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Sally Atwater was looking forward to the trip to Puerto Rico. She and Lee both loved the Cerromar Beach Hotel outside San Juan. The hotel featured a long water slide that bathers used to float down into the pool. On their last visit, Lee had swum against the current up the slide. The chairman of the Republican National Committee would also give a speech to the National Second Mortgage Association for $8,000, which would come in handy since the new baby was due in a month. By now Sally was huge. For the past two months, in order to sleep she had been sitting in a chair through the night.
On Friday, March 2, 1990, Lee and Sally got up at 5 to catch an 8:07 flight from Dulles to San Juan. After checking into the hotel, Lee went for a run with Blake Williams, an RNC advance man who traveled everywhere with the chairman. Usually, they ran six miles, occasionally more. After half a mile, though, Lee stopped. "My leg just feels like rubber," he said, kicking his left foot for emphasis. Blake was astounded. In all of their years together, this was the first time ever that Lee had stopped in the middle of a run. That night, after the speech, Lee couldn't sleep. He didn't use the pool, couldn't seem to relax. Saturday night, again no sleep. Sally thought it was his adrenaline as usual.
When they returned from Puerto Rico on Sunday, Lee went to bed at 6, exhausted. On Monday morning, Sally watched him come down the stairs holding both rails, limping. That left leg seemed worse than ever. He walked like an old man, thought Sally. If he's like this at 39, what's he going to be like at 60?
He went to the office briefly, then to a fund-raising breakfast for Sen. Phil Gramm at the Ramada Renaissance. When Lee arrived, Sen. Bob Dole had just finished speaking. Gramm introduced Lee, who went onto autopilot with his RNC stump speech. Blake Williams ate some fruit along with fellow advance man John Schmidt and Lee's driver, Mark Mascarenhas. The speech was so canned that they were lip-synching Lee's best lines. Suddenly, Lee stopped.
He was telling the group how the campaign picture of Michael Dukakis in a tank had made the candidate look like Rocky the Flying Squirrel when his left foot began to shake uncontrollably. Lee stared at his leg as everyone in the room looked at him in silence. The twitch moved up the left side of his body. Lee clutched the right side of the lectern, shook his head violently, and an involuntary scream came out of him, Yaaahhhhh! Blake and John looked at each other, thinking for a moment that it might be a cowboy yell for effect. By the time they realized it was pain, Lee had collapsed. "Help me! Somebody help me!"
John Schmidt cleared the room. Lee finally came to. "God, what was that?" he said.
In the ambulance, Lee had a vision. He saw a stage with a banner across it that said, " THIS IS A TEST ," like what comes on TV when a program is interrupted for the emergency broadcasting system. Lee couldn't figure out his vision. What was the test?
At the George Washington University Medical Center emergency room, Sally and Brooke Vosburgh, Lee's RNC assistant, arrived shortly before Lee had a second seizure. "What's going on? What's happening to me?" he asked. Burton Lee, the president's physician, observed the seizure and called Sally aside.
"Your husband has a brain tumor," he said. "He's got about a year to live."
"How do you know?" she asked, stunned as much by the physician's cold, blunt delivery as by the harsh diagnosis. "How can you say that?"
"It's just my business," he replied. He was an oncologist.
"Call Mama," Lee said to Brooke. To her he looked like a little boy, lying flat with his shirt and tie, putting out his hand to be held.
From the RNC, chief of staff Mary Matalin kept calling Brooke's pager, frantic. "What's going on? How are we gonna handle the press?" The doctors were wondering what to say. "Tell them to say nothing," Mary said. "We'll handle it from here."
Brooke phoned Toddy Atwater, who took the call in the principal's office at A.C. Flora High in Columbia, S.C., where she taught Spanish. When Toddy hung up, she knew exactly what the tumor meant. "I'm about to lose another son," she said to the principal.
Later that night, Lee called from the hospital. "They say I've got a tumor the size of a hen's egg," he said. He wanted his mother and father to come up next day. "Mama, regardless of what happens, we want this thing to be upbeat. No tears. Nothing sad. We're going to face it, and that's the way it's going to be."
"Of course," said Toddy. "You're not going to see me cry." Later, in private, she wept.
A brain tumor is a horrifying diagnosis for anyone, but for a man who was mostly wits and brain power, it was a perverse act of God. "My nine-month headache," Lee called it. Until confronted with the diagnosis, Lee thought that cancer happened to other people. Two older cousins had died from brain tumors -- Pete Page, on his mother's side, at 45 in 1978; and Charles Atwater at 42 in 1982. Charles had called on Lee's parents once in Columbia while Lee and Sally were visiting. Everyone had greeted him graciously, but it was painful to view his swollen face and bald head. Lee had quickly excused himself.
Lee didn't like to be around anyone who was ill, couldn't handle the raw emotion. In 1988 he had arranged for his childhood pal David Yon to take a job at the Department of Commerce. Then doctors discovered a tumor between Yon's heart and spine. The job was canceled, and Yon went into surgery. Lee barely acknowledged his buddy's ordeal.
Now Lee was facing serious illness, and it was like a visit to a foreign land. "Diagnosis: cerebrum (right parietal lobe), astrocytoma, grade 3," noted the GW surgical pathology report on March 5. "The tumor is high grade displaying markedly atypical glial cells and scattered bizarre multinucleate forms."
Tumors are graded from 1 to 4; the higher the number, the more severe and aggressive the tumor. Even within a grade level, the degree of malignancy can vary from mild to aggressive. Another complication is whether growth is localized or multifocal. Charles Rogers, the director of radiation and oncology at GW, examined the scans and thought Lee's tumor was somewhere between the size of a golf ball and an egg. But that image is misleading. An astrocytoma is not clearly delineated, ready to be scooped out. It is like clouds in the sky, with a dense center and vaporous margins. You have to assume that it's considerably more extensive than you can see on a scan.
Lee's seizures made him feel vulnerable, both personally and publicly. The first thing he wanted was to control the story in the press, lest the media write him off as a lost cause. His worst fear was that he would go from being the center of George Bush's political concerns to being an outsider. While Lee rode in an ambulance to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring for an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan at the end of his first day at GW, he and Mary Matalin gamed out the specifics of spin control.
Sally was at a loss. She was too pregnant, too fatigued, too far adrift from Lee's life to step in now. Over the years, as Lee's career demanded more and more, Sally had become simply another member of his support team. That was how she viewed marriage. "Wives kind of learn to do what's needed," she said. "That's what marriage kind of is, that support thing. I always just kind of did it."
Sally spent that first night with Lee in the hospital. She worried about his ability to cope with a medical ordeal. She remembered how impatient Lee had become the time their older daughter, Sara Lee, had an earache. Sally had taught children with handicaps, even in wheelchairs; had been in mental institutions where patients were strapped to chairs; had seen the underside of life as an aide to a caseworker in college, calling on welfare cases, visiting cancer wards. Her training had taught her to always be calm and clearheaded. Inside, she was heartsick for Lee, but -- as Lee often said -- you've got to just "keep movin'."
