Lee Atwater: "It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with ... a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambition and moral decay, can learn on my dime."


Note: Lee Atwater was a Republican political operative famed for his vicious attack politics, e.g. revealing a rival candidate Tom Turnipseed's electric shock treatments when Turnipseed was an adolescent. After contracting a terminal brain tumor in 1989, however, Atwater developed new attitudes toward life that were the opposite of those he had practiced throughout his political career. His comments on American society were particularly trenchant.

In a February 1991 article for Life Magazine, Atwater wrote:

”My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The '80s were about acquiring -- acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul."

Tom Turnipseed has written: "In the last few months of his life, Lee Atwater apologized to me. In a letter dated June 28, 1990, Lee wrote, "It is very important to me that I let you know that out of everything that has happened in my career, one of the low points remains the so called 'jumper cable' episode." Faced with the ultimate question of life, Lee also publicly proclaimed his Christianity and sought reconciliation with his enemies.

”He said in his letter to me that "my illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood and relationships that I never understood, and probably never would have. So, from that standpoint, there is some truth and good in everything."

A biography of Atwater, entitled Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater, by John Brady, reported that:

"Lee began a series of "forgiveness letters" and "forgiveness calls." He wrote to a date he had treated badly in college. He wrote to political foes who might still harbor grudges against him. He wrote to David Yon, asking forgiveness for being so insensitive to his illness the year before …

"On Halloween, Lee's favorite holiday, Bandy called Lee at home. "I have found Jesus Christ," Lee confirmed. "It's that simple . . . It's just no point in fighting and feuding." He said he had adopted as his life's credo the golden rule, " 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' I wish more people would spend more time thinking about the golden rule. I wish I had."

"Lee and Sally (Atwater) started to rekindle their relationship. "I know you've got a lot more days for me on Earth," Lee told the Lord. " I don't know how many it is, but every single one I want to relish and enjoy, show my love to you, show my love to Sally, show my love to everybody else . . . Not only do I have a good wife; I've got a good adviser. Sally always gives me good advice. She doesn't realize it, but 99 percent of the time I take it."