updated 06/07/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/07/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

BACKSTAGE AT THE MTV INAUGURAL BALL in January, Patrick Lippert was introduced to Bill Clinton as one of the driving forces behind the so-called Motor Voter bill, designed to allow new voters to register at the same time they apply for driver's licenses. "We're going to pass it," the President assured him, "and I'm going to sign it into law." Lippert handed Clinton a fortune-cookie saying from that night's dinner. "It said: 'It's a great time for a new beginning,' " Lippert recalls. "As Clinton read it, his eyes welled with emotion. He looked up at me, shook my hand and said, 'God bless you.' I was speechless for the next half hour."

Sometimes fortune cookies come true. For three years the Motor Voter bill had languished in the Senate, its passage stymied by some Republicans who feared the law's provisions, like signing up to vote at welfare offices, would boost the number of registered Democrats. But the bill finally passed, and on May 20 Clinton signed it into law. Lippert, 35, who directed last fall's grass-roots Rock the Vote registration drive, can take a lot of the credit. "Motor Voter is the first step in voter reform," he says. "It's historic."

History wasn't on Lippert's mind when he first came to California from St. Paul, in 1981—though he does remember arriving on the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President. "I left Minnesota without a political bone in my body," he says. He had just graduated from St. Thomas College in St. Paul, where his father, Robert, taught English. (His mother, Antoinette, promotes programs for the developmentally disabled.) "I had no career path," says Lippert, the fifth of six children. "But there had to be more than what the Twin Cities had to offer."

His new life began inauspiciously, with a photocopying job at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. One night he noticed a crowd of limos and spotlights outside a movie theater. "All of a sudden, in the midst of all this glamor, a beat-up station wagon pulls up and out popped Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda," he recalls. When Hayden gave an impromptu interview to columnist Army Archerd, talking about environmental toxins, Lippert was dazzled. "Pretty soon I was volunteering every minute I wasn't working," he says.

Five years later Lippert was directing Network, a group devoted to Hayden and Fonda's political agenda, which recruited Hollywood brat packers Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy to help attract younger voters to politics." Patrick was one of the first people to galvanize young Holly wood politically," says actress Meg Ryan.

Tragically, though, it almost all fell apart. In April 1991, Lippert tested HIV-positive. The following year he was forced to acknowledge his illness publicly when he was treated for AIDS-related pneumonia. "One day I was in New York meeting with MTV," he says with a shudder, "then I flew back to L.A. needing oxygen and an ambulance." Near the end of Lippert's 10-day hospital stay, Fonda, with new husband Ted Turner, visited and asked if he was now going to devote himself to AIDS work. "No," said Lippert. "I really love what I'm doing."

Indeed, Lippert couldn't wait to officiate at the marriage of Hollywood and Washington when, in spring 1991, just before he learned he was ill, he was tapped by Rock the Vote founder Jeff Ayeroff to run the two-year-old movement. With support from Michael Douglas, Michael Bolton, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and others, Rock the Vote took credit last November for an 18-percent increase in voter turnout among 18-to-24-year-olds over 1988's elections.

With Motor Voter behind him, Lippert is eyeing another project: developing a political science curriculum using interactive computers—"a hip civics class"—for secondary schools. Simultaneously he is testing a new approach to living with AIDS. "I used to say: Just give me six more weeks," he says. "Finally, I told myself: Quit asking for a little bit more time. Keep your mouth shut and hope that it goes on for a long while."

TODD GOLD in Los Angeles

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