Sally felt blessed because Lee had a wonderful staff -- Brooke Vosburgh to coordinate office matters and Blake Williams and John Schmidt to run interference. Mary Matalin would run the RNC, with fellow Republican operatives Charlie Black, Ed Rogers and others on call for advice.
On Thursday afternoon, Lee checked out wearing a sport jacket over a Three Stooges T-shirt that read "JUST SAY MOE!!" "One of my intellectual heroes," he explained, hugging nurses and bantering with the press. "This proves to my legions of critics once and for all that I do have something in my brain."
Later that day Brooke drove her white Jetta to Lee's home in Northwest D.C., where he called her up to the bedroom. She felt awkward. Toddy seemed to give her the cold shoulder, busying herself with fruit baskets downstairs, but Sally gave Brooke a big hello. Lee was stretched out on the bed watching a big-screen TV. "Close the door," he said. Brooke sat on the edge of the bed as Lee told her he'd spoken with Sally and with Mama, explaining that Brooke was central to his life now. No matter how much or how little time he had left, he wasn't going to waste any of it, and he knew absolutely that Brooke had to be there. Lee said that he loved her, and there would be a place for the two of them together when this was over. Brooke was dazed.
She had known Lee casually since 1981, but never really talked to him until 1985, when he struck up a conversation on a flight to South Carolina. Brooke was working for Ronald Reagan's chief of staff, Donald Regan, at the time. Her sister's roommate had been Lee's secretary in 1981, and she remembered the roommate's stories about her crazed boss. But Brooke found Lee's untamed quality intriguing as well as frightening.
Three years later, not long after her work with Regan ended, she took a job with Republicn Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma. Then Lee took over the RNC, and his latest secretary, Rhonda Culpepper -- burned out from two years of working from 6:30 to midnight -- told Brooke she wasn't going with him.
"Well, I'd work for Lee," Brooke said. And just like that, she was hired.
For over a year now, Brooke had been Lee's secret sharer. When he wanted everyone out of the room, she stayed. Her only job was to take care of him, and no one had ever been as good at it as she was. Brooke knew when Lee was tired or hungry; she knew he wouldn't eat the bread on the hamburger. She had worked with him for 18 hours a day for nearly 18 months now. Lee trusted Brooke; yet, as a student of people, he often said he couldn't figure her out. He spent a lot of time trying to understand her, and this attention gave her a sense of self-validation that she hadn't experienced with a man before.
Brooke and Lee embraced for the first time, and Brooke felt something stirring within her that she had never given voice to, something that she had started wondering about in the fall of '89 on a campaign trip to Oklahoma, when Lee insisted that she accompany him -- not because he needed her; he just wanted her companionship. Brooke had seen the women come and go in Lee's extracurricular world -- at times, he couldn't even remember their names. Yet she knew Lee was a bright, interesting guy, and he was worth the effort. Brooke found herself leaving the bedroom, walking down the steps toward the little white Jetta, thinking, with Toddy so annoyed, what chance did she stand of making Lee happy?
Serious depression hit Lee on Saturday. Lying in bed, he tried to play the guitar and couldn't coordinate the chords. He and Brooke and Mary took a short walk, and Lee was so fatigued by the effort that he was unable to climb back up the stairs without assistance. Mary and Brooke looked at each other. This guy who used to run six miles a day, absolutely exhausted?
On Monday, March 12, he met with President Bush and his chief of staff, John Sununu, in the Oval Office. Bush and Sununu had already been briefed by the president's physician and knew far more than Atwater was prepared to acknowledge. Lee, desperate for normalcy, said it was a lesion, and if you had to have one, this was eminently treatable.
Lee placed his full command focus on the battle to beat brain cancer. As always, he looked to control a hostile environment through knowledge, so he began his campaign with opposition research. Faxes were coming in from doctors all over the world. Lee assigned Mary to do a report on experimental acupuncture treatments in Russia. But Lee's campaign had a flaw that he should have recognized immediately, considering his political experience: heightened expectations.
On March 21, Brooke received a call from GW. A report had arrived from Gerald Posner, a neurologist at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who had been asked to look at Lee's tests. Posner was pessimistic. Lee had a grade 3 glioblastoma astrocytoma, he said, which meant that he had a 50-50 chance of living two or three years with the course of radiation underway. Brooke broke the news in a place where Lee could sort matters out -- the C&O Canal towpath, Lee's favorite place for jogging and thinking through issues.
Lee took Posner's report calmly. Both his cousins had had the same death sentence: glioblastoma multiforme astrocytoma. The tumor in his brain could double in size in seven days.
Each year on Christmas Eve, Lee would tag along with Sally and the girls to a Methodist church service, but he made no pretense of believing in institutionalized religion. He studied television evangelists the same way he used to observe barkers at the carnivals of his youth, fascinated by their fund-raising techniques. Sally took the kids to church and to Sunday school, but for Lee Sunday was another workday. Few people were more astonished than Sally, therefore, when her husband took a sudden interest in things spiritual.
"I mean, here you are looking at a man, chairman of his party, 39 years old -- did he need God?" she asked rhetorically. "And then he got sick."
Lee tried a little of everything. There was an alliance of born-again pols -- former Watergate figure Chuck Colson, former Reagan image maker Mike Deaver, former Nixon strategist Harry Dent. Lee called them all, looking for a spirituality he could comprehend. He rented "The Ten Commandments" and began a search for a good religious movie that would explain it all. When Charlie Black gave him a Bible, skeptical friends were reminded of a story told about Lee's old celluloid hero W.C. Fields, who was caught thumbing through the Bible on his deathbed. "Bill, what are you doing?" asked a visitor. "Looking for loopholes," replied the showman.
On Friday, March 16, after a White House breakfast, Lee struck up a conversation with the president's secretary, Patty Presock. She suggested he call Doug Coe, a low-key religious leader who was working with members of Congress on a National Prayer Breakfast. Eleven days later, Lee arrived at the Cedars, a Virginia mansion overlooking the Potomac that served as headquarters for Coe's Fellowship Foundation. Using a cane, he walked into the main house and sized up his 60-year-old host. "I've been in this city for many years now, and I never heard of you," he said. "Who are you, anyhow?"
"Well, we have many mutual friends all over the city," said Coe. "I've heard about you for a long time."
"What have you heard?" asked Lee.
"I've heard you're a real son of a bitch," said Coe with a smile. And so that dialogue began.
At 5 o'clock the following afternoon, Gary Maloney arrived at Lee and Sally's home with a Catholic priest. Maloney, a research aide at the RNC and a devout Catholic, sat on the stairway while Lee was baptized. The priest also heard his confession, administered last rites and left rosary beads, which Lee wore as a lucky charm. Everyone was serious about it, except Lee.
