We're All Terminal in This Life


Lee Atwater's words should probably go on the bathroom mirror.

"I was one cocky guy," he writes in the current issue of Life magazine.

Yup. Aren't we all.

The article is titled "The Last Campaign" and outlines Mr. Atwater's journey from bare-knuckles political operative to spiritual seeker.

The 39-year-old chairman of the Republican Party, who collapsed last March while giving a speech, has spent the past year coming to terms with his inoperable brain cancer. Maybe some people will dismiss the article the way they might have pooh-poohed Chuck Colson's conversion in prison. "The poor man -- he's desperate," they'll say, going onto other things.

But what other things are more important? Reading it twice, I felt as if Mr. Atwater were grabbing us by our coat collars and slamming us into a chair. And boy, do we need to sit down.

I'm thinking not so much of the rightness or wrongness of a country at war, but of the much smaller picture of our daily lives -- the way we use people, the tough corporate game playing that has become "smart," and the hardness that often encrusts our feelings.

Mr. Atwater, known for his skills as a smear campaigner, scrapes off the crust and gets down to raw nerve.

"I've come a long way since the day I told George Bush that his 'kinder, gentler' theme was a nice thought, but it wouldn't win us any votes," he writes. "I used to say that the president might be kinder and gentler, but I wasn't going to be. How wrong I was. There is nothing more important in life than human beings and nothing sweeter than the human touch."

Too squishy? We're not supposed to talk about that stuff? Why not? What a man says when he thinks he's dying is probably about as close as we get to truth, and we could all use more of that, especially in politics.

If we keep Lee Atwater's words on the bathroom mirror through the 1992 election, we might see campaigns revolving around actual issues instead of trumped-up ones. The soulless attempted manipulation of the body politic might be replaced by the sincerity of candidates with something to say.

OK, I'm an optimist. But if the toughest of the tough guys wants to blow the whistle on business as usual, maybe the rest of us should at least think about alternatives.

Mr. Atwater has been making peace with former political enemies. He apologizes to Mike Dukakis in the article for the "naked cruelty" of promising to go after the 1988 democratic presidential candidate and "strip the bark off the little bastard." He regrets those Willie Horton commercials.

While managing the Bush campaign, Mr. Atwater sensed that there was "something missing" in the lives of Americans and kept "trying to position the Republican Party" to fill the hole. "My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart and a lot of brotherhood," he confesses.

"The '80s were about acquiring -- acquiring wealth, power, prestige," he continues. "I know. I acquired more wealth, power and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power I wouldn't trade for a little more time with my family!"

Washington -- take note. Workaholic journalists, frazzled executives, traveling sales people, fast-tracking lawyers, and everybody else who thinks the rungs on the ladder are more important than people -- write it down.

When my father was dying of cancer eight years ago, my mother used to say: "Don't forget, we're all terminal in this life." It's true. It helped. And we do forget.

L I give you that, Mr. Atwater, and thank you for your wisdom.

Susan Trausch is a Boston Globe columnist.

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