Thanks to the late Lee Atwater, my electroshock treatments for adolescent depression 35 years ago have probably been the most publicized political incident of its kind since Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri was replaced as vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket in 1972, because he had a "nervous breakdown" in his past.
Atwater, as you probably read in his recent obituaries, made me one of his targets on his way to establishing himself as a gunslinging political operative who exploited any perceived vulnerability in his opponent.
The incident occurred in 1980, when I was a Democratic nominee for Congress in South Carolina and Atwater was a consultant for my opponent, the Republican incumbent. Atwater's antics included phony polls by "independent pollsters" to "inform" white suburbanites that I was a member of the NAACP, because my congressman opponent was afraid to publicly say so, and last-minute letters from Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) warning voters that I would disarm America and turn it over to the liberals and Communists. I ran a respectable campaign but lost.
Since then, Atwater had cultivated his macho image with the national media by telling about how he had planted a story with reporters covering the 1980 congressional race that I had been "hooked up to jumper cables" when I was "mentally ill" as a student. I saw the story in Esquire, The New York Times, the Atlanta Constitution, on NBC-TV and PBS. Lee seemed to delight in making fun of a suicidal 16-year-old who was treated for depression with electroshock treatments.
In fact, my struggle with depression as a student was no secret. I had talked about it in a widely covered news conference as early as 1977, when I was in the South Carolina State Senate. Since then I have often shared with appropriate groups the full story of my recovery to responsible adulthood as a professional, political and civic leader, husband and father. Teenage depression and suicide are major problems in America, and I believe my life offers hope to young people who are suffering with a constant fear of the future.
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."
Touched by the sincerity of his letter of apology and subsequent phone conversations, I attended Lee Atwater's funeral in Columbia, S.C. Sitting across the church from me was a young Republican political consultant whom I recognized. I had recently seen him on CNN boasting about how Republicans were going to drive up the negatives on all the Democrats who voted "against America" in opposing Bush's force resolution and beat them in 1992. How sad.
I hope those young political consultants who would emulate Atwater's tactics of driving up the negatives of their opponents with the politics of fear will realize that Lee Atwater, confronting death, became, through the grace of God, an advocate of the politics of love and reconciliation. Rather than remembering him as one who polarized politics and exploited insecurity and prejudices to win elections, it would be good if we could remember him as a positive role model. When faced with his own mortality, he saw the truth of love and reconciliation.
The writer is an attorney in Columbia, S.C.