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COLUMN ONE

An AIDS Fighter on a Tightrope

As head of the president's advisory panel, L.A. doctor R. Scott Hitt maneuvers between an administration that's done more than any other to battle the disease and a gay community that wants a cure.

September 24, 1996|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The door opens to a narrow row house in the southeast section of town and Dr. R. Scott Hitt steps in out of the heat. The room is smoky and cluttered with papers. A neglected cigarette burns in an ashtray.

Gray suit buttoned and white collar crisp, he has just descended into one of the bunkers where the political war on AIDS is fought, this one the home of an activist working to bring down the cost of dreadfully expensive new drugs for people who will die without them.

A leading Los Angeles AIDS doctor, Hitt is here as chairman of President Clinton's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. He listens attentively to a financial wish list. His physician self tells him it is perfectly justifiable, but his political self knows it is patently impossible.

"If you could ask for one thing, what would it be? We can't be asking for 20 things," Hitt says bluntly. "We are not going to get 20 things."

It is his willingness to accept this political fact of life and move on that has most disturbed critics in the 15 months since Hitt was made one of Clinton's chief advisors on AIDS. He maneuvers between two often hostile camps: an administration that has done more than any other about AIDS and a gay community that will be satisfied with nothing less than a cure.

Under Hitt's direction, the advisory council that was roundly dismissed as irrelevant before it even met appears to be getting through to an administration many believe got off to a slow start on AIDS.

Within the first six weeks, Hitt and his panel churned out eight recommendations on what the White House should do immediately about AIDS. Clinton promptly followed all eight, most notably assembling in record time a White House conference on the disease President Reagan wouldn't even mention.

Hitt was pretty proud of that. But a lot of people in the AIDS community dismissed it as no big deal.

Some activists wonder whether this handsome 37-year-old doctor with a million-dollar house in the Hollywood Hills, a silver Mercedes and one of the most lucrative AIDS practices in the country has what it takes to squeeze money out of a tight-fisted Congress or advise Clinton on needle exchanges and miracle drugs most AIDS patients cannot afford to buy.

"He's not tough enough on Clinton and he will have to take a long hard look at his role in this community after Clinton's presidency is over," fumed Steve Michael, a Washington AIDS activist. "We can make Clinton a better president on AIDS, but Scott Hitt has got to help us. He can't be standing there covering the president's flanks."

Even some council members were wary at first of his unimposing style, but quickly came to respect him. "Scott is a directed cannon, not a loose cannon. He isn't stupid; he does not embarrass the president," said council member Benjamin Schatz, who is executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Assn. in San Francisco.

"He's blond and good-looking and likes to have fun, so some people mistook him for a lightweight," Schatz said. "Why aren't heterosexual women with large breasts taken seriously? Well, he's the gay male equivalent of that."

The legacy of other gay activists who have managed to enter Clinton's inner circles--only to be booted for remarks considered impolitic-- taught Hitt something about the workings of Washington: When one has the ear of the president of the United States, it is wiser to whisper than to scream.

Indeed, Hitt gets high marks at the White House. "He usually does it with a quiet voice, but he provides the right kind of leadership around there," said White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. "He is very respected among the people concerned about AIDS."

In Los Angeles' gay power circles, Hitt has long been known as an activist who spends his days fighting the virus with medicine, his nights and weekends fighting it with politics. His friends call him the "Ever-Ready Doctor." Countless evenings at home are devoted to phoning and faxing, as he juggles a busy, not to mention emotionally grueling, practice.

He has distinguished himself in his field, having treated more than 1,000 HIV patients at Pacific Oaks Medical Group in Beverly Hills, the nation's largest HIV private practice. He is a founding director of the Victory Fund, which raises thousands of dollars for gay political candidates, and a founder of Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality, a civil rights group.

It was in front of the stone fireplace in the living room of Hitt's contemporary bungalow that Bill and Hillary Clinton won the early trust of gay leaders out of 1992's crowded field of Democrats vying for the presidential nomination. His endorsement subsequently helped deliver the gay vote for Clinton in droves.

Three years passed before Clinton rewarded Hitt's loyalty, enough time for the president to fall from grace among gays and lesbians for his retreat on homosexuals in the military, his slowness in naming an AIDS commission, and his failure--in the view of many activists--to come out swinging against the epidemic.

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