Baker praises Atwater at D.C. memorial service

April 05, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In paying tribute to former Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater yesterday, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said he could picture the rough-and-tumble political operative who died last Friday at age 40, "halo askew, strumming a guitar instead of a harp . . . getting things ready for the big convention in the sky."

And, in fact, yesterday's memorial service at the National Cathedral resembled a political convention itself, as President and Mrs. Bush joined about 2,000 government officials, former colleagues -- some wearing their RNC pins -- and even one-time political foes to mourn Mr. Atwater, who had been battling a brain tumor for a year.

Secretary Baker called the South Carolina-born strategist and manager of Mr. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign "a pol's pol" who had a "truly uncanny feel for America's political pulse."

Mr. Atwater practiced politics "by pushing it to the edge wholeheartedly and unabashedly," the secretary said, "just the way he played guitar and just the way he lived. . . . Lee did it his way -- with hardball politics, yes. But also with hard work."

Further acknowledging Mr. Atwater's reputation for fierce politicking -- earned in part through the aggressive campaign he waged against 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis -- Mr. Baker said he was finding it "hard to imagine a self-professed bad boy like Lee up there with the angels. But I am convinced that's exactly where Lee is and that the angels are simply going to have to adjust."

But if yesterday's service was a tribute to the political mind behind some 30 successful political campaigns, it also was a salute to the

spiritual side of Mr. Atwater. After his malignant tumor was discovered last March, he sought intense religious guidance, dedicated himself to his Christian faith and eventually apologized to adversaries such as Mr. Dukakis for some of his tactics.

"Those apologies to old enemies led to reconciliations that were even greater triumphs" than were his political victories, said Dr. William A. Holmes of the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church. "The wondrous irony of his death is that the brain tumor which eventually took away his life was also the occasion of his being more and more alive to what life is all about."

Doug Coe, who coordinates congressional prayer breakfasts and who forged a friendship with Mr. Atwater in the past year, recalled that the former Republican Party chief had recently told him, "You know, this world is all about loving God and loving people. I just wish I could stay here and help more."

Attending yesterday's service, which followed a funeral held earlier in the week in Mr. Atwater's hometown of Columbia, S.C., were his wife, Sally, and three young daughters, as well as Democratic Party chief Ronald H. Brown, consultants, lobbyists, political reporters and GOP officials -- past and present -- from across the country.

"This is a homecoming for many people," said Stu Piper, former director of the Republican Party of Illinois.

"I've worked with him, I've worked for him, and he was a good friend," said political consultant Lou Kitchin, who came up from Atlanta for the service.

Florida Republican Committeewoman Martha Wheeler, who met Mr. Atwater during the 1988 presidential campaign, said she made it a point to be in Washington for the ceremony. "He touched an awful lot of lives," she said.

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