The Conversion of Lee Atwater
An Interview with John A. Hardon, S.J.
Lee Atwater, former head of the Republican National Committee and advisor to and political strategist for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, died a Catholic at age 40 on Good Friday, 1991. Shortly thereafter, Fidelity magazine, the predecessor to Culture Wars, interviewed John A. Hardon, S.J., concerning the circumstances of Mr. Atwater’s conversion. After receiving a transcription of the interview, Fr. Hardon asked that, in deference to Mr. Atwater’s family, it not be published so soon after Mr. Atwater’s death. Fr. Hardon died in December, 2000. The interview was conducted for Fidelity by James G. Bruen, Jr., and is here set forth for the first time.
Fidelity: Father Hardon, what can you tell us about Lee Atwater’s conversion?
Fr. Hardon: Let me talk for a few minutes on how I became involved in Lee Atwater’s life and his conversion. Let me then briefly describe how I became involved in the last year of Lee Atwater’s life and the glorious conversion.
There was a good friend of mine here in Washington by the name of Gary Maloney. I had Gary in class at the Notre Dame Institute. They came to know each other, and Gary was working with the Republican Party. One day Gary called me up. He asked if I could come to Washington the next day. I asked him what the emergency was. He said Lee Atwater, the head of the Republican Party, has had some seizures, blackouts, and he might go out any moment.
Gary told me he talked to Atwater, and asked him, Lee, are you afraid to die? He said, I sure am. And I suppose you’re afraid, Gary told Lee, of what’s going to happen to you after you die. Yes, I’m scared. So then Gary told Lee: Tell you what, there’s only one way you can be sure that when you die you’ll be safe in the next world. You need a Catholic priest to absolve you of all your sins. Lee said, Where do I get a Catholic priest, because I’m not a Catholic. I’ll get one, said Gary. So he called me up from the Republican offices and asked if I could come in the next day. And, he said, if you can make it, the Republican Party will take care of your transportation. We’ll have the tickets waiting for you.
So, whatever adjustment I had to make, I took an early flight from Metro airport in Detroit to National, and Gary Maloney was waiting for me. He took me right over to the Atwater residence.
F: What happened next?
Fr. H: Lee was in bed, fully conscious. Part of his body was paralyzed, but in great pain. So I introduced myself and then began the shortest instruction in the faith that I have ever given. It was, I would say, almost two full days; give or take, more than five hours each day. I found out that Lee had been of some Southern Protestant background. He thought he was baptized but it wasn’t all that clear. So after we talked I asked him questions. There was no question: Lee wanted to believe everything that the Catholic Church teaches.
So the second day, in the evening, I was taken to Georgetown. I talked to the rector. I told him what I was going to do, to make sure that I was covered by Jesuit permissions. Whatever you have to do for Lee, why go ahead. So I got some water for baptismal water, brought the Blessed Sacrament, and also the oils. I gave him conditional baptism because he may have been, but I’m not sure, he was baptized validly.
Then, well, every minute that I was in Lee’s room, there was someone from the Republican Party. So Lee was never left alone with me. So when time to hear confession arrived, I said, “Look, you’ve got to leave.” They weren’t ready to leave. I said, “Look, I’m going to hear his confession. Strictly private.” So they left. I heard his confession and explained that if the baptism was valid - that is he had never been baptized validly before - then the baptism had done it. I questioned Lee, and there was no doubt: he was sure that if he was now validly baptized that his sins are removed, and that if he was not validly baptized, then I would of course hear his confession. I told Lee, “Lee, in the event that you have been validly baptized [before], you have got some repairing to do.” So I spent all the time that was necessary.
And I brought the pyx with me with the Blessed Sacrament, and held up the host and said, “Lee, do you believe this is Jesus Christ, son of Mary, in the flesh?” And he looked at me and said, “Do you believe it?” “I sure do.” “So do I.” Then I gave him his first communion, anointed him, and explained that if the first baptism as a child was valid, then of course confession and anointing – anointing will remove even the punishment due to sin. So, then, the third day.
In the meantime, I finished my immediate stay here in Washington, and came to know the family. I came to know Sally, Lee’s wife. And that would have been in March of last year.
F: Several times before Mr. Atwater’s death, the newspapers referred to his accepting Christ. They used words that led the reader to think that he had an evangelical Protestant conversion. Was that involved?
Fr. H: No. It wasn’t.
F: It wasn’t two steps?
Fr. H: No.
F: The newspapers also said that after he accepted Christ, he went through a period of making telephone calls to people either apologizing for what he did in the past or reconciling himself to people he’d made enemies with. Did you have any knowledge about that?
