A THOUSAND YEARS AS YESTERDAY WHEN IT IS PAST
- My 3 Phone Calls in the Night from Lee Atwater -
by Mark Dankof for Global News Net (GNN)
(Global News Net’s Mark Dankof reflects on his past relationship with George Herbert Walker Bush’s smarmy chief campaign operative–and its implications for the larger meaning of life.)
The first call came at approximately 0300 in the darkness of my cottage in Seattle overlooking Puget Sound on a date in 1988. In those days, as both an occasional radio talk show personality on a 50.000 watt Christian radio station in Seattle, and a Lutheran pastor to boot, it was not unusual to be suddenly awakened in the night by all manner of distress calls. But this one was most unique.
The voice at the other end of the line said, "Pastor, this is Lee Atwater, the chairman of the Republican National Committee calling from Washington, D. C. How are you? I’m sorry to be calling you at 3 a.m. your time, but I’m off to an early work start out here at 6 a.m. EST. I’m calling for a simple reason—George Bush is coming to Seattle for a campaign appearance at the Four Seasons Hotel–televised, the whole works. We need a pastor for an invocation. You’ve been selected. Are you available?" I hesitated in the midst of a sleepy stupor before replying with the equivocal, "Well, I guess so." The legendary, creepy voice at the line’s other end said with finality and satisfaction, "Good. I know you want to get that pinko Dukakis as much as I do. My secretary will call again with the exact time, date, and logistical details." The line went dead.
I showed on the night in question at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Seattle. There were TV camera men out on the street waiting for the arrival of George Bush. There were also a lot of demonstrators of various descriptions with ugly moods and placards waiting for the arrival of his motorcade from Boeing Field. Upon reaching the hotel parking lot, I was flagged by a Secret Service man who took over the parking of my 1982 Pontiac 6000LE–the worst looking car in what proved to be the Bush delegation’s designated section for parking, lined with luxury vehicles and multi-door hotel and airport limousines. Another Secret Service agent escorted me to a special room adjacent to the hotel ballroom, designated as the "Holding Zone" for the guests who would be eventually seated on the stage in the ballroom to greet the man who would eventually prove to be the electorate’s choice as the 41st President of the United States.
I had arrived early enough that I was initially accompanied by only one other denizen of the Holding Room honorees–the legendary William Ruckelshaus, best remembered for his role in October 1973 in refusing Richard Nixon’s direct order to fire Special Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox. (It would be left to Judge Robert Bork to carry out the Presidential directive, an act which set the stage for Bork’s own hostile grilling years later at the hands of a hostile Senate Judiciary Committee examining the Judge’s Supreme Court nomination.) Ruckelshaus was courteous to me, but seemed slightly uncomfortable with my presence. I found myself wondering whether there might be some lurking Freudian suspicion of a clergyman–or more likely, inside information about where I stood on the political spectrum in the Republican Party of 1988 that gave the ex-FBI chief a slight case of heartburn. But both of us were trying to sustain the conversation until reinforcements arrived.
A Secret Service agent came to the Holding Room and spoke to Ruckelshaus by first name. He then turned to me and said, "Pastor, I need for you to come with me. You have a brief private audience with Chairman Atwater." Chairmen Mao and Stalin would have loved it.
Sure enough, Lee Atwater was waiting for me in an adjacent room. The Secret Service agent who escorted me was told by Atwater to produce Ruckelshaus in about 15 minutes. Despite this agent’s departure, two other agents remained in the room with Chairman Lee and me during what proved to be a rather historic conversation.
Atwater got directly to the point. He said that he wanted to "hear my prayer, verbatim." I was incredulous and said so. The beady eyes and perspiring forehead of George Herbert Walker Bush’s chief horseholder then got virtually into my own face. He said, "Pastor, the 41st President of the United States is going to be in this ballroom in 20 minutes. TV cameras. Musical band. Big ballroom crowd. Everything has to be right for this first appearance in Seattle. I want to hear the whole goddamn prayer right now. Don’t ask me to Tilt Nipple for you, OK? I want to see if this prayer will fly."
I admittedly forgot my identity as a Lutheran pastor wearing a black cleric, white collar, and crucifix. I looked into Atwater’s eyes as intensely as he into mine. What followed from me was, "Mr. Atwater. The last time I checked St. Paul’s admonitions to Timothy, it said that the only Mediator I have between God the Father and myself is Jesus Christ. You weren’t mentioned. Secondly, I’m not exactly as wild about your boss and his boys as you are. Thirdly, try not to take the Lord’s name in vain, at least when discussing intercessory prayer. And fourthly, if you’re interested in something that will fly, why don’t you take a flying leap up my ass?"
