As Richard Berke wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1993: “President Clinton learned a valuable lesson when he appointed Bob Hattoy to work in the White House: Never hire a dying man; he has nothing to lose.”
Bob Hattoy served as Associate Director of Personnel in the Clinton White House, but that title didn’t capture the fact that he was the LGBT community’s highest-ranking member and representative in the Clinton Administration. When he took the stage at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, he signaled a sea change in the attention that AIDS would get if Bill Clinton were to be elected President. Bob had learned only a few weeks earlier that his HIV had progressed to AIDS-related lymphoma.
Directing his anger to then-President George Herbert Walker Bush, he didn’t mince words: “We are part of the American family, and Mr. President, your family has AIDS, and we are dying, and you are doing nothing about it.”
“I don’t want to die,” Bob said. “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.”
I’m Jeremy Bernard. I was at the convention when Bob spoke. I was working with David Mixner doing fundraising for Clinton and interacted with Bob throughout the campaign.
Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign was the first one to publicly seek and recognize support and donations from the LGBT community. That evening, like many, I wore a black armband to honor our friends who died of AIDS. When Bob spoke, he gave hope to people with AIDS that someone with the President’s ear was in their court, part of their tribe, and might help usher in an era when the federal government actually gave a damn about fighting AIDS. Bob also helped dozens of LGBT people get positions in the Clinton Administration.
Hattoy’s job as an unofficial LGBT representative in the White House was a thankless one. To many of those on the outside, he seemed like a political sell-out who couldn’t get them what they wanted. To those in the White House, he was an annoyance who was never satisfied with progress on LGBT issues.
Bob was a thorn in the side of the White House when they struggled with the unpopular “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gays in the US military. He publicly criticized that policy, comparing it to telling gays they could only be florists and hairdressers. As a result, Hattoy was moved out of the White House personnel office and relegated to being the White House liaison to the Interior Department. That job built upon his work for the Sierra Club, where was regional director for California and Nevada, and his service as Clinton’s leading campaign advisor on environmental issues.
Bob relished his role as an agitator in the administration. In his words, “I didn’t come to Washington to be a faceless federal bureaucrat. I came to Washington to be a bureaucrat in your face.”
Bob Hattoy died of complications from AIDS in 2007. At his request, his friends preserved his ashes in a Martini shaker.