As the impeachment trial continues today and moves toward conclusion later this week, the ghost of Lee Atwater and the spirit of Clay Christensen hover over Washington.
These two iconic figures – one in politics and one in business – lived by entirely different values. Atwater drew out the worst in people; Christensen the best. Atwater died 30 years ago. Christensen passed away last week. Yet these men left behind one message in common: in the end, regardless of wealth, status or power, a day of reckoning will come when you face yourself and the choices you’ve made.
Beware ‘The Tumor of the Soul’
Atwater, a political operative with an uncompromising killer instinct, employed a ruthlessness to get his candidates elected that brought him much success, and in the end, much regret. When he learned of the brain tumor that would ultimately end his life at 40, Atwater faced what he called his own “naked cruelty.”
Looking back on his career as a kingmaker of American politics, he said he regretted his tactics of manipulation and humiliation, and hoped that leaders of the future would forgo dirty politics for a grander vision that would give their lives merit. Politicians who lost sight of this sacred mission of leadership, he warned in 1991, would feel haunted on their deathbeds.
At the end of his short life, Atwater sought repentance through public apologies to the people he savaged most brutally, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
Atwater helped tank Dukakis’ campaign by tethering the Democratic Party candidate to convicted murderer Willie Horton, a black man who escaped from a Massachusetts furlough program supported by Dukakis and committed more crimes, including the rape of a white woman. Seizing on race as a wedge issue, Atwater’s strategy was to “make Willie Horton his running mate.” The George H.W. Bush campaign used the case to cast Dukakis as soft on crime.
In an interview with Life Magazine shortly before his death, Atwater said his success as a master spin doctor no longer mattered. He implored the politicians he once served to learn from his overwhelming remorse.
“The country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime,” he said. “I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.”
‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’
Atwater’s message came to mind with the passing of Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen, a renowned business theorist and advisor to executives. Christensen was best known for his ideas on innovation, but he also gave a noteworthy lecture that later became an article and then a book: “How Will You Measure Your Life?”
Christensen wrote about his former Harvard Business School classmate Jeffrey Skilling, the former chief financial officer of Enron who served 12 years in prison for fraud and insider trading in a scandal that led eventually to Enron’s bankruptcy.
Skilling, he recalled, wasn’t a bad guy at school, and never set out to break the law. Instead, Christensen said, Skilling was a decent guy who bent the rules a little bit, and then a little more, until he was lost as a leader and as an honorable person. “Just hoping that you’ll become a certain kind of person isn’t enough,” Christensen wrote. “Hold to your standards all of the time.”
Lead a Life of Merit
Marching toward acquitting President Trump in the middle of this week, politicians of both sides will wonder about their legacy, how history will judge them. Both Atwater and Christensen would say the harshest judge of their deeds and misdeeds will not be historians, but themselves.
That important guiding principle isn’t just for politicians, but for all of us. We can only speculate about what motivates our representatives in Washington. What we need to know and hold ourselves accountable for is what motivates us.