Lee Atwater was a winner, and for much of his life winning...

Coping/ Mortal Matters

April 15, 1991|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

Lee Atwater was a winner, and for much of his life winning the political game was what mattered most. He once said that the idea of defeat gave him dry heaves.

Atwater's goal was to accomplish two things before he reached 40: to manage a winning presidential campaign and to become head of the Republican Party.

He succeeded three years early. In 1988, at age 37, he ran President Bush's come-from-behind defeat of Michael Dukakis. Then, during a jog on Election Day, Bush offered him the party chairmanship.

But by the time he turned 40, Lee Atwater was in a very different kind of battle -- one he could not win. Late last month he died after a yearlong battle with an inoperable brain tumor.

Atwater's encounter with mortality came suddenly and swiftly. In an interview with Life magazine in January, he described how he was stricken in the middle of a fund-raising speech in March 1990. Just as he was delivering a withering line about Dukakis that usually prompted a laugh, his left foot began to shake. The tremor quickly traveled up his body and within moments he was clutching the podium and calling for help.

A man known as one of the geniuses -- to many people a diabolical genius -- of modern politics had swiftly fallen from the top of the political mountain into a realm where winning and losing can't be determined as easily as counting votes.

Lee Atwater -- smart, tireless and willing to do almost anything to help his candidate win -- thought he was prepared for any challenge. This one, however, was probably the one he was least ready to face. And no wonder.

During the last year of his life, virtually everything he cared about was stripped away -- the political game at which he excelled, the ability to play his beloved blues guitar, as well as the more basic freedoms most of us take for granted every day, including freedom from pain and the use of his arms and legs.

According to his own poignant account, Atwater threw himself fully into this strange new campaign -- a campaign, first of all, to save his life and, as that failed, a campaign to come to terms with his mortality.

"This last year was the most important campaign he ever ran," South Carolina Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. said at his funeral. "He won that campaign. Lee won peace with himself, peace with his fellow man and peace with his God."

He apologized for some of his harsher political actions, such as his remarks about Dukakis that he "would strip the bark off the little bastard," and that he would "make Willie Horton his running mate."

Lee Atwater, it appears, was profoundly changed by the prospect of imminent death. "I used to say that the president might be kinder and gentler, but I wasn't going to be," he said. "How wrong I was. There is nothing more important in life than human beings, nothing sweeter than the human touch."

Riding to the hospital when he was first stricken, Atwater said, he drifted into a daydream in which a curtain opened, revealing a screen with the words, "This is the test."

The next year of his life was indeed his greatest test, tougher even than the dozens of political campaigns he engineered and won. He didn't end his life without regrets, but then, who does?

And yet amid all that was taken away, he did receive an important gift: the opportunity to re-evaluate his life and priorities and a little time to set them straight.

Few of us rise as far as Lee Atwater did, and few of us face the prospect of death so suddenly. Yet his story reflects a struggle each of us must resolve in our own lives -- how to keep sight of what truly matters as we make the most of the life we are given.

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