"Mama, am I Catholic now?" he asked Toddy the next day.
"Of course not!" she snapped. She didn't care about Lee's choice of denomination -- if she thought he had made a thoughtful decision. But with her boy all drugged up and grasping at religious straws, this was like a spiritual hijacking. "The priest was supposed to have heard Lee's confessions," Toddy confided lightly to a friend afterward, "but I don't think he could have stayed long enough to hear all of those."
On Tuesday morning, April 3 -- as copies of "Red Hot & Blue," the R&B album Lee had recorded with Isaac Hayes, B.B. King and Billy Preston, were being shipped to record stores -- Lee was readied for interstitial radiation surgery at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. To minimize media attention, he had registered as Stonewall Jackson.
The president called early. All the GOP members of Congress sent a card. Marilyn Quayle visited the hospital and seemed to lift Lee's spirits. Donald Trump called, as did Tom Brokaw. Lee was winning over the whole crowd on the eighth floor. Everyone was listening to "Red Hot & Blue" and asking for autographs.
The day after surgery Lee was so exhausted Brooke had to spoon-feed him lunch. He felt a cramp in his left leg, different from a seizure. Ultrasound confirmed that he had a blood clot, one of many side effects that would follow. Lee was put on heparin, a blood-thinning drug that created its own side effects. On Friday night at 11:15, Lee's doctors removed the catheters from his skull, gave him Demerol, and stitched him up. "If I'd ever known how bad it was," Lee told David Yon, "I wouldn't have been brave enough to go through with it."
Back home, Lee and Sally continued to lead a kind of split-level life. Downstairs was Sally, the kitchen and the girls (Sara Lee and her younger sister, Ashley Page). Upstairs was Lee, his operation, his team. Sally had almost no involvement in Lee's care or decision-making. Once, when George Bush was visiting, she excused herself and went to the kitchen, as though the men were going to discuss state business.
Brooke, under Lee's spell, thought they might have five more years, which they could stretch to 10. Okay, there would be a limp, perhaps -- but there would also be a future together. She interacted with the doctors and anyone Lee wanted to see, including Sally and his staff. If this were Brooke's husband, however, she would have locked the door and said, "Stay away. We need to be alone. We'll let you know if there's anything you can do." Sally went along with Brooke's presence -- Lee needed an intermediary, and Sally couldn't stay with him night and day. She viewed Brooke's devotion as yet another example of Lee's incredible ability to talk anyone into anything. If he could have, she thought, he would have talked somebody into dying for him.
Both Toddy and Sally were concerned that Brooke and Lee would become part of the Washington gossip mill. Sally also lived in fear that the kids would wonder what was going on. Brooke usually arrived early, stayed late and went home to her condo, but occasionally she spent the night on a couch, or Lee beckoned her to lie beside him. There was great tenderness and intimacy in their relationship -- Brooke bathed Lee, cared for him like a loving spouse -- but no one could determine whether they were in fact lovers. An aide came into the bedroom one night and found Lee and Brooke fast asleep, but saw an innocence to the scene. He tiptoed out and got the third degree from Toddy the next day.
Everyone pretended to act normal -- or what passed for normal under bunkerlike conditions. Sally knew all about political wives, the wives who came to D.C. with their husbands and the ones who replaced them. She had sat in many meetings over the years, trying to put together a PAC for women candidates, with the first wives sitting on one side of the table and the current wives on the other. "It's just a wild situation up here," she said. "People ought to know it when they come into it."
As for Brooke, Lee's declaration of love had caught her totally by surprise. If someone had asked her if she loved Lee before his seizure, her response would have been, "What, are you kidding? I hate him." Yes, he was her entire life, but she never intended for this to happen.
Lee drew the circle tighter and tighter around the bunker. Brooke became the person you dealt with to get to Lee. Leslie Goodman, the RNC press secretary, was almost out of the loop. Mary Matalin, who was experiencing flashbacks of her mother's death from cancer at an early age, found it hard to be around Lee for extended visits. To find out what was happening, she'd call Brooke, then share the update with reporters as though she were at his side daily. Mary told Lee that if he wanted to get religious over this ordeal, he should consider Brooke a gift from God.
Within weeks after the surgery, Lee lost most of the left side of his body -- even that leg stopped shaking after 39 years of uninterrupted fidgeting. The right leg picked up the beat. Moving Lee from bed to wheelchair took two people. Steve Allman, a college student built along linebacker lines, was hired as an aide.
At 8 o'clock on Monday, April 16, Sally went to the hospital, where her labor was induced. At 3:45 that afternoon, with her mother, Theodosia, in attendance, she gave birth to Sally Theodosia, 9 pounds and 3 ounces.
After learning of Norman Cousins's book about self-healing through laughter, Lee spent nights watching videotapes: "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Complete Three Stooges," "Car 54, Where Are You?" He tried massage therapists, dream therapists, guided-imagery tapes of waterfalls, audiotapes of organ music and waves crashing on the shore, and acupuncture. He went to a psychiatrist, taking both Brooke and Sally. (As a standard test for mental alertness, the psychiatrist asked Lee to list the presidents in order backward; Lee got to Chester A. Arthur before the doctor said that was sufficient.) When a healer told Lee to get rid of his black T-shirts and start wearing red underwear, he did. Tibetan monks visited, studied Lee's urine, recommended creams and vitamin therapy; even Sally spoke up against that approach.
While giving Lee an acupuncture treatment at home, therapist Bob Shapero took note of the mantralike list on the wall of the bedroom: Faith, Superior Attitude, Courage, Strength, Purpose, Determination. They were all attitude expressions. Shapero recommended that Lee meet Susan Trout, a spiritual counselor who helped people to grow even in the process of dying. Trout, a fiftyish woman who directed the Institute for Attitudinal Studies in Alexandria, met Lee on June 8 for a hello that grew into two hours.
Lee said his greatest fear was facing death. He opened up with Trout, telling her about the nightmarish death of his younger brother, Joe, who had pulled a deep-fat fryer full of boiling oil down on himself when he was 3 and Lee was 5; about the accident's effect on his mother's faith; about the pain it had brought him. "Do you know how horrible that was? Can you imagine what it was like to hear your father crying? To have your mother not able to deal with this at all?" Trout described Lee's terror as being analogous to falling into a black hole with nothing to stand on, nothing to hold onto, no way out.
"Where did I go wrong?" Lee asked.
"I think your head and your heart are out of alignment," said Trout. He had used his head to control, manipulate others throughout his life, she said, and he had set his heart aside. He had no instrument to determine whether his actions were for the highest good -- and he knew it. Lee was a disconnected man. With his family, he was thinking about work; at the office, he was thinking of end-of-the-day activities.
