GOP's Atwater wages toughest fight of his life

October 07, 1990|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- He'd do just about anything to win. Play so rough and fight so mean he'd be called "the Machiavelli of American politics," a "born schemer," the "master of negative campaigning" -- and that by his friends.

His foes would call him "pathological," say he made national politics look like "the coastline of Valdez, Alaska."

Now the brazen, young, wide-eyed warrior is in the race of his life.

It is the race for his life.

Ever since he collapsed while speaking at a fund-raiser in Washington on Monday, March 5 -- a malignant, non-operable, egg-sized tumor was subsequently discovered in the right side of his brain -- it has been a nightmarish roller-coaster ride for Lee Atwater, the high-profile, 39-year-old chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The tumor is described by one of Mr. Atwater's doctors, Dr. Paul L. Kornblith of the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, as "a very, very aggressive [tumor] now in two different sites" and "at the extreme end of malignancy."

Neurosurgeons at the National Institutes of Health and Johns Hopkins Hospital say the average life expectancy with the most extreme type of malignant brain tumor is 42 weeks to a year from diagnosis.

But right now, Mr. Atwater's doctors, family and friends are encouraged, buoyed even, by what looked like a narrow escape from death late last summer, crediting it largely to the same fighting spirit and raw determination that the manager of George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign has always used to play hardball politics.

"This was a campaign," said Mary Matalin, RNC chief of staff who has been by Mr. Atwater's side throughout this ordeal. "We had a strategy, we had tactics. At the beginning, we were going to be as aggressive as possible, go on the offensive."

Although the husband and father of three young girls has been in and out of George Washington University Hospital since last spring -- and in August had so deteriorated that he could communicate only through whispers or hand signals and was fed intravenously -- he was discharged from the hospital after a two-month stay Friday to return to his Northwest Washington home.

"The doctors use the word 'surprised.' I use the word 'miracle,' " said Ed Rogers, deputy assistant to the president and close Atwater friend.

"He had the worst, most aggressive, most fatal kind of tumor you can have," said Ms. Matalin, "and he's beating it. The guy cannot stand to lose."

His radiation treatments have been completed, his medications adjusted in the last week of his hospital stay, and he has been prescribed chemotherapy every six weeks for up to a year and periodic brain scans for the rest of his life, said Ms. Matalin.

Although Mr. Atwater's left side was weakened by the violent seizure that followed his collapse in March -- he uses a wheelchair to get around, a walker or cane for short distances and wears a brace to support his left leg -- his mind is completely alert, his wit intact, say his doctors and friends.

He reads, or more often, listens to books on tape, watches videos (lots of "Three Stooges"), listens to his favorite rhythm and blues tapes (although he can no longer play guitar) and is in contact with his RNC staff.

Since Labor Day, he's been working on his memoirs, spending several hours a day dictating to a tape recorder his thoughts on politics, the '88 presidential campaign and this illness that, he has said, has given him a sense of compassion and humanity that he never had before. A contract for the book is being negotiated with Charles Scribner's Sons.

"It was as if, when he came out of that last bad spell, he was energized to do this," said Patricia Hass, the editor at Scribner's to whom he sends his taped notes.

When his illness struck, South Carolinian Harvey LeRoy Atwater had reached many of his goals. He had run a winning presidential campaign, become head of the Republican Party, recorded a rhythm and blues album, "Red, Hot and Blue," on which he plays guitar and sings with such greats as B. B. King, purchased a small portion of a barbecue restaurant in Northern Virginia, also called "Red, Hot and Blue," and, less than six months ago, saw the birth of his third daughter, Sally Theodosia.

He ran up to eight miles a day, missed a cardiovascular workout only twice during the '88 campaign, seldom drank and smoked cigarettes only on Fridays, said Ms. Matalin. He often told people he wanted to learn everything he could until the age of 40 -- and then decide what to do with the rest of his life, she said.

When the tumor was discovered and its severity determined, Mr. Atwater and a core group -- Ms. Matalin; Mr. Rogers; Charles Black, the acting RNC spokesman; Mr. Atwater's wife, Sally; and sometimes his mother, Toddy -- held strategy meetings every night to consider their options and read every scrap of medical literature being sent to them, no matter how unorthodox.

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