A question for all

January 16, 1991

One of the most poignant -- and instructive -- stories we have read in many years is the article in Life magazine by Lee Atwater, the Republican national chairman who lies gravely ill with inoperable brain cancer, abjectly confessing his deep shame for the political viciousness which made his name a household word in the 1988 presidential campaign. The tone of Atwater's article is captured in this paragraph:

"In 1988, fighting [Democratic presidential nominee Michael] Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his running mate.' I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not."

Clearly Atwater, at the young age of 40, is trying to pay his debts for his transgressions, and only a hardhearted person would deny him the forgiveness he seeks as he prepares, in the vernacular of the region from whence he sprang, to "get right with God."

But Atwater's bitter lesson, we hope, will not be lost on every person, politician or otherwise, who gets his or her priorities mixed up.

In his great novel, "East of Eden," John Steinbeck wrote: "I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world."

Nearly 2,000 years ago the question was put even more succinctly: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

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