"God, you're perceptive!" said Lee. Christianity counsels us to forgive those who trespass against us, and Buddhism says our enemies are our best friends because they challenge us to transcend ourselves. But Lee's brand of politics was based on punishing enemies. Lee had made it his life work to understand his enemies, but not to the extent that he could empathize with them, because then he couldn't do what needed to be done. Now Trout was telling him he had to realign his life and look for the highest good. Lee told Trout about his vision in the ambulance, the sign saying " THIS IS A TEST. " To change so dramatically in such a short time -- could he do it?
Toddy called from Columbia in the middle of the session. Lee's father, Harvey, had just come from surgery for bladder cancer, and they weren't sure he was out of the woods. Lee was shaken. Trout watched how he tried to suppress his feelings and change the subject. She told him to be honest with his emotions. Feel them. Talk about them. When she left, Lee cried. She had stirred things up, but he liked the feeling afterward. By the end of the month, they had met seven times.
Even in his search for spirituality, Lee was a pragmatist. "What is your technical plan?" Lee asked Trout one day. She had no real plan, but she sensed terror and wanted to help Lee reduce his fear. The first thing was to make a "List of Regrets," events and relationships that needed healing. Top of the list for Lee was the death of Joe, which he could barely discuss. Next was his relationship with his father. Sensing his work ethic, Trout asked him to make a list of "unfinished business." To a guy who always took care of business, that had enormous appeal.
On the sunny morning of June 13, three old Reagan operatives met at the towpath: Lee, Lyn Nofziger and Ed Rollins. They sat on beach chairs, ate hot dogs and talked about the old days. Lyn and Ed had both survived medical ordeals and political defeats. Nofziger had survived, in part, because Lee had broken his "no consultants" vow and put him on retainer at the RNC. Rollins, on the other hand, had survived in spite of Lee's attempts to undo him in the political wars, attempts that Lee now started to chronicle. It was like hearing confession, thought Rollins, but everything sounded petty. Rollins had always envisioned Lee becoming an 85-year-old guru spinning war stories on a Southern porch. Now he could see that Lee wasn't going to make it.
In order to get her dad's attention one night in late June, Sara Lee wore makeup and one of her mother's dresses and imitated a news anchor interviewing Lee. The 10-year-old asked Mr. Atwater questions about his illness and, of course, his job. This Lee could relate to. Beneath the humor of the situation, he felt guilty about the time he had wasted talking to the press, to doctors, to everyone but his children. He always took pride in his efficiency, but now he felt he had apportioned his time to tasks that, on balance, really didn't matter.
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.
Sally continued to focus on the three children. She was breast-feeding Sally T., and as the baby grew, Lee faded. Sally was struck by the sad juxtaposition of events. She reflected on how Sally T. had come home from the hospital just as Lee was leaving home for the hospital -- a defining moment, Sally concluded. She began to take things one day at a time.
On Wednesday, June 27, Lee felt a burst of energy and told Ed Rogers to call a meeting at the RNC. Mary Matalin walked in, saw him in the wheelchair, and burst into tears. That choked Lee up. He got a grip and ran a good 40-minute meeting. Then he cried on the drive home.
Michael A. Newman, the internist in charge of Lee's care, called Brooke about a memo Lee was preparing for John Sununu to prove that he was still a player. He was concerned about its clarity. He had also noted incontinence, anxiety and the loss of strength on Lee's left side. Brooke's instincts had told her that something was different: Lee appeared to be "wound tight," but she had attributed it to his lack of sleep and the decreasing efficacy of Valium. Newman thought there was more to it, and he planned some tests. On June 29, Lee underwent another MRI.
"Well, Doc, what do you think?" Lee asked Newman.
"I think this thing is gonna get you," said Newman. He felt like the campaign manager who had to tell his candidate he was going to lose. "But we don't know when."
Newman had long talks with Lee, Sally and Brooke -- together and individually -- about what to expect. He told Lee to enjoy every moment of every day with his family. Brooke called Charlie Black and Mary Matalin, who were shocked by the news. Sally, concerned about health insurance and benefits, felt strongly that Lee should remain chairman of the party. All agreed that Charlie should take over as RNC spokesman but leave the chairmanship to Lee.
On the night of Saturday, June 30, Lee was feeling quite vulnerable. "Today is the first day of the rest of your life," he whispered into a minicassette recorder he used to dictate letters and reflections. "That was one of the great posters of the late '60s. I think all of us remember it from our college days. Even then it sounded a bit trite and silly. But on June 30, 1990, I had to face up to a startling fact. Today was the first day of the rest of my life, and it didn't seem that there would be much of it."
Lee recounted lying in a small cylinder for 85 minutes that day for a CT scan that confirmed there had been some growth in his tumor. "Right now I'm taking it in stride, but that's not natural for anybody, and it's certainly not natural for me . . . So I decided to try to write a book." He took a long pause. "My gut tells me that if I can truly get absorbed, truly get lost, truly think of nothing but the book, that would add a few more months and leave a message here after I left the planet." Another pause. "Who knows? This might be the only time I even do this [dictation]." His voice became choked.
"By this time tomorrow . . .
"I might be so depressed . . .
"That I can't do anything."
He clicked off the recorder.
As Lee's physical stamina began to fade, Brooke's resolve that he must not give in grew stronger. Lee had trained her too well. When he wanted to skip physical therapy, she pushed him on. During therapy one day she left the room for a few minutes. When she came back, the therapist and Lee were both staring at his legs, waiting for a seizure that Lee felt coming on. "I'd have a seizure, too, if you stared at me like that," said Brooke. "Lee, you need to get up, keep moving!" The seizure began.
Brooke was concerned about Lee's behavior toward others. He could be irate with his staff, whose occasional bickering he did not find worthy of his command focus. "You need to show some interest and consideration in them as people," Brooke said one afternoon. He talked so much about the lessons he'd learned, from faith to love and human relationships, she told him. Wasn't it time for practical application? "It's so unfair," she said. And she wept.
Lee had never been able to respond to raw emotion. "This fairness thing is bugging me to death," he said in his prayers one evening. "Sure, nothing's fair. But to watch somebody cry two or three times a day because things 'aren't fair' drains me. You know it does, Lord, and you know why it drains me."
Brooke was also haunted by the fear of being perceived as Lee's mistress. Even in the hospital, Lee was keeping up with old lovers. One afternoon, when several old Carolina buddies were visiting, Lee asked Brooke to leave them alone for an hour. Upset, she waited in the lobby and watched a tall, slender woman with long dark hair sweep into the elevator. Later, when Brooke returned, Lee asked the guys to leave. "This is how I feel good about myself," he explained. "These are the same guys who knew me when I was the unathletic guy. I had to show them, as sick as I am, as bad as I look, I can still get the girl."
