January 12, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
‘Game Change’ details gay official’s entry into Obama campaign

The new book “Game Change” — which has political aficiandos abuzz with juicy tidbits of the 2008 presidential campaign — also details the excitement with which the top openly gay official on Obama’s campaign first became involved with the candidate.

A passage in the book, written by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, describes how Steve Hildebrand accompanied then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2006 to a steak fry in Indianola, Iowa, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin. The trip, according to the book, was the deciding factor in persuading Hildebrand to help Obama run for president.

Considering the book describes Hildebrand’s feelings as he experiences the event, the source for the information is presumably Hildebrand himself.

It should be noted Hildebrand last year publicly expressed frustration with the direction of the Obama administration. In September, Hildebrand told the Politico in September that he’s “losing patience” with the White House and said Obama “needs to be more bold in his leadership.”

The passage in “Game Change” describing Hildebrand’s trip to Iowa with Obama follows.

Among Democratic insiders and political reporters, Hildebrand was renowned. A grassroots-organizing savant with close ties to three foundational Democratic factions — women’s groups, gay activists, and labor — Hildebrand was yet another [one-time staffer for former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle], which was how he and [Obama supporter Pete] Rouse were friends. But his claim to fame was having helped deliver the Iowa caucuses for Al Gore in 2000. Goateed, tattooed, and openly gay, Hildebrand was the rare top-shelf national operative who lived outside the Beltway (and way outside, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota). Even rarer, he was passionate about issues and had a romantic streak about politics as wide and verdant as a Paris boulevard.

Hildebrand had not even seen Obama’s 2004 convention keynote. A few months before the steak fry, in fact, he had met with Hillary and offered to work for her — but she brushed him off. Hildebrand returned to South Dakota and grew angry at what he saw as Clinton’s weaseling over the Iraq War. So when Rouse asked him to accompany Obama to Harkin’s event, Hildebrand was game. He knew that his presence in Iowa at Obama’s side would set off alarm bells in the political sphere, that he was being used as a tool. The Obama people are fucking with the Clintons, he thought. And that was just fine with him.

The scene that greeted Obama in Indianola was pure pandemonium. Nearly four thousand people showed up that day at Balloon Field; for a typical steak fry, the number was fifteen hundred. The crowd had its share of college kids from Drake and Iowa State, and was so thick on the ground and eager to get close to Obama that he could barely move. His speech never quite gelled, but the crowd didn’t seem to notice. Afterward, as Obama made his way down an endless rope line, with cameras capturing his every move, fans thrust copies of Dreams from My Father at him to autograph. “Thank you for giving us hope,” one person told Obama.

Hildebrand was thunderstruck. It reminded him of the images of the Clinton-Gore bus tour after the convention in 1992 — the rabid, spontaneous enthusiasm, the palpable sense of connection, the future-is-nowness of it. As they walked to the parking lot afterward, he asked Obama, “How do these people know so much about you?”

“I don’t know. The convention speech, and then it just grew from there.”

“Is it like this in other places?”

Obama shrugged and said, “It’s like this everywhere we go.”

The following morning, Hildebrand received an email from [Clinton supporter] Solis Doyle: “Saw your name in The New York Times. Hope you don’t make any decisions before we have a chance to talk.”

Hildebrand laughed. Hillary Clinton! Please. His decision was already made. He would do whatever it took to get Obama in the race, then elect him president.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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