As I observe the lack of civility and destabilization in local and international political life, I remember Lee Atwater. Chief political advisor to the first President George Bush, Atwater sabotaged Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign with his Willie Horton strategy. He suggested Mr. Dukakis name furloughed rapist Willie Horton his running mate. He told Mr. Bush his vision of a kinder, gentler America wouldn’t win any votes.
All that changed when Mr. Atwater learned he had a brain tumor. Suddenly, he saw that what was missing in society was what was missing in himself — a little heart and a lot brotherhood. He apologized to Mr. Dukakis. He wrote about his spiritual awakening, turning to the Bible instead of The Art of War, realizing too late how much he missed spending time with family and friends. He realized his emphasis on greed and materialism had overtaken him. His fatal illness gave him an awareness of a “tumor of the soul” that was in him and in the American political leadership.
Lee Atwater’s life and death demonstrate how the practice of accountability rather than blame, forgiveness rather than revenge, and reconciliation rather than perpetration are essential for co-existence. Without them, humanity will repeat the suffering and horror of the last century’s wars and this century’s ethnic conflict.
At the international level, if we understand how the United Nations runs, we can empower it to combat the world’s instability by playing a stronger role in peace building through the new United Nations Commission on Peace building. Many Americans think the United Nations is impotent, not realizing that if we want to change the UN, this has to be done through each country — especially the country with the most power, the United States. Despite a movement at the end of World War II to strengthen the UN, the attempt failed, and now 192 countries work in their own self-interest to resolve problems rather than keeping collective and global interests in mind. The Security Council veto that strangles political will remains the stronghold of the five countries who were the victors of World War II. As one of those victors and the strongest of the five — the only superpower — we are accountable to strengthen the United Nations so that there is political will to enact its resolutions.
Closer to home, in Worcester, where we have more influence in our daily lives, public citizens can begin to address our spiritual vacuum in our own backyards. Change has a ripple effect. By reflecting on what is truly important, we can alter our behavior accordingly. We can get off that treadmill of old habits.
If I have an unresolved argument with my neighbor that has escalated into an intractable silence, I can step off the treadmill of ill will, take that first step and say hello.
If I know a gang member that is ready to reclaim his/her freedom, I can offer a helping hand to step off that treadmill of revenge.
Or if I have a sense of mistrust in the way my life is going, I can step off the treadmill of inertia and change direction, at whatever age. One of my mentors, Dr. Elise Boulding, Professor Emeritus of Dartmouth College, got her PhD at 50 and has written several dozen books since then.
People can stop being immobilized in their powerlessness. The first step is to rebuild trust within our family, our neighborhood, and ourselves.
We can extend that olive branch. The ripple effect of our actions begins a turn of events. The way we treat our most vulnerable fellow citizens is a sign of our own health.
I dream of a new phoenix rising out of the ashes of our incivility—one where the peoples of this country truly care for each other as well as for the peoples beyond our borders. Lee Atwater’s final message inspires me to encourage people to speak, to care for one another, to rebuild trusting relationships by apology and atonement, and step off the treadmill, looking out beyond our roles as victims and perpetrators to our shared humanity.
(Originally published on the Commentary page of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, October 30, 2006)