The two began to quarrel. Initially, Lee liked the give-and-take of these sessions. "Brooke, you gave me positive reinforcing criticism, and I need it desperately," he said. But Brooke's lament about fairness struck Lee as a negative. One summer night Lee collected his thoughts and spoke into his minirecorder. "What I'm asking of you is not fair," he said to Brooke. "Life is not fair. The world's not fair. But we both have to accept that. It's not fair, and there's not a single thing that's going to happen that's going to make it fair . . ."
Lee heard someone coming up the stairs. His voice dropped to a whisper.
"One day I can look you in the eye and promise you I'll more than make up for it if it's the last thing I do. I can't tell you exactly how, I can't tell you exactly when, but I'll spend my entire life letting you know my appreciation. But until then, for the next few months, I'll need ultimate sacrifices." He clicked off the recorder and dealt with the visitor. Later that night he returned to his tape recorder in a deep, plaintive whisper. "Let's make the number one goal getting out alive. Obviously, I'm the one who's got the brain tumor; it's gonna be a little tougher on me. It may be tougher on you from an emotional standpoint, because you're the one being treated unfairly. But at this point, let's get through it alive, and then figure out what we do from there. We can do so much. We can be one of the most unique couples ever. And I mean of a big, big magnitude. Napoleon and Josephine. I know it sounds corny, but we can't do anything if I can't be alive, and you're the person I need more than anybody else to help me keep alive."
As August drew near, Lee delivered long, meandering midnight-of-the-soul meditations into his tape recorder, reflecting on problems with Sally, with Brooke, with staffers; problems with medication and side effects; and anxiety about what the next test might reveal. He drifted in and out of sleep as organ music played on the boombox in his bedroom. Lee prayed with more fear than fervor, like a politician trying to make a deal with God before an uncertain election. "Let's face it, I'm starting to believe, which is what's got to happen: believe . . . believe . . . believe . . . believe. Come hold my hand and help me cross that last little threshold to believe. Every minute and every second I'm trying to cross the threshold, and I will because I already sense it. I do sense it. I do sense it."
At night Sally heard Lee's cries of pain. This was more than a test, she thought. This was the final exam.
On the morning of August 2, as Iraqis swept into Kuwait, Lee met with Pat Haas, an editor at Scribner's, to discuss writing his memoirs. Ever since the Friday Newman had told him things looked black, Lee had been looking for a project to focus on. "I've got to get obsessed," he told himself. He believed his obsessive qualities "helped lead to my entire health breakdown, but they have served me exceptionally well in my career, and I might as well use them this last year to try to make some kind of statement."
Later that day, Lee checked into GW. His August hopes turned into despair. The tumor, like crabgrass, had begun to seed itself, taking hold in the spinal column. He lost all strength in his left hand. When Lee tried to move, the pain was as bad as pain gets. He was comfortable only in bed on morphine, supplemented with Halcion and Valium. His old friend Mike Ussery called from Morocco, where he was ambassador. "If I could get a gun right now, I'd pull the trigger!" said Lee in a high-pitched voice.
Because Brooke was with Lee every day, she didn't see the deterioration. To her he looked the same, even though she could see the alarm in visitors' eyes. One day orderlies were moving Lee, hooked up to a catheter and IVs, from his room to another floor. Distracted, Brooke got far ahead of the stretcher. Looking back, she saw an entourage moving a patient who was all strung up on support systems. Oh, that poor guy, she thought. He's close to death. Then a chilling realization swept over her: It was Lee.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Lee Atwater, broadcasting to you on Friday, September 7, from my new home, the George Washington Hospital," said the emerging author, dictating his memoirs. "I am now an intellectual. I have never before claimed to be an intellectual, and as a matter of fact there is a big part of me that is anti-intellectual."
Lee took to the book project with vigor. "I can have more fun as a writer than I ever thought of having as a politician," he said. "I'm still Lee Atwater. I can still kick ass."
Lee wanted a chapter in his book titled "Brooke," because "Brooke Vosburgh, a woman who has worked for me -- that some people would call a secretary -- has become more vital than an executive assistant. She has become, among other things, a friend and best pal and the most vital political functionary in my life." He felt that the chapter on Brooke "would help women in America to know that if they get into politics, they don't have to be secretaries, they can be partners and players. That to me is very important."
He sent a copy of the book outline and excerpts to the president, who took them to Camp David to review. "I was touched by the excerpt on Bar and me," Bush wrote. Then he added, "I loved your comments on Brooke. I have long known that she is a very special person, but you put it in the best perspective ever. Give her my love."
Lee's favorite spot at GW was the chapel, where he often went for a morning visit in his wheelchair to pray aloud. One day in late summer, when Brooke arrived at the hospital, Lee announced that they were going to be married. Aides wheeled him down to the chapel, where the couple improvised a wedding ceremony, with bent paper clips in lieu of wedding bands. When Lee told close friends, they couldn't determine whether it was an act of tenderness or one more scene in a sad little comedy.
Many dismissed Lee's relationship with Brooke as a boss-secretary fixation or the patient-nurse syndrome. Others thought it unseemly and even cheap. Brooke held Lee's hand as he went through the MRIs. Did Lee love Brooke in return? He said he did, and doubtless he loved and respected and admired her loyalty. But most of Lee's confidants thought that while Brooke believed in the power of love, for Lee this was yet another manifestation of his love of power.
By mid-September, Lee had been in the hospital for six weeks. He and Brooke started to argue over treatment, medication, what he should be eating, how he should exercise -- things that spouses quarrel about. Brooke's toughness did not soften even as Lee grew softer. He had trained her to meet his own standards of performance, yet when he finally had the focused, keep-movin' lieutenant he could trust -- even love -- he no longer had the stamina to keep up. "You think you're my boss!" he yelled. The nearly-weds were heading for a bitter breakup.
Lee called in Doug Coe, ostensibly to talk about the commandments. At the Sixth Commandment, Lee started ruminating about his relationships. He told Coe that since he had found God, he had taken a personal vow not to commit adultery. Then he started talking about his love for Brooke, asking Coe if the relationship was right or wrong. Coe demurred, but Lee persisted. "I don't have a lot of time, Doug," he said. "Is it or isn't it right?"
Finally Coe said, "Jesus was right on that. That's something you shouldn't do."
Lee cried for 20 minutes. Then he got hold of himself, pushed the button by his bed, and called for Brooke. The three of them talked openly. Lee tried to negotiate a deal with Coe. He said he could honor his commitment to Sally, but he wanted Brooke to be with him every day, and many nights, with the understanding that he wouldn't break the adultery rule.
Lee had no concept of what he was asking, thought Coe. When he left, the couple quarreled. Lee said that if Brooke left him, she would be breaking a commitment. His heart didn't seem to be in the argument, however. Brooke said that he was using Coe to release himself from an emotional bond he had made with her. At last she was beginning to understand. Lee needed her out of his life so that he could start to right his wrongs. Brooke left, saying that she loved him and would pray for him.
