I watched Tuesday night, fueled by a couple of thimblefuls of Courvoisier, the delineation of Lee Atwater’s Machiavellian short life on PBS’ “Frontline.” The film was helmed by Emmy-nominated director Stephan Forbes, known for his documentary “One More Dead Fish,” about renegade anglers in Nova Scotia struggling to survive globalization.
I was quite familiar with Mr. Atwater’s controversial, sometimes racially-charged political tactics that helped elect H.W. Bush and inspired protégés like Karl Rove and Robert Edgeworth. Atwater’s fierce methods transformed politics into ultra blood sport, and his blueprint was perfectly, albeit unsuccessfully, carried on by the McCain/Palin campaign just recently. What I didn’t realize, after having been exposed to twenty-plus years of unfair and dirty Republican vitriol toward progressive adversaries, was the absolute, almost perfect Dickensian tragic flow to Mr. Atwater’s life. In fact, before last night I wasn’t even sure he had died. Shame on me, I know.
Disgusted by Atwater’s tactics, I truly believe I relegated him to the cellars of my political and social consciousness, refusing to follow any subject related to him or his life. But something odd happened to me. During the ninety minutes that outlined his meteoric rise and deplorable demise, I went from visibly flashing the middle finger to the screen, several times calling him a despicable parasite and a first-class dick, to a deliberate pause and reflection on the always personal tragedy that is one’s life. There is no doubt he was a complicated man---as most successful political operatives are---and I realized that banishing him to a one-dimensional monster would only confirm a personal blind allegiance and heavy bias.
In his last days, pumped and swollen to an unrecognizable cyclopean appearance by steroids and chemicals used to treat a malignant brain tumor, Lee Atwater renounced his aggressive, mud-slinging tactics, and sought repentance. Some (like me, initially) will say this request for providence may have come too late. In fact, mercy from above via men and women of cloth is almost always sought on deathbeds, but more reflection upon an individual life is needed in order to pass final judgment. Personally, the single most eye-opening realization came when Ed Rollins, former Reagan campaign director and long time Republican political advisor, described how a dying Mr. Atwater asked for a copy of the Bible---to the surprise of all who knew him. But how, in the hours following his death, gathering up his personal belongings and items, they found the holy book untouched, still wrapped in sealed plastic. In the end, Lee Atwater was true to his religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
I felt the same strange, forgiving sensibility watching the execution of Saddam Hussein, as well as the demise of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu before the firing squad in December of 1989. Without argument these three were despicable human beings who ruthlessly murdered hundreds of thousands---if not millions, yet I somehow felt melancholic and sullen watching their final moments of life taken by perhaps equally-flawed judge penitents. I suppose a fundamental sadness and sorrow for humanity’s fierceness either way will always be present within me. I suppose in a strange way I should rejoice at that---it proves I still have a heart. And hope for an advanced civilization.
"Lee Atwater made himself a figure of demonology to psych out his opponents and anesthetize people to his tactics. And the sad part -- some people would say the justified part -- was that the role that he made for himself literally ended up imprisoning him." --Howard Fineman, Senior Editor, Newsweek.