As an idealism not seen in politics since 1968 struggles to emerge, what can we learn from the life and death of Lee Atwater?
This morning, I saw the words of Lee Atwater as posted by DF in a comment on Talkingpointsmemo.com. For those who don't recall the 1980s, Lee Atwater was the Karl Rove of an earlier time, mentor to both Rove and the younger George Bush. The political strategist who dreamed up the Willie Horton ad that sank Michael Dukakis and brought us scorched earth, win-at-all-costs politics on a scale then unprecedented, at least in modern times, at the national level.
Soon after the election of George H.W. Bush, Atwater was the toast of Washington. Dukakis had not been defeated so much as destroyed, torn apart, annihilated. When the election was over, the man who had been presidential nominee of the Democratic party could not have been appointed dogcatcher in his hometown of Boston. Atwater, having assumed his place within the innermost circles of the Washington elite, was offered the position of his choice in the new administration, the keys to the kingdom.
There's an old Yiddish expression, "A mentsh tracht und Gott lacht," "Men make plans; God laughs." As Atwater considered his options going forward in this new chapter of his life, while delivering a speech to prominent Republicans, he collapsed. Although an avid runner who, unlike Rove, seemed more than fit and had recently passed a physical exam with flying colors, he was diagnosed as suffering from terminal cancer in the form of an inoperable malignant brain tumor.
Atwater's illness became something of a cocoon. First he struggled to defy the diagnosis. He organized meetings with his circle of trusted political operatives to strategize an experimental treatment plan. Everything from new drugs to radioactive isotopes dropped into holes drilled into his brain. Money was no object. But nothing worked. This man so used to winning, to being stopped by nothing, at one point utterly beside himself in frustration, shouted out, "I AM LEE ATWATER AND I WILL NOT DIE!"
But of course all men die. Faced with this non-negotiable truth, Atwater began to change, to see through new eyes. Before his death, he agreed to sit for a candid interview with a reporter from Life Magazine. Although Atwater did not become a man of faith so much as one who sincerely groped in the darkness, referring to himself as childlike in this new and unfamiliar spiritual domain, he spoke powerfully and in a way that points to the limits of life without spiritual perspective.
"My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The '80s were about acquiring -- acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul."- Lee Atwater, 1991
On this important political day, it's fascinating to watch as hope yearning to be born, an idealism not seen in a generation, comes up against the politics of fear (of which Atwater was the master). Like many fellow Kossaks, I'm hoping for a huge Obama victory. Like many of you, I will be bitterly disappointed if, now or in November (or beyond November, in the performance of an actual Obama administration) the politics of fear and cynicism win out. Yet the lessons of Lee Atwater's life and death, the truth of which he speaks, point to the necessity of looking beyond the world for sustenance. Beyond materialism of course, but beyond politics too. Of knowing that all things of this world are temporal. Of trusting God or spirit or the universe (or whatever one calls the great mystery) and choosing love and faith and hope even in what may seem like the darkest of dark nights.