Lee called in Blake Williams. "Brooke's gone," he said. "You're in charge."
One August day Lee asked Coe to come to the hospital. An emergency. When he arrived, Lee looked at him with his best piercing glare. "This Jesus business. Is he God or isn't he God? Tell me. Some say he's God, some say he's man."
"This is something you've got to decide for yourself," said Coe. "I'll just tell you a little story." Lee gave Coe his full command focus.
"You're big on the golden rule," said Coe. "Now, let's say that you were the most powerful figure in the universe, and you could say, 'Let there be a star or a planet,' and -- boom! -- it exists. Or you wanted to create elephants, and -- boom! -- there were elephants, or cows or human beings. Anything you wanted, you have all the power, right?
"So you're sitting up on a cloud somewhere looking down on Earth, and you see these cows grazing in a field, and you decide that you want to be a real companion to those cows -- now what would you do?"
That picture of God becoming man had the clarity of an index-card summary. "I got it! I got it!" Lee shouted. "Don't tell me any more, don't tell me any more. It's very clear, I see it precisely!"
Lee Bandy, a reporter for South Carolina's leading newspaper, the State, started to piece together a story about Lee's spiritual change. One source was Doug Coe, a longtime friend. Bandy also knew that Harry Dent had visited Lee and had steered political evangelist Chuck Colson, as well as private evangelist Susan Baker, to Lee's side. Susan Baker, in turn, had urged her husband, James, to make a ministry of Lee's ordeal, and the secretary of state had become a frequent visitor.
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's born-again experience, with timely coverage just before the fall election, struck some onlookers as good ol' Lee using the media as usual. Bandy saw a different story. "Aside from a new inner peace and joy," he wrote, "Atwater has experienced what doctors said is a remarkable rally from his bout with a life-threatening brain tumor." Bandy quoted Ed Rogers, Lee's associate spinmeister, as saying, "I use the word 'miracle.' " Bandy's report, titled "Stricken Atwater Reorganizes Life, Priorities," went out on the wires. The Chicago Tribune picked it up, putting it on Page One with the headline: " GOP BAD BOY: I HAVE FOUND JESUS CHRIST! "
Harry Dent was pleased. He had received word that Lee, under pressure from some RNC members not to engage in Jesus talk, would probably be relieved of his duties as chairman soon after the fall election, so his media shelf life was limited. Dent explained his take on the article in a memo he wrote to a colleague at the Campus Crusade for Christ ministry three days after the article came out: "It was decided to break the story with the right perspective rather than the wrong perspective since pagan reporters were beginning to inquire about what was happening to Lee Atwater." Because Coe was "a universalist," engaging in "that 'Jesus isn't that necessary' stuff," Dent liked the Jesus spin on Bandy's article.
One of the so-called pagan reporters in pursuit of Lee's story was Todd Brewster, a writer for Life magazine. Leslie Goodman at the RNC had heard the same pitch over and over -- everyone wanted to do "Whatever Happened to Lee Atwater?" She and Mary were looking for a nice guy to feed the story to; they weren't sure how the religious thing would play if Lee couldn't control his own spin. At the very least, it was something to keep Lee busy and focused. Meantime, Pat Haas at Scribner's was still looking for a writer to work on Lee's memoirs, and an as-told-to magazine story could serve as a test run. The contract with Life called for 2,000 to 5,000 words on Lee's "recent political and personal experiences," due by December 7. It was a fairly standard contract with one clause inserted for Lee: "Life affirms its commitment to publish photographs that present you with dignity."
By the time Todd Brewster arrived in November, the tumor had had a huge effect on Lee's personality, creating bouts of depression and confusion. The radiation had also caused damage, killing millions of brain cells, creating swelling. The medications, too -- especially the steroids -- affected Lee's moods and awareness. Most of his quick wit and intelligence had drained away.
Todd moved quickly, doing preliminary interviews with Sally and a number of Lee's friends and colleagues. Getting Lee to open up was difficult, however. Todd went through the meandering memoirs that Lee had dictated as background information. One name kept coming up: Brooke Vosburgh.
Brooke was still on the RNC payroll. She had traveled to San Diego as part of a site-selection group working on the Republican National Convention. She spent several days with Mary Matalin touring the city, ending up at Sea World, where they sat watching Shamu, drinking beer, laughing and talking about their wacky boss. He was increasingly erratic, said Mary, calling her countless times every day, inevitably asking about Brooke. If Mary said they hadn't talked, Lee didn't believe her; he thought they were conspiring. He also called Brooke regularly, but if she wasn't in, he would leave a message saying, "Don't call back."
One evening Todd Brewster phoned Brooke and said, "I've been given permission to speak to you." Brooke was brought back to help Lee with the interviews. On the morning of November 15, Lee, Brooke and Todd decided to talk during one of Lee's outings in the RNC limo. "When you first started facing the cancer," Todd asked, "did you say to yourself, 'I've had tough battles before, and this is like a campaign'?"
"Well, to be honest with you, I really didn't do that," said Lee.
"Now, Lee, this is an instance that you handled something medical very campaignlike," said Brooke. "You called in [two doctors] and sat around your conference table and laid out all the facts. You had Mary Matalin there, and I was there . . ."
"We got any Tylenol?" said Lee. "Yeah, you're right about that, Brooke."
Then Todd asked, "Was there a point early in this, Lee, when you faced a worst-case scenario with the cancer? Did you think what cancer means about life and death?"
"Sure, and I still do. It comes and goes. I try to subjugate it, and I can for long periods of time. But it always comes back. You can't ever stop it, Todd. It always comes back."
"But you must develop in some way. With each new time of thinking about it and talking to people about it, you probably come more to grips with what life and death mean."
"You'd think you would, but you really don't," said Lee.
Lee's short answers weren't giving Todd the stuff that good interviews are made of. He changed direction. Others had told him about alternative therapies that Lee had tried. "What things did you try that failed, what did you try that succeeded?"
"I got a couple of holistic people," said Lee.
"Tell me about the holistic people."
"What did they do?"
"Give you massages and little lectures."
"Massages and lectures."
"I don't want to get into that," said Lee.
Brooke tried to pick it up. "Not even the Tibetan?" she asked.
Todd said, "I think we're going to have to get into a lot of that, Lee, to get people to understand what you've been battling."
Lee turned it over to Brooke. "Tell him the Tibetan thing," he said.
