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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 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.

Originally posted to Parallax857 on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 10:13 AM PST.


Do you consider spirituality an important aspect of politics

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Comment Preferences

  •  I don't believe in deathbed confessions (8+ / 0-)

    when someone has spent his life devoted to hurting people, I trust that god (if she exists) is smart enough not to buy such lame last-minute "regret".

    •  I'm sure his family loved him. (6+ / 0-)

      AFAIC, he can burn in hell.

      "We're up to our alligators in assholes around here!" --Me

      by homogenius on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 10:37:15 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I'm not saying . . . (6+ / 0-)

      Atwater's convention absolves him of sin. I feel frustration with the cynicism of the politics of fear and division, much of the blame for which lies at Atwater's feet. But I think it's a mistake to discount the fact that this man saw fit to essentially repudiate his entire life's work. Not because of what it says about the messenger, but for the message itself. What it says to, and for, us.  

      •  You need a "tip jar" (0+ / 0-)

        Thank you for this diary.  I've been quoting the "a little heart, a lot of brotherhood" paragraph since he died.  It inspired me to think of a line I repeat to all my hateful, judgmental rightwing friends: "On his deathbed, every man is a Liberal."  

        Lee Atwater was a heartless bastard.  His dirty tricks debased our political process like nothing before or since.  But it was his humanity that finally caught up with him and made him remeasure the importance of his life which he unflinchingly admitted.  So, my question is: As his mentee, what the fuck is wrong with Karl Rove?

        (-7.75, -7.69) No matter how cynical I get, I just can't keep up - Lily Tomlin

        by john07801 on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 11:16:48 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  And another thing! (0+ / 0-)

        Atwater's confession rang true to me because it reminded me of a similar expression of humanity made by my conservative, feeling-denying father shortly after surviving a plane crash in which my mother was killed.  (This is not to say that he changed his ways, however...)

        (-7.75, -7.69) No matter how cynical I get, I just can't keep up - Lily Tomlin

        by john07801 on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 11:42:29 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I come to bury Lee Atwater... (8+ / 0-)

    not to praise him.

    What that piece of crap had to say in his dying hours has been better said by better men than he, many times over.

    Civil behavior isn't about restraining from using insults or obscenities, it's about behaving like a fucking decent human being.

    by Casey Morris on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 10:24:26 AM PST

  •  lessons not learned (0+ / 0-)

    Not sure if it ever will be.  We've seen the likes of Atwater and then Rove for too many presidential elections now.  Not hopeful when it appears Democratic candidates (or, more to the point, their campaigns) are now using the same tactics.

    If you put up the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington candidate against a Smear Candidate you're probably going to lose every time, at least until there is a major sea change in the attitudes and expectations of the American public.  The sleazy and lazy amongst our fellow voters would currently much rather not have think about issues, qualifications, etc..  It is far easier to vote from fear or stereotype.  Us vs. Them politics is too entrenched for any hope of reform in this election cycle.

    Many possibilities are open to you - work a little harder.

    by Rainman on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 10:30:36 AM PST

  •  nice diary (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Scoopster, TexDem, Dvalkure, Pandoras Box

    redemption may or may not be possible, but regret and lessons learned are certainly worthwile hearing about.

    All extremists are irrational and should be exposed

    by SeanF on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 10:32:22 AM PST

  •  Hopefully Atwater made his peace with God - (7+ / 0-)

    certainly he had much to account for.

    I tend to think morality - not spirituality - is important to politics.

    Morality can stem from spirituality, but of course it can occur in the absence of spirituality too.

    Likewise, spirituality doesn't necessarily convey morality - the string of disgraced evangelists is too long to mention but should be familiar to all.

    "In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."

    by Pacific NW Mark on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 10:34:56 AM PST

  •  I see the point the diarist is making as (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Scoopster, TexDem, Dvalkure, zemblan

    not about Atwater, but that we as a country and society have become the Lee Atwater of the 1980s. The current conservative mindset when it comes to how we function as a society has little to differentiate it from how Lee Atwater did business.

    Even a scoundrel like Atwater eventually was brought to his senses, and came to painfully know exactly what was missing from his life. We can only hope our society makes the same discovery sooner rather than later.

    The Republican Party: Reinventing government, the same way they reinvented New Orleans

    by QuestionableSanity on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 10:43:15 AM PST

    •  it took the threat of impending death (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      to force Atwater to realize his mistakes.

      Our society, too, will not acknowledge its mistakes until we, too, are staring our end in the face.

    •  This explains why people are rejecting... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      TexDem, QuestionableSanity, john07801

      ... the negative politics that Atwater pioneered and other like Karl Rove polished.  I only hope it's not too late to repair the damage done to our country by the people who took advantage of the divides in order to feed their own collective greed (namely the Bush Republicans).

      •  But there's so much money and power in being evil (0+ / 0-)

        It will take repudiation by the electorate to nullify this strategy.  With Atwater/Rove-thinking, Bush has taken the world's premier country and plundered it in every way he tried.  And we (for the most part) sat by and watched...

        (-7.75, -7.69) No matter how cynical I get, I just can't keep up - Lily Tomlin

        by john07801 on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 11:37:47 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Sorry, but who exactly is rejecting the negative (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        TexDem, QuestionableSanity

        ... politics that Atwater pioneered?  I don't see much evidence of that.  If there is, I'd love to know about it.

