Lessons in mortality

Sandy Grady

April 08, 1991|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- IT WAS a day when all the hype, pomp and veneer of politics was ripped to shreds by real life, death and inscrutable laws of chance. Two men riding the crest of their lives -- Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania and fierce political operator Lee Atwater -- were gone.

Start in the morning of a day loaded with irony and shock. In the vast stained-glass hall of the SandyGradyWashington National Cathedral, a rhythm-and-blues singer named Chuck Jackson was singing a gutsy, down-home version of "You'll Never Walk Alone."

He was singing it for Lee Atwater. Most of the great ones of the Imperial City were there. Some gave eulogies for Atwater, who died late last month a brain tumor at 40. But the heartfelt song echoed a bluesy farewell for Atwater. He loved his six-string guitar as much as hardball politics.

George Bush was in a front pew. Maybe Bush was remembering the nights Atwater, surrogate son and hit man, plotted the down-and-dirty campaign that won the '88 White House. Maybe Bush was thinking of the black-tie-and-boots inaugural gala when he and Atwater gagged it up with a mock guitar duet.

The last notes faded. Bush reached for a handkerchief. He rubbed at wet eyes.

A few hours later, Air Force One was landing 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles when a White House aide approached Bush.

"Mr. President, John Heinz has been killed in a plane crash near Philadelphia."

Bush couldn't believe it. No one else could. Death had rolled the dice too fast.

John Heinz and Lee Atwater didn't have parallel lives. They weren't even the same breed of Republican. Heinz was a super-rich, silver-spoon Yankee patrician. Atwater was hardscrabble, knee-to-the-groin Southern hustler. Yet one thing they had in common: They were Men Who Had Everything. Then fate suddenly swept it all away.

"I thought I was indestructible," Lee Atwater once said.

And why not? He was a hyper whippet who could run 10 miles a day. He'd hit the political jackpot, a go-for-the-jugular presidential landslide. He was Republican national chairman, a good ol' boy who could dazzle his cult with quotes from Machiavelli, Plato and Sun Tzu.

One early morning last March Atwater was making a speech. He fell to the floor with a seizure.

"My nightmare had begun," he said.

Doctors tried desperate therapy for the tumor. Eleven months later, months in which Atwater found serenity through the Bible and penance to Democrats he'd savaged, he was dead.

And John Heinz. What other gifts could the gods lay on a man?

Wealth? He was the pickle-and-ketchup heir, largest shareholder H.J. Heinz Co., worth at least $500 million. Handsome in a store-front mannequin way. Good athlete. Terrific wife, Teresa, three children. Great life. Summers in Nantucket, skiing at Aspen, tennis at Palm Springs.

Security? Heinz had a lock on his Senate seat. After he whipped out his own checkbook for $2.9 million to overwhelm Philly's Bill ,, Green in '76, it wasn't smart to challenge Heinz.

But it wasn't all money. Heinz was popular in the take-care-of-the-home-folks style Pennsylvanians prefer. He never missed a ribbon cutting or a town meeting. Some kidded him as the "Mayor of Pennsylvania." But he ran ahead of Ronald Reagan in the state then won by a million votes in '88.

Work? Heinz thrived on some of the most boring, arcane stuff in the Senate. Endless subcommittees on the IRS or monetary policy would make most eyes glaze. But in his dogged, Mr. Rogers way, I think Heinz loved it.

Then in the crystal-blue sky over Merion, Pa., at 12:19 p.m. Thursday, the wonderful world of John Heinz came down in a ball of fire.

It had been a typical, prosaic day for Heinz. He was crisscrossing the state, gabbing about federal highway funds. Flying from Williamsport to Philadelphia, pilots of Heinz's twin-engine Aerostar PA60 suspected landing gear trouble. When a Sun Oil Co. helicopter flew over to check, they smacked together. Tumbling, flaming wreckage killed four pilots, two school kids on the ground, and Heinz, only 52.

The end that found Lee Atwater with agonizing slowness had come to John Heinz in a violent split second.

In Room 227 of the Russell Building, Heinz staffers stumbled around like red-eyed zombies. Fellow senator Arlen Specter was too shocked to talk. But all afternoon, paeans of praise for Heinz flowed in from Ronald Reagan, Bush, dozens of senators, and most of it was true.

Let's face it, Heinz was not flawless. He was a bland orator with no clout beyond Pennsylvania's borders, no TV pizazz. I suspect long ago Heinz surrendered dreams of being a national figure, or even a leader in the Senate's Republican hierarchy.

He tried hard to shake his rich-kid stigma, to be a regular guy pals would call "Jack." But at times his tendency to lecture irked his peers, especially Bob Dole -- the same Dole who last Thursday called Heinz "a dynamic, rising star, but politics don't matter now."

Was Heinz a good senator? Within his limits, absolutely.

He was a stand-up battler for the elderly and the steel industry. Sometimes watching Heinz in the Senate, I'd realize, "Hey, this guy is fighting for somebody's Medicare benefits when he could be spending his life on a yacht in the Mediterranean."

The day was a lesson in mortality: Atwater and Heinz, two men loaded with luck, health, success, who had it snatched away.

Atwater, who found peace by apologizing to politicians, including Mike Dukakis, he'd roughed up, said at the end, "You know, this world is all about loving God and helping people. I just wish I could stay and help more."

In that flaming moment over Lower Merion Township, John Heinz had no time for penance. But the Rich Kid Who Did Good owed the world no apology.

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