Since Brooke had left the scene, Lee had used private donations to hire his old pal Linda Reed, now Linda O'Meara. After working for Lee during the South Carolina campaign for Reagan in 1980, Linda too had ended up in Washington, as a clerk. During Lee's early years at the White House, when Sally lived in South Carolina, Linda often cooked for Lee and served as a hostess when he wanted to entertain guests at home. Later her daughters would babysit for the Atwaters. As Lee moved up, so too did Linda. She had been director of administration for Reagan/Bush '84 (a job that placed her in charge of Brooke Vosburgh).
Linda came in part because she had grown more religious, but mostly because she felt she owed Lee an enormous debt. Sally had viewed Brooke as a wedge between Lee and herself. Linda was a link they both felt comfortable with. She could read the Bible, cook Southern-style meals, oversee volunteers, work from 6:30 in the morning till 9:30 at night, go home and tend to a husband and children, then come back the next day for more. She gave Lee the support he needed without the emotional overload he faced with Brooke.
Lee told Brooke he had talked to Sally, saying he needed Brooke around him to keep movin'. Sally had replied that she was deeply hurt. That stopped Lee in his manipulative tracks. After all their years together, he was still trying to put something over on the mother of his children. There had to be something between them, but he had difficulty saying anything so direct to Sally. Instead he sent her a telegram reassuring her of his love. For Sally, it was enough.
And so Lee and Sally 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."
After Lee described to Brooke how hurt Sally had been, she could see that their future was dying. Brooke told Lee that she accepted that he was never going to leave Sally. Regardless, her job was to keep him going on the Life magazine project.
On Wednesday morning, November 21, Linda called Brooke to say that Lee was too tired to do a scheduled interview. Brooke said that Lee had plenty of time to rest, and that she wasn't going to take no for an answer. Sally and the kids had driven to South Carolina for Thanksgiving. It was a perfect day for a session with Todd. Brooke drove to the house.
She went up to the bedroom, which was totally black. The shades were drawn, and Lee was propped up in bed, wide awake, with soft music playing. In the corner sat Linda, reading from a stack of catalogues. Lee seemed happy to see Brooke. "Are you going to meet Todd?" she asked. "You need to get up. You've made this obligation to Todd. You told me you'd take this seriously . . . "
Linda began to back Brooke out of the room. "You need to be more gentle with him," she said.
Lee said, "Linda, leave the room. Leave me alone in here with Brooke." Linda left, and Brooke locked the door. Lee asked her to lie down beside him. "You don't have to be mean," he said.
"It's not meanness," said Brooke. "It's wanting you to live up to your potential." Everyone was walking on eggshells, she said. Brooke reminded Lee of Stuart Barnwell, his roomie from the early days who had recently died of cancer. Lee was upset because no one had told him how seriously ill Stuart was. People were afraid to tell him even if it was raining outside because they feared his reaction. "You can also be mean," Brooke said.
"We deserve each other," Lee agreed.
When Brooke tried to get him moving, Lee started to cry. Linda began to pound on the door. "Let me in!" she shouted.
"Leave us alone!" Brooke shouted back.
Linda found a key and opened the door. "Get out!"
Brooke went downstairs while Linda calmed Lee. Brooke sat on the front steps of the house, trying to calm down herself. Later Steve Allman brought Lee into the kitchen for lunch. Lee asked Linda to ask Brooke to come in. He told her, "I'm not going to do it. I just can't do it. I'm so sorry."
"That's fine, Lee," said Brooke. "That's up to you. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. I'll talk to you when you come back."
Lee told Michael Newman that he couldn't handle the emotional turmoil in his life. He was upset about having to give up the RNC, about his father's illness, and about Brooke. The pain and drugs intensified everything. Newman called Charlie Black. Charlie said that he could handle at least one of Lee's problems: Brooke.
When Brooke arrived at 10 o'clock Monday morning, Charlie was huddling with Sally, Linda, Todd Brewster and Mary Matalin in the living room. Charlie said that Lee needed to be let off the hook for a week, and that Todd would have to do interviews with others. Brooke was to continue working with Todd, but she would report to Mary hereafter. Brooke stood up. "There's no reason for me to stay here now," she said. "I'll just leave."
Mary followed her out, filled the front passenger seat of the Jetta with her long frame and started screaming. "What's going on? What is the story? Sally said you are never to walk in her house again!"
Brooke couldn't figure out who Mary was mad at -- Lee, Charlie or her. She told Mary about finding Lee in the dark. "They're letting him die," she said, "and I can't let him go."
"You have to let him go," said Mary. "He wants to die."
Brooke called Charlie, saying she was being jerked around. "You are," said Charlie, "and if you want to designate me as the jerk, that's fine."
Brooke turned off her beeper. In early December she joined the presidential entourage for a 10-day swing through South America.
The realization that this would be Lee's last Christmas made the holidays haunting. With Brooke gone, Sally was around more. One day, on the deck of their mountain retreat in Virginia, Lee felt the need to confess every indiscretion. He launched into a recitation of all the affairs he could remember in front of Sally and a couple of longtime friends who had dropped by for what they thought would be an easygoing visit. Everyone felt uncomfortable.
At another time, Lee, falling apart but still weight-conscious, snapped to Sally, "What is this blimpo mode you are in?" Sally had taken to wearing sweat suits most of the time. She was still trying to lose the weight from her third pregnancy, but mostly the sweats made it easier to care for Lee and the kids. She could sleep anywhere in the house: a couch, the kids' rooms, even in a chair in the family room.
Sally excused most of Lee's lack of consideration as "a man thing" she had endured for years. "I should have been tougher on him," she told a friend. Or perhaps on herself. Sally had married Lee without talking about Joe's death. If Lee insisted that his wife not enter that part of his life, how much was he going to let her into the rest? "If I was the one with a brain tumor, I'm not so sure Lee would have been there for me," Sally told Toddy one evening.
Toddy's wry response: "Sally, he would have hired somebody."
Linda arranged a series of holiday potlucks and open-house gatherings. With his 8-month-old daughter on his lap, Lee sat in his wheelchair near the Christmas tree, teary-eyed, telling old political pals that he loved them. "This is what life is all about," he said to Gail Jones, his favorite nurse, whom he had hired away from GW. "Christ, Gail, all the steroids have turned me into a sappy old woman!"
Life magazine hit the newsstands featuring "Lee Atwater's Last Campaign." The subhead explained, "Battling an inoperable brain tumor, the bad boy of Republican politics discovers the power of love -- and a dream for America."
Atwater's "deathbed confession" remains controversial to this day. Many interpreted it as a renunciation of the political decade he had helped make possible. "Long before I was struck with cancer, I felt something stirring in American society," he said. "It was a sense among the people of the country -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- that something was missing from their lives, something crucial. I was trying to position the Republican Party to take advantage of it. But I wasn't exactly sure what 'it' was. 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."
For many readers, there was a credibility problem. He's been a bastard all his professional life, said his critics, and now we're supposed to believe him when he says he really loves us?