Lee Atwater blinked. He gulped. Helplessly he reached for a glass of water while the two Secret Service agents in the room tried to appear unobtrusive and uninterested in the dialogue. Upon recovery, Atwater, whose complexion was now an apoplectically beet-red, simply said, "OK, Pastor. I guess we will trust to your judgment and to chance." Picking up a telephone, he called for William Ruckelshaus to enter the room. I was escorted back to the Holding Room. Upon reflection, I couldn’t believe I had retorted to Atwater’s crudity with an In-Kind response. But one can’t recall a ballistic missile once launched, a lesson that the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush, will hopefully remember before it is too late.
I waited there for a handful of minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. Finally, it was Ruckelshaus who returned with the Secret Service agent to the Holding Room. His countenance revealed a thinly disguised mirth. His eyes had suddenly acquired a sparkle. His demeanor with me had totally changed into one of extreme gregariousness. There was no discussion or comparing of notes in regard to our respective encounters with Atwater. Then we were joined in the Holding Room by Washington State Attorney Ken Eikenberry (father of actress Jill Eikenberry), ex-Washington Governor John Spellman, and a few other schmucks selected for a Stage Presence before the cameras. At the appointed hour, yet another Secret Service agent collected all of us, and marched us into the crowded Four Seasons Hotel Ballroom where we were positioned at assigned seats on either side of the speaker’s podium. The TV cameras were rolling. Mr. Bush’s State Campaign Chairman, later to become the United States Ambassador to New Zealand, came to the podium. I was introduced for the invocation. My prayer was as follows:
O, Almighty and Most Merciful God
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--
We ask for your blessings and your provision for all who gather here
As we do so for the people of this city and this nation.
Especially do we ask for protection, discernment, and wisdom for both men
Running for the Presidency of the United States.
And protection for their families and their advisors
As we collectively seek Your Will for this Nation
May we always seek Your Will and Your Guidance.
Until Your Son Jesus Christ comes again.
In His name we pray.
The band immediately began playing. A booming voice over the hotel PA system announced, "Ladies and Gentleman, the Vice-President and Future 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush!"
And there he was, accompanied by his daughter Dorothy, who immediately came over, kissed my cheek, and took her place right next to me. Mr. Bush then reached me, and shook my hand as his left hand rested on my right shoulder. Our eyes penetrated each others as two transplanted Texans tried to look friendly for the cameras. The one destined to be President was really an Eastern patrician from a Connecticut family with ties to the Rockefellers and the Harrimans. He was a Yale graduate, an Internationalist, a devotee of Globalism and the United Nations, a member of the Trilateral Commission. The other was in both paternal and maternal lineage from a poor rural German American farming background based in southwest Iowa. I was Old Right, a graduate of a seminary representing the best academic tradition of the American Evangelical Middle Western Right. I hated the United Nations. I was an American Firster. I belonged to the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America. Yet there we were smiling in front of cameras. What a Maalox moment for all three major network news affiliates in Seattle. . . .
Mr. Bush’s speech to the gathered faithful in the Four Seasons ballroom was exactly 13 minutes long. After its conclusion, he waded into the milling ballroom crowd to shake hands accompanied by a bevy of Secret Service agents. His departure would mark the quick departure of the media and the big crowd out the main ballroom door. By the time they were all gone, I thought I was alone on the stage. But I was wrong. There was a tug at my left elbow. It was Ruckelshaus. He was beaming at me and said, "Pastor, I really enjoyed meeting you." In reply, I said, "I am embarrassed that I did not take the opportunity to engage you in conversation about the events of October 1973. Your place in history is secure. God bless you." We shook hands. It was over.
Or so I thought. A few weeks went by. There was a second late night call at my secluded Puget Sound cottage overlooking the Edmonds-Kingston ferry route. When I answered the phone in dread of whatever awaited me, I was incredulous to hear Lee Atwater’s voice at the other end of the line. He said, "Pastor, I will be in Seattle on secret business on this date. I will be at the Four Seasons Hotel at this suite number. Will you meet with me? It involves important business before the election." My response was equally succinct. "I don’t know why I am agreeing to this, but I will be there." My curiosity had gotten the better of me.
I came to the Four Seasons in civilian clothes and approached the desk. When I asked for the designated representative of the hotel Atwater had mentioned, he immediately appeared and summoned me to a security elevator. We traveled upward a lot of floors. When the elevator stopped, I got out alone and approached the indicated room number.
Lee Atwater came to the door. He was smiling and ushered me into a relatively palatial suite and seating arrangements at a large table that seemed to double as both a dining room table and an executive conference operation. I was asked to sit down.