        Push-polling, darkening the skin tones of one's opponent in ads, seeding gossip about someone's "real" religion, telling people that an opponent isn't serious about wanting to fight terrorism, etc. ... these have not stopped taking place, nor have they stopped being effective.

        As long as people like Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, and James Carville have a job, negative politics is being embraced, not rejected.

        •  It needs to be repudiated. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I see that as one of the themes that Obama's campaign will be remembered for. It's a gamble, and I hope it pays off.

          Even today, he is not willing to embrace going negative, as reported in his comments on his plane to reporters.

          The Republican Party: Reinventing government, the same way they reinvented New Orleans

          by QuestionableSanity on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 02:06:51 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  A correction (0+ / 0-)

    The political strategist who dreamed up the Willie Horton ad

    Actually, I'm fairly sure that Al Gore first tried that gambit in the 1988 primary.

    Atwater ran with it made it part of history rather than a forgotten footnote, but I'm 99% sure that Gore either raised the Horton issue or might have even run a Horton ad of his own.

    Not trying to bash Gore, but fair is fair.

    I guess everyone's got their own blog now.

    by zonk on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 10:45:19 AM PST

  •  I Tend To Believe That Atwater Saw The Light (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    He had absolutely nothing to gain by sayng what he said. It is unusual for an accomplished person to admit that his 'accomplishments' were tainted.

    Canada - where a pack of smokes is ten bucks and a heart transplant is free.

    by dpc on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 10:47:18 AM PST

  •  Ah, we humans love juicy gossip. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    And they say God always hopes the sinner will repent, even to the dying breath.

    Do get to know more about Lee Atwater:

    A cancer on America and we should find a way to cure it.

    Best Diary of the Year?

    by LNK on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 10:53:57 AM PST

  •  I find it hard to find any forgiveness for (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TexDem, esquimaux, john07801


    How many people have died as a result from Republican policies or their indifference to humanity. Certainly he didn't change many hearts or minds with his deathbed conversion. People like him and Matthew Dowd need to do more to atone than just admit they were wrong. They need to do everything they can to make it right.

    In Atwater's case, brain tumor or no, he never did.

    David Kuo, however, has tried to expose the hypocrisy and immorality in Washington, and I give him credit for speaking out.

  •  Excellent first diary, Parallax ! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Hope it is only the first of many.

    I was thinking about this Atwater conversion just the other day. I think it is important that he not only reached these conclusions, but made his conversion public. You never know what may be influential, or who will be influenced in a good way.

    Granted, it has not stopped Rove et al, but may have helped many other budding 'evil masterminds' to reconsider and change their focus. We can't know, but at least he put it out there.

     Thanks for the diary.

    "Well, yeah, the Constitution is worth it IF you can succeed." -Nancy Pelosi, 6/29/07.

    by Dvalkure on Tue Mar 04, 2008 at 11:00:08 AM PST

  •  Zero Sympathy for Lee Atwater (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Ive always felt his apologises where half hearted, he had no road to damascus, more the emphasis on making himself feel good as himself as a person.

  •  ps another in the tap jar (0+ / 0-)
  •  Deathbed Words (0+ / 0-)

    After realizing that none of us are getting out of here alive at a younger age, I developed a keen interest in reading biographies about famous people from all walks of life to find the answer to only one question.

    What did these dying people, who had each made significant enough contributions to humanity in one way or another to have books written about them, have to say at the end of their lives about what seemed most important?

    Clearly, what was NOT important when speaking from this near-death perceptual position was anything money-related at all. Not a single one said they regretted not working more overtime, or opening a few more factories, or not buying more gold.

    Two clear patterns emerged.

    First, dying people almost invariably wish they had spent more time being with and doing activities with loved ones.

    Second, they regretted not doing whatever hobbies or other avocations and activities they enjoyed but somehow never made time to do.

    It seems like the looming reality of our inevitable personal dirt nap causes us to finally recognize what REALLY matters.

    Wouldn't it be nice if we could each discover the few things that really matter before its too late for us also?

  •  Cancer changes your perspective (0+ / 0-)

    No matter who we are and what we do, we crank hard and fast in our life, ignoring lots of stuff all around us that doesn't get us to our goals.

    Then we get diagnosed and suddenly we not only look death in the eyes, but we get really fucking sick with our treatment. It humbles, it hurts, it brings us to our knees. No matter how much power we had last year, no matter how much money, we sit in the same chair everyone else with cancer sits, letting the poison drip into our veins and hoping--praying--that this stops our cancer.

    The time we suddenly have on our hands, the complete elimination of perceived privilege, the fact that there's a damn good chance we're going to die soon no matter our station in life; it all turns us to contemplate our soul and open our hearts. It hits us upside the head with the real-world reality of suffering.

    Of course, interesting as it is, insight doesn't excuse a life of being slime-ball pond scum.

    •  That's true but . . . (0+ / 0-)

      No one is ever beyond forgiveness. Not in the eyes of God anyway. If the repentance is sincere and one does his best to make amends (to whatever extent possible). That's what I believe anyway.

      It seems that Atwater was doing his best (too little, too late in a worldly sense for sure) to make amends by being so open about his regrets. Trying to teach us what he had learned. That seems to be his message when he said, "[T]he country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime."

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