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What We Can Learn from a Regretful Bully

Lee Atwater was the infamous Republican strategist for both President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Atwater made a career of dirty politics using highly effective but dishonorable skills to distort the positions of political opponents, smear their character, and basically humiliate and decimate them. He was not shy either about using racial and ethnic slurs and innuendos. Brash and often offensive he reveled in the political battles he created.

At the height of his political career he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. A year later at age 40 he would be dead. The powerhouse bully, the supposedly brilliant political tactician, the guy who was feared by Democrats as well as Republicans, was reduced to the limits of a body and mind broken and dying. In the last months of his life he dropped all of the sneering hate and crippling abuse he had dished out to opponents. Humbled by the awareness of his own humanity and the stark reality of how fragile and momentary life can be, he grew wise and introspective.

Not long before his death he wrote this:

“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. I was wrong to follow the meanness of Conservatism. I should have been trying to help people instead of taking advantage of them. I don't hate anyone anymore. For the first time in my life I don't hate somebody.”

There is so much tragedy in his words. There is profound sadness and regret in them. Brought to his knees by a deadly cancer he finally saw what life is supposed to be about. Unfortunately for him it was too late. All those years he could have enjoyed making cherished memories with his family and friends, he wasted instead in ruthless campaign tactics and a heartless disregard for others.

“I was wrong to follow the meanness of Conservatism.”

Consider that for a moment. There is insight there that cries out to be heard. It is a warning from someone who made meanness his business and at last discovered how that robbed him of years of loving meaning.

There is no honor in winning at all costs. That’s the final lesson. Whatever your political party, whatever career you have chosen, whatever religious faith you claim to follow, whatever financial rewards you pursue—in the end, we all come face to face with our own mortality and the realization that this life finally stops, sometimes when we least expect it, and often when we are not prepared.

What we need, and often, is to crave those acts of kindness and goodness that affirm our humanity; to go willingly through those experiences that reveal our helplessness and our limits and learn from them; and to cherish this good life and not waste it on meanness. And to do as the 19th Century clergyman Walter Russell Bowie asked, “To remember the little courtesies, to be swift to speak the grateful and happy word, to believe rejoicingly in each other’s best, and to face all of life bravely because we face it with an open heart.”


© 2016 Timothy Moody

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