Friday, May 20, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Struggle with Cancer and Deathbed Conversion)

The final part of this film of course deals with Lee Atwater’s struggles with brain cancer beginning in 1990.

Tucker Askew describes Atwater as being consumed with fear during this period. Askew also noted that fear had been a staple of tool chest in politics. Ironically, when the gravity of his illness became apparent, Atwater had an attitude of sheer terror with respect to the imminence of the after-life.

In an interview in the film, Ed Rollins indicates that as Atwater’s health deteriorated, he and Atwater reconciled. Atwater asked for his help and indicated Rollins was the only person he could trust as others were trying to get him out of the RNC.

It was also noted that during this period of his life Atwater went on a frantic search for spiritual meaning, and had clergy of many faiths waiting in the halls to meet with him in the hospital. One friend indicated that Atwater told all of the clergy he was on board with their beliefs in the thought that if one of them were right, he’d be ok.

Another friend indicated Atwater told him he had never read the bible until his illness. He indicated he was consumed with the verse from the New Testament: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Despite the “boogeyman” person he cultivated, Ed Rollins expressed in the film the belief that Atwater was not evil, he was just insecure. His whole life was spent trying to gain power and prestige, and when he achieved it, Rollins believed he was terrified of losing it.

Mary Matalin expressed disgust with the misrepresentation of Atwater’s death bed conversion stories. I found this to be a fascinating attitude, but unfortunately it was not explored sufficiently in the film and I am not sure what exactly provoked her disgust.

The final scene in the film involves footage from the interview with Ed Rollins who explained that Atwater had indicated that a Living Bible was what was giving him faith in his final days. Rollins states that he said to Mary Matalin after Atwater’s death, "I really, sincerely hope that he found peace.” In the film, Rollins states, that Matalin responded, “Ed, when we were cleaning up his things afterwards, the Bible was still wrapped in the cellophane and had never been taken out of the package.” Rollins add that that fact “just told you everything there was. He was spinning right to the end."

That was certainly a fascinating way to end the film. However, I was left with certain questions.

Earlier in the film, Rollins had indicated that he himself was a former altar boy, but politics was not a field that typically recruited altar boys. Rollins also described with an incredible tirade of profanity his reaction to Atwater’s betrayal of him and the threats he made against Atwater at the time. Thus, it was evident in the film that Rollins had an extremely negative view towards Atwater and still held a lot of anger for him. Nonetheless, he later professed in the film that his anger for Atwater melted away when he saw how sick he was. The bottom line of all this is it is unclear to me whether one should even believe Rollins’ story about the cellophane.

Maybe Matalin made the statement, maybe she didn’t. Again, it is not clear in the film what provoked Ms. Matalin’s disgust at the deathbed conversion stories. Maybe it was because she had found a bible in Mr. Atwater’s office and it was in the cellophane. Perhaps Ms. Matalin’s disgust was prompted by her belief that Mr. Atwater’s deathbed conversion was insincere. But perhaps something else provoked her disgust. The reaction inside the Beltway towards Mr. Atwater’s tragic illness and death were enough to provoke disgust in plenty of people.

Indeed, that cellophane statement just seems odd to me. I myself own more bibles than I can count. Some were gifts, and others I bought myself at various times in my life. I’m not sure any of my bibles ever came wrapped in cellophane.

Even if Matalin did make the statement and even if it were true, it is not clear that it has the significance that Rollins suggests, i.e., that Atwater’s conversion was insincere. Like me, perhaps Atwater owned multiple copies of the bible and the one in the cellophane was one that he didn’t make use of. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t reading another copy (or copies) regularly. Many people don’t do the bulk of their bible study at work. And it seems unlikely that Mr. Atwater would have been at his office much in the latter days of his life anyhow.

Although I own a lot of bibles, I have a few that I read more than others. I have one at my office at work that I have consulted most over the years for a variety of reasons. It is pocket size and has a bookmark ribbon that I find helpful. I have another bible with a different, more modern translation that I keep on my nightstand to read before I go to sleep. A third is one that I tend to use when I take a bible to church or when I go to our church’s small group meetings. Many years ago I tabbed the books in that particular bible, so I can find particular passages very quickly. A few other bibles of mine get read occasionally, but others are frankly rarely (if ever) opened. Though none of my bibles are wrapped in cellophane, if you judged my devotion to the bible based on the frequency these latter bibles are opened, the judgment would be skewed.

In the end, it is not for any of us human beings to judge the sincerity of Atwater’s death bed convergence, the sincerity of his statements of religious devotion he made to friends, or the frequency of his bible study. It does not really matter to me. That is not my place.

I disagreed with many things Mr. Atwater did in his earthly life, but I hope and believe he is at peace in the afterlife. As a Christian, I view God as merciful even when we are undeserving—and we all fit that description. Jesus taught us that God is not a vengeful god, he is the joyful father of the prodigal son.

To me, the ultimate take away from this film was that those who generally work in politics do not have the kind of values or ethics that I would aspire to embrace. I cannot ever see myself working in a political capacity. I cannot imagine ever deciding to run for public office or working in more than a casual manner (e.g., stuffing envelopes) for a politician.

These are not conclusions I have come to simply by virtue of watching this particular film. Experiences I had growing up in DC also underpin that decision. That does not mean that I am apathetic about politics or I’m disengaged. I think civic engagement is important. But I don’t have any illusions about politicians and those who get them elected. Even when I agree with the positions they take, I am not always convinced of their sincerity and I frankly doubt their integrity. Perhaps that is a horribly cynical view, but that seems to be a basic truth of the political process. I’m disappointed in the electorate that we’ve allowed that to be the case.

Acts 26:8
Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?

Romans 14:9
For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

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