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GOP Party Chairman, Fighting Brain Tumor, Apologizes to Dukakis

January 12, 1991 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Republican Party chairman Lee Atwater has apologized to Michael Dukakis for the ″naked cruelty″ of a remark he made about the Democratic presidential nominee during the 1988 campaign.

Atwater’s apology is included in a first-person account in the February issue of Life magazine released Saturday that details his fight against an inoperable brain tumor.

As manager of Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, Atwater succeeded in making an incident involving prisoner Willie Horton an issue against Dukakis.

A convicted murderer, Horton raped a woman while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The Bush campaign used the incident to portray Dukakis as a liberal who was soft on crime.

″In part because of our successful manipulation of his campaign themes, George Bush won handily,″ Atwater wrote. He conceded that throughout his political career ″a reputation as a fierce and ugly campaigner has dogged me. While I didn’t invent ‘negative politics,’ I am one of its most ardent practitioners.″

But since his illness, Atwater, 39, has apologized for many of the tactics he once employed.

″In 1988,″ he wrote, ″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.″

When the Republican National Committee meets in Washington on Jan. 25, it will ratify President Bush’s choice of Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter to become the new party chairman. Atwater will receive the title general chairman.

The Life article, written with Todd Brewster and available on newsstands this week, is accompanied by photos that show Atwater today, his face swollen by steroids and framed by dark, curly hair. They are a stark contrast to earlier pictures of him, lean and grinning, jogging or mugging with Bush.

Atwater also talked about the moment last March 5 when he was speaking to a fund-raising breakfast for Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.

″I felt my left foot start to shake uncontrollably,″ he wrote. ″In seconds the twitch had moved into my leg and up the left side of my body. I was scared. I stopped speaking, grabbed at my side with one hand and clutched the podium with the other.″


Atwater was rushed to the hospital and within days doctors determined he was suffering from a tumor on the right side of his brain. His battle with cancer has continued unabated since that diagnosis.

Atwater also described the change in his relationship with Ronald H. Brown, the Democratic Party chairman.

″After the election, when I would run into Ron Brown ... I would say hello and then pass him off to one of my aides. I actually thought that talking to him would make me appear vulnerable.

″Since my illness, Ron has been enormously kind - he sent a baby present to Sally T. (Atwater’s third child who was born only weeks after he was stricken); he writes and calls regularly - and I have learned a lesson: Politics and human relationships are separate. I may disagree with Ron Brown’s message but I can love him as a man.″

After the tumor was diagnosed, Atwater mobilized friends and aides to research all aspects of the disease to help decide on the best course of treatment.

″Our research and the further study of my scans kept us on a roller coaster of good news and bad,″ he wrote. ″Then, on March 21, we hit bottom.″

It was then he learned the tumor was far worse than originally thought.

He underwent intense radiation treatment in New York and listened to more unorthodox advice.

″When a healer told me to get rid of my black T-shirts and start wearing red underwear, I obliged,″ he wrote. ″I tried massage therapy and actually felt the swelling in my brain go down.

″Relax, said everyone, and so I listened to guided imagery tapes that helped me direct white light into the cancer. I welcomed the dream therapist who helped me realize that a recurring nightmare - I was jumping off a cliff into the ocean, but I always woke up before I hit the water - was about my inability to make the leap of faith that was necessary to face my mortality.″

Atwater recalled that his goals in life had been to run a presidential campaign and become national party chairman. He also dreamed of becoming a rhythm and blues musician.

February ″marks my 40th birthday - that deadline I set for achieving my life’s goals,″ he wrote. ″I lie here in my bedroom, my face swollen from steroids, my body useless and in pain. I will probably never play the guitar or run again; I can only hope to walk.

″The doctors still won’t answer that nagging question of mine: How long do I have? Three weeks. Three months. Three years.

″I try to live as if I have at least three years, but some nights I can’t go to sleep, so fearful am I that I will never wake up again.″