Bob Hattoy, 56; witty and outspoken advocate for the environment, AIDS research
Bob Hattoy, a brash, often brutally witty environmental advocate and political consultant who made headlines in 1992 as the first openly gay person with AIDS to address a national political convention, died Sunday at UC Davis Medical Center. He was 56. Hattoy died of complications of AIDS, said Adrianna Shea of the California Fish and Game Commission, of which Hattoy was president.
A longtime Santa Monica resident who moved to Sacramento in January, Hattoy was well known in environmental circles as California regional director of the Sierra Club from 1981 to 1992. Soon after joining Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign as an environmental advisor at the start of the 1992 primary season, he learned that he had AIDS-related lymphoma.
Two months later, he stood before thousands of delegates at the Democratic National Convention in New York City and assailed then-President George H.W. Bush for not making AIDS treatment and research a priority.
“Listen, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die,” Hattoy said at one point in the four-minute address when he fought to maintain his composure. “But I don’t want to live in an America where the president sees me as the enemy. I can face dying because of a disease. But not because of politics.”
The prime-time speech made Hattoy a “poster boy for AIDS,” as he often jokingly described himself. After Clinton’s election, he joined the White House staff as an associate personnel director but gained the most attention in his ad hoc role as administration critic.
His belittling of Clinton proposals to limit the deployment of gays and lesbians in the military was quoted on the front page of the New York Times and eventually led to Hattoy’s redeployment to a less glamorous Washington job.
He told that newspaper in March 1993 that he “almost started to cry” when he heard Clinton say at a news conference that he would consider limiting the assignments of gay soldiers. Such a move, Hattoy said, would be akin to “restricting gays and lesbians to jobs as florists and hairdressers” in civilian life.
By the next year, he was reassigned to the post of White House liaison on environmental matters at the Interior Department, where administration officials thought he would be less likely to be consulted about issues affecting gays and lesbians. He remained in the job until 1999.
He remained active as a political consultant and in 2002 was appointed to the Fish and Game Commission by then-Gov. Gray Davis. He became commission president in February.
“Bob was just one of a kind,” said former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who often had to scold her longtime friend for his nettlesome remarks.
“He had a great sense of humor. He was quick with a line. He could never resist using it when he had it in his head. These things would just come out,” Myers recalled in an interview Monday.
“The problem was that whatever he said was both funny and revealing. He wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t necessarily helpful to the administration cause.... He had one foot inside and one foot outside. He was Bob first and foremost.”
Hattoy was born in Providence, R.I., and moved to Anaheim with his family when he was in junior high school. His sharp wit was already getting him into trouble then, according to Joel Sappell, an editor at The Times who grew up with Hattoy. They both belonged to a Long Beach marching band, and the bandleader “used to scream all the time, ‘Hattoy, shut up!’ ” Sappell recalled. Not surprisingly, Hattoy played the cymbals.
He bounced around from college to college, never earning a degree, and eventually drifted into politics. His first real job was working on rent control and environmental issues on the staff of then-Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky.
He joined the staff of the Sierra Club at a grim moment for environmentalists, who had lost many allies in Washington as a result of President Reagan’s landslide victory, and inspired his colleagues with his irrepressible wit and energy.
Among his many one-liners is a comment he made comparing naming a national forest after Reagan to “naming a day-care center after W.C. Fields.” During his presidential campaign, Reagan had outraged environmentalists when he said “A tree is a tree -- how many more do you need to look at?”
“Bob refused to get glum about everything or to say woe is we, which many were doing,” said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s longtime executive director. “He plunged into battles to protect the California coast as a happy warrior.... We won an enormous level of protection for the coast from the oil industry that, in the immediate wake of Ronald Reagan’s victory, most people would have thought impossible.”
Hattoy also helped change the image of the environmental movement.
“He humanized the Sierra Club, which had often been thought of as an austere bunch of mountaineers like John Muir who only cared about rivers and mountains and didn’t really relate to ordinary people who lived in cities. He put a different face on the Sierra Club,” said Mary Nichols, who met Hattoy in the early 1980s and later worked in the Clinton administration as assistant administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hattoy was campaigning with Clinton in Portland, Ore., in May 1992 when he discovered a lump under his right arm. He had been diagnosed as HIV-positive two years earlier. He soon learned that the virus had progressed to lymphoma, and he began chemotherapy treatments.
Several weeks later, after an emotional conversation in which Hattoy told the future president what it was like to be diagnosed with AIDS, Clinton asked him to address the convention.
Hattoy beat the lymphoma and by July was sharing a standing ovation at Madison Square Garden with pediatric AIDS activist Elizabeth Glaser, who had contracted the AIDS virus from a blood transfusion during childbirth. She died of AIDS in 1994.
During the 15 years he lived with AIDS, Hattoy battled recurrent pneumonia and other complications, including a bone marrow infection last month, but he had such long periods of good health that he often joked he would be the first person with AIDS to die of obesity.
Hattoy told friends that instead of a funeral he wanted four celebrations of his life -- in Los Angeles, Sacramento, New York and Washington D.C. They are being planned. He asked that his ashes be preserved in a martini shaker.