Fr. H: No. I did not touch that part of his life. But I would say this: It would be totally in character from what I understand Lee had been before and what I knew of Lee Atwater.
F: Did you visit Mr. Atwater thereafter?
Fr. H: I took every occasion that I could to come to Washington and to, well, look into Lee’s condition. It was quite an experience because many people did not appreciate, first of all, my having received Lee into the Church at the beginning. There were those who also were not comfortable with my coming to visit Lee at the hospital. I commuted between his home and the hospital.
In an effort to make sure that Lee would be kept in contact with a priest, there is a Fr. Francis Early in the Washington archdiocese who had been a permanent deacon but he never married, so he went to Rome and was ordained by Cardinal Baum a few years back. I knew Fr. Early so I contacted him early – pardon me – soon after I had ministered to Lee for the first time. Whenever I was in Washington I’d either visit the home or, especially in the last months, maybe the hospital. Fr. Early was introduced at the hospital once, to meet Lee. I explained, “Now, Lee, this is Fr. Early. I’m in Detroit; I can’t be here as often as I’d like to. Fr. Early you’ll find a very congenial and cooperative priest.” So that’s what Fr. Early did.
F: Did you ever have trouble getting in to see Mr. Atwater?
Fr. H: Once when we were in the hospital there was just no way we could get in. For whatever reason, not passing judgment on the reason, I was told we could not come in to see Lee. I had the Blessed Sacrament with me, and I knew that Lee was failing. I wanted to make sure that I saw him still conscious. Finally, after about an hour and a half, a nurse’s aide came out of the room. I explained to her: “We’ve been waiting here, and I have the Blessed Sacrament with me.” Either she was Catholic or at least she was sympathetic, so she said okay. I went in and gave Lee absolution and Holy Communion. Fr. Early was with me. I saw him once more, just before he died. I’d say about two weeks. The door was wide open to his hospital room, just a single bed in a hospital, nobody around, so I walked in. He was still conscious. Again I gave him Communion. I gave him absolution. And that’s the last time I saw Lee Atwater.
F: Were you familiar with Lee Atwater’s public personae before you met him? The big tent theory, the hardball politician, that type of thing?
Fr. H: I had heard there was a Lee Atwater, but not much else. But during the year, I heard a lot. He became a totally different person.
Each time that I came to Washington, Lee just put out his hands, and I could embrace him. And if you know much about Lee Atwater, he was not the naturally affable type. He was a tough hombre. But Lee talked a good deal, and Lee changed my life in the sense that I saw a marvel, a work of grace.
F: Did Mr. Atwater develop a prayer life?
Fr. H: The first time that we met at his residence when I received him into the Church, he told me that a Catholic nurse had been on duty in the hospital where he was taken after his first seizures. She said, Mr. Atwater, this is a Miraculous Medal. He knew nothing about miraculous medals. Would you mind if I pin it on you? He said, sure. And he told me: “Father, I will never take this medal off my clothing until I die.” I’m not sure he was buried with the medal; I know he would have wanted to be buried with the medal.
Then I found out he had never been invested in the Confraternity of the Miraculous Medal. About a year after my ordination I talked to a Jesuit priest awaiting our last hours who encouraged us to take our faculties, as he called them, for investing people in the Confraternity of the Miraculous Medal. I figured, there’s no charge, so I signed up and then a couple of weeks later I got my Latin documentation and the prayer for blessing the medal, investiture, and the closing prayer.
I think it’s of some moment to say this because it touches on Lee Atwater. The following year I was helping out as a chaplain at a hospital near Cleveland. A boy went sled riding downhill, ran his head into a tree, cracked his skull; no membrane damage, alive in a coma, and no chance of recovery. The only question was whether he would live. I was there ten days in the hospital before I went to visit him, figuring I can’t do anything for the boy, anyhow. One night after I finished all the other visitations, I went up to his room. His mother and father were there. I blessed the boy, consoled the parents, and I was walking out of the room. [inaudible] He said, “Father, this medal works.” I stopped. Now, this will be a test. As it happened, I had my formula of the investiture. I carry it; it was in Latin then, though. I didn’t have a medal, so I asked the nun on duty on that floor if she had a Miraculous Medal. She found one; you have to have a ribbon. So I blessed the medal and then put it around the boy’s neck for the investiture. As soon as I finished that investiture and said “amen,” he opened his eyes, recognized his mother, and said, “Mom, I’m hungry.” After we got over the shock, the doctor came in. At any rate, three days of x-rays were negative.