There was no re-hash of our previous meeting at the Four Seasons to discuss my impending prayer for the Presidential appearance. Atwater was quick and to the point. The 36th Legislative District in King County/Seattle was the largest in the State of Washington. The Republicans faced the very real prospect of internecine warfare in the District between the Robertson (who had won the Washington State Presidential caucus on Super Tuesday) and Bush factions. It promised to be ugly enough that it might threaten Bush’s chances in the general election against Dukakis in the fall in Washington State. The Seattle media was poised and primed to cover the whole impending debacle. The 36th was also home to United States Senator Slade Gorton and ambitious Republican National Committeewoman Jennifer Dunn, later destined to be in the House of Representatives. They led the establishment Bush faction. On the other hand, the 36th was also the home of an ex-Boeing executive serving as Pat Robertson’s Washington State Chairman. There were serious secret discussions between the two constituencies as to how to pick a District Chairman "liked" by both sides and not identified with either one. It came down to one choice–me.
I told Atwater I was as incredulous as on the day of our first encounter to discuss his burgeoning theological understanding of prayer. He laughed, before the beady eyes drew tight again in their focus on my eyes and forehead. His articulation was both targeted and clear when he said, "Pastor, if you don’t help me and Dukakis gets elected, you and a few other people here and around the country in the conservative movement will live with the consequences for the rest of your lives. It’s that simple. And the other thing–you and I aren’t so different as people might think. We’re both street fighters."
I paused before saying to Chairman Lee, "What is your understanding of what we’re fighting for?" It was then his turn to pause before uttering a truism that has remained with me in all the years since. "You’ve got me there, Pastor. You see, I am a street fighter who fights with a European political model in mind. I don’t give a shit about ideas, only power–mine and people’s who help me achieve what I want. You’re a throwback to the American idealist movement which is more concerned about the articulation of ideas, ideologies, and philosophies. Our goals are completely different, except that they coincide in our mutual desire to rid the country of Michael Dukakis."
I decided to accept his challenge and the offer. Years later I would leave the Republican Party in complete disgust, convinced (correctly I believe) that the European model of power and the insidious Statism it inevitably represents is so pervasive in both of the major political parties in America that the two groupings and their accompanying policies are virtually indistinguishable and mutually reprehensible. But on a dark night in a Seattle hotel in 1988, Lee Atwater convinced me to play along with the Republican Establishment one more time. It would be the last time. As the years that followed brought more taxation, more UN control over America, globalist trade treaties, and more foreign wars, I rejected any more Faustian deals.
Long after our second meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel, I received a third and final call from Lee Atwater while visiting my parents in Texas. He was beginning the short, steep descent to death from the ravages of brain cancer. His demise was covered with regularity in the national print and electronic media. He was confined to a wheelchair. The brashness and self-assurance were drained from his voice. His career as a rock music singer and guitar player had evaporated. The end was near.
But I recognized the voice as clearly in Texas as I had in two separate occasions in the dead of night on the Puget Sound in Seattle. He said that I was on a list of people he wanted to make amends with before the end of his temporal life. The poignancy over the telephone lines was palpable. He reminded me of our verbal jousting before the Presidential appearance at the Four Seasons Hotel. He wanted to apologize for his arrogance and his blasphemy. I assured him that God’s forgiveness in Christ was complete–and that from what I had read, Lee Atwater had already discovered this for himself.
For a time I could only hear a grown man crying on the other end of the conversation. Finally, his voice was able to permeate the airwaves again in a temporary respite from overwhelming grief and emotion. He said, "I can’t tell you how many times my mind has gone back to the night in my hotel suite when I told you about being a street fighter in the interest of the acquisition and accumulation of power. I had all of it. Now it’s gone. Now all that is left is the Lord’s love and the day He takes me home. I’m just glad He found me in time. I just had to tell you before the end."
"Lee," I responded, "the Cross and the Resurrection are about one ending and a new beginning. I guess we’re on the same wave length and the same page for the first time. Praise God."
"Goodbye, Mark. I will see you again." The line went dead.
I still feel his presence lo these many years later. The world seems to be moving closer to economic, political, and military destruction. The current George Bush seems more hapless than his Old Man in the maelstrom. History is perhaps reaching the end of its linear travel since the Garden of Eden. Yet I am again renewed in the promise of eternal life in the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ, looking forward to a future time there where Lee Atwater and I will sit down for another conversation. Somehow I see him looking down from above upon this presently dreadful world with a smile and an expressive facial conveyance of love and compassion, two concepts which largely eluded his grasp in this life until the end, asking His Lord to spare those who seek His face from the wrath and the unveiling of seals yet to come.
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