Make no mistake: Lee still believed in the power of negative campaigning. "I prefer to call [it] comparative campaigning," he said. "Negative makes it sound as if you're beating up on the guy for no reason, which is different from choosing symbolic platforms, like the Pledge of Allegiance or the furlough program in Massachusetts, upon which to make compelling comparisons between candidates." No, Lee wasn't apologizing for that. "In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his running mate.' I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not. Mostly I am sorry for the way I thought of other people. Like a good general, I had treated everyone who wasn't with me as against me."
Was that an apology? With Lee Atwater, it's better to think of it as emotional damage control.
The pain continued, "worse than bone cancer," said Newman. Lee regulated his own dosage of morphine with a red button on the IV, the accumulated effects of which were streaks of delirium and paranoia. He thought that everybody was out to kill him. Lee insisted that visitors, including longtime staffers, be frisked. As extra security, he asked one of his aides to "pack heat": a short-barreled Smith & Wesson .357 magnum with hollow-point bullets.
A psychiatrist who visited Lee on January 23 noted "marked cognitive deficits." Lee told him that "in 1943 Curly of the Three Stooges had farted in the very same bed that he was now occupying." Lee also expressed fear that old high school rivals were trying to poison him. He wouldn't eat unless Linda O'Meara cooked the food and tasted it in front of him.
On the morning of January 31, Lee summoned what strength remained in his body and attended the National Prayer Breakfast, led by Doug Coe. His speech for this final public appearance was short: "I love Christ!"
He returned to the hospital, where a psychiatrist noted that Lee had no idea of the month or year, but he knew he was at GW. "He then perseverated on the theme of having committed some sins in the past of a sexual nature and for which he is being punished, and repeatedly asked me for help in getting rid of these sins."
One afternoon Mary Matalin biked over to the hospital, where Lee was talking with Doug Coe. She watched him try to focus on the conversation, then caught his eye. For the first time she saw a forlorn look that said it was over. Mary backed out the door, walked down the hall, and leaned against the wall. She slid to the floor and melted in a pool of tears.
The pictures in Life scared nearly all but the most faithful visitors away. Linda put out an appeal for help, for covered dishes, for volunteers to write thank-you notes. "Lee got tons of people jobs, and you would have thought that tons of people out there would have offered to help," she said. Some members of the South Carolina crowd whom Lee had been so kind to in the early days at the White House came through. But the bureaucrats, the legions in Atwater's Army, were nowhere to be seen. "Lee couldn't do anything for people anymore," said Linda. "It was Washington politics at its purest. This is the meanest town in America."
The RNC sent someone to inventory the computer, the fax, the phones that used to link Lee with some of the most powerful people in the world. Linda suggested that the items be given to Sally as a gift. No, they would have to be returned.
At 3 o'clock one morning in late February, Lee could not remember Brooke's number or last name, so he called the White House and asked for help. There an operator figured out who Brooke was and how to find her. A few days earlier, Brooke had asked Newman if she could "just go into his room at midnight and sit there for a while. No one would ever have to know." Lee told Newman no, he had promised Sally that he would never see or talk with Brooke again. Now, at 3 a.m., Lee was on the phone apologizing for not seeing her. He felt torn and guilty, and he wanted Brooke to know that he would always love her.
On March 5 -- exactly one year after his initial seizure, one year after Burton Lee had said he had a year to live -- Lee entered GW at 3:18 p.m. Charles Rogers was on the case again. Scans showed that the tumor had spread along Lee's spinal cord. During the past year, Lee had spent 160 days in the hospital, and scores of additional days in physical therapy or in labs for scans, tests and medication. The cure was worse than the cancer. "If this is a test, as I thought riding along in the ambulance that long-ago March day," Lee had told Todd Brewster, "then I'm not sure if you pass it by displaying the determination to live or the courage to die."
One week after being admitted, Lee was near death. The right leg stopped twitching, then the foot, finally the toes. Still the blue eyes retained their piercing quality. Sitting up in the hospital bed, he looked at Newman with a mixture of "bewilderment and understanding," the doctor would record in his notes. "Like some animal caught in a net exhausted but not subdued, struggling to affect events." He wanted watermelon juice, not easy to find in March. His juice couldn't come from a blender, either. Had to be squeezed by hand.
"Mama," Lee's voice said on the phone. "I don't think I'll ever see you again. Can you come up here?"
Toddy was tending to Harvey in Columbia. "I'll be up there in two hours," she said. In Washington, she took a motel room, but Lee insisted she sleep in his hospital room.
"I want to die," he told Toddy. "Just get a gun and shoot me, Mama. You're the only person who can do it."
"I'm the only person who can not do it, Lee," she replied. "I gave you life. I surely can't take it away from you."
"Mama, after Joe died, I remember you read a lot and tried to find meaning to all of that," said Lee. "Did you ever find it?"
"No, I didn't," she replied. "But I made up my mind about my own religious convictions, and I have always tried to live by the golden rule. That runs through all religion in one way or another. If you do that, you can't go wrong."
"Mama, what was the real impact of Joe's death on me?" Lee asked.
Toddy couldn't answer. Lee had done so much, so quickly, that to her it seemed as if he had been living for the two of them.
"Mama, wasn't Joe lucky?" Lee whispered. "Wasn't Joe lucky?"
In Room 2136 at GW on Thursday, March 28, Lee struggled to remain conscious. Ed Rogers held Lee's hand and shouted; Lee squeezed back. Steve Allman thumb-wrestled one final round with Lee's right hand. Nancy and Ronald Reagan came by for a visit. Jim Baker came. The secretary of state's first wife had died of cancer, and he had been through the same vigil with a cot in the room. Baker could see that Lee's eyes were becoming fixed.
That night Lee had a seizure. His temperature shot up. A nurse put a cold sheet beneath him. "This bed is cold as kraut!" said Lee. Something got Sally up at 5:30, and she went back to Lee's bed, where Toddy was on vigil. Sally had thought that she wouldn't want to be in the room when her husband died, but a new strength had displaced that fear. Hot with fever, Lee cried out, asking her to take the blanket off. Even on oxygen, his breathing was labored. Gradually, softly it eased off. Sally and Toddy stood beside the bed as Lee took his last breath at 6:12. A nurse kept his stethoscope on Lee's chest as the runner's heart beat on for 12 more minutes. Then the race was over. Sally and Toddy kissed him, and as a gentle rain began to fall on the city, Lee Atwater was pronounced dead at 6:24 a.m. on Friday, March 29, at the age of forty years, one month, and three days.
John Brady, a veteran magazine journalist and the author of The Craft of Interviewing, is currently Hearst Visiting Professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. This article is excerpted from "Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater," to be published by Addison Wesley Longman next month.
Excerpted from the forthcoming book, "Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater." Copyright 1997 by John Brady. To be published by Addison Wesley Longman in January. All rights reserved.
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