“Bob Hattoy didn’t fall from grace. He was never in grace in the first place. Mr. Clinton was full of hot air from the very beginning and making a lot of promises and keeping none of them,” said Larry Kramer, playwright and gay activist. “What they have effectively done is taken away his soapbox. . . . He isn’t in the loop anymore. I think they just humor him. We have lost our most powerful spokesman.”
But Hattoy presses on. He is a sought-after speaker at AIDS fund-raisers and conferences around the country, taking his message to the nation, even if the Administration won’t. When the AIDS workplace training was scaled back, he called the White House AIDS office and left the following message for anyone who answered: “Wimps! Wimps! Wimps!”
“I still make those phone calls. I still bring up AIDS all the time. I don’t know what impact I have, but I can’t let it go unaddressed. That’s been my problem.” He laughs. “Forgotten, but not gone.”
The restaurant door opens and Hattoy walks in from the steaming humidity, breathless. He has been summoned by the White House to advise them about a Presidential Advisory Council on AIDS they are about to appoint, 2 1/2 years after Clinton took office. It would be another panel like those named by Bush and Reagan to advise the President on AIDS. Hattoy would not only be a member, but would also help select a chairman.
Many in the gay and AIDS communities see yet another presidential commission as so much hot air. What is needed to fight this plague is not more study, they reason, but more action on the recommendations of commissions past. They note the convenient timing--movement on the AIDS front as the 1996 election approaches and the gay population’s dissatisfaction with Clinton is increasingly vocal.
No matter, said Hattoy, this is progress.
“I think certain people at the White House have realized it’s going to be reelection time soon and a lot of these constituency groups are not happy and we better start doing things,” he said. “I don’t care what motivates politicians. I care about results. Save people with AIDS. Get the money for research. Just do it.”
It does not escape him that Elizabeth Glaser might be serving beside him on the commission had she lived long enough. He looks every day at the photograph of the two of them side by side on the convention platform and the sense of urgency overwhelms him. In his eyes, in these circles, he is all that’s left to carry on.
“She’s dead, so I feel more of a responsibility to keep up the pressure. If I drop dead, some other activist will pick up the blow horn and they will continue to be hounded until they do the right thing,” he said. “I’m sorry if they don’t like it, but if they don’t like it, they should do something about it. About AIDS, not about me.”