So I enrolled Lee Atwater in the Confraternity. And I can say honestly, for the year from when I received him into the Church until our last visit before he died, Lee told me more than once, “Father, every conscious moment, I am praying.”
At the first stage, he was hospitalized in Washington, then he was sent up to New York for brain surgery. They removed whatever malignancy there was on his brain. He told me when he got back to Washington that the surgery lasted about four hours and for whatever reason, they either gave him no anesthetic or just minimal anesthesia; they couldn’t because of the brain. Couldn’t do it. So they asked him if he wanted to have the surgery in effect without anesthesia. He said, “Father, I never thought a human being could suffer that much, but I prayed every moment of those four hours.”
I’m guessing now, I’d say he spent most of the last six or seven months in the hospital. Fr. Early would call ahead but there were those who were not eager, to put it mildly, to have Lee Atwater administered to by a Catholic priest.
F: Are you referring to his family or are you referring to the Republican Party?
Fr. H: No, not the family. Sally, his wife, was there much of the time when I was giving Lee instructions. The oldest daughter is going to Catholic school, by the way. Sally was very cooperative. But whether the Republican Party or other people who were surrounding Lee and had whatever parts they had. I would call. Not regularly, but on a given day when I would call. I’d try to keep in touch with Lee by telephone as long as he was conscious and in communication with the public because I knew how much it meant to him to have someone call up and just talk to him about God.
On any one occasion, and I didn’t do it so often as to become a nuisance, I would call five or more times trying to reach him. I knew he wanted to talk. But others didn’t want me to talk to him.
F: Was this resistance a political maneuver?
Fr. H: That I don’t know. And I don’t judge the motives. I just know that the telephone calls had to be screened through a certain person. Well, I called up Sally, his wife, first. I told her I was going to talk to Lee, and she said “fine.” Yet when I called the hospital, the hospital was informed the calls had to go through another person.
That’s where Fr. Early was just tremendous because he was in the city, and the concern that I had that Lee was sustained by the sacraments, especially Holy Communion. I also asked the Missionaries of Charity if they would visit Lee Atwater, and they did, but I don’t know how frequently.
F: What condition was Mr. Atwater in during your later visits?
Fr. H: He needed all the strength that he could get – he couldn’t do much talking – just to hear. He could hear, and you knew that he was listening. Talk about Our Lord and the God of mercy. Lee told me in the early stages when there was still some prospect of his recovery, if I recover, he said, I’m getting out of politics; I’ll spend the rest of my life working for others. His great concern was to be of service to others. In our conversations uniformly we never talked politics, never. It was always about God and His mercy, His goodness, His mysterious providence.
I can say that when I came to know Lee Atwater, he was as resigned as any person that I’ve dealt with in forty-four years of priesthood to accepting God’s providence in his life.
Father Early managed to keep in contact with him, and I know that I, at least, often prayed with Lee. I taught him a few simple prayers – the Our Father, the Hail Mary. On the day that I received him into the Church, we said the rosary together. Of course I was leading next to his bed, and he would listen very intently. I gave him a rosary. He didn’t have to recite the prayer, but just think of the mysteries of the rosary. So, substantially, that’s it.
F: How did it come about that Mr. Atwater was buried from a non-Catholic funeral in a non-Catholic cemetery?
Fr. H: As I mentioned earlier, for one year it was completely obvious to me that there were people close to Mr. Atwater who knew what was going on: Lee’s now becoming a Catholic, whether they believed it or not. But they would not. So that unless he made very explicit demands – and for months before he died he was in no position to do that – he would not be buried in the Catholic Church and a Catholic cemetery.
Mrs. Atwater did come to the requiem Mass I celebrated later at the Little Flower Church. She spoke after the Mass for about ten minutes. She said her husband had come to know a great man, Ronald Reagan, in the White House, and another great man, George Bush. Then he met Jesus Christ. She was very happy about Lee’s becoming a Catholic.
F: Why did these people try to build a barrier between Mr. Atwater and you, or between him and the Catholic faith?
Fr. H: I would be guessing. All I know is that it was very clear that he was in what I would call protective custody.
Of course, by that time I didn’t worry much about it because I knew he was a Catholic. Nothing they could do would change him because it was not just an emotional mood or anything subjective. He was as cold as a piece of steel in our conversation, and he asked very explicit questions. I did go through the Creed, the authenticity of Christ’s teaching, the historicity of the gospels. It wasn’t just whether you accept Christ as your savior.
This interview was published in the November 2009 issue of Culture Wars.
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