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A Loss That Still Hurts

updated 11/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1992 01:00AM

AS ELECTION DAY DRAWS NEAR AND George Bush continues to flounder in the polls, the President's campaign strategists sometimes think, with sorrow and longing, about Lee Atwater. "We miss him," admits Charles Black, a senior political adviser to Bush. "A lot of us think about Lee every day." As a top strategist four years ago, Atwater was the party's. October in the '88 campaign—a spirited and ferocious partisan who engineered the infamous Willie Horton attack ads that helped crush Michael Dukakis. Atwater was expected to manage Bush's election effort again this year, but in March 1991 he lost his final, toughest campaign; at age 40, he died of brain cancer.

Sally Atwater, 42, Lee's widow, still finds it hard to accept that he is gone. "There's not a minute that goes by that I don't think about him," she says. Before Lee collapsed in March 1990 at a fund-raising breakfast in Washington, D.C., learning later that week he had an inoperable brain tumor, the Atwaters were living out their dream. He had been named Republican National Committee chairman, achieving a lifelong ambition. The couple lived in a three-story brick colonial house in Washington, and Sally delighted in her full-lime role as supportive wife and mother. Now she faces the challenge of raising, alone, their three children: Sarah Lee, 12, Ashley, 7, and Sally Theodosia, 2. "One of the first times I got really upset after Lee died was when we had a new light fixture put in downstairs," she says. "Ashley said, 'Gosh, Daddy won't get to see the new light.' For some reason that hit me hard."

Politics has helped fill some of the void for Sally. She rallied the party faithful as a speaker at the Republican National Convention in August and was sealed in the same row as Barbara Bush at the first presidential debate three weeks ago. In the meantime, the Atwaters' D.C. home has remained a gathering place for the GOP elite. Top campaign strategists Mary Matalin and Charles Black drop by for potluck dinner and to reminisce about Lee, who moonlighted as a blues guitarist. "It's an extended family," says Sally. An elephant-shaped guitar is one of the mementos of Lee in the family room, which Sally has turned into command central for her work as chairman of Leader PAC, a fund-raising organization for Republican women candidates that has generated almost a quarter of a million dollars.

Her primary concern, though, is taking care of her three children, who still have a hard time comprehending Lee's absence. "I don't have a daddy," Sally, a toddler, occasionally blurts. "That's right," her mother gently replies. "But your daddy loved you very much." The oldest daughter, Sarah, has a father-daughter dance coming up this spring, and Sally is worried. "Do I find a friend to take her, or does she not go?" wonders Sally. "I know she'll feel different, and I know how hard that is on a teenager."

As for herself, Sally says there is no new man in her life. "There can only be one Lee Atwater," she says. Sally and Lee met in 1973, when she was an intern for South Carolina's Sen. Strom Thurmond and Lee was head of a national group of college Republicans. For their first date, Lee borrowed a boat from George Bush, then Republican National Committee chairman. "Lee took the wheel, and we got caught by the Coast Guard for speeding on the Potomac," Sally recalls. "I thought, 'This guy needs somebody to take care of him.' " They married five years later.

When Lee fell ill in 1990, Sally was seven months pregnant and had to battle her feeling of helplessness. "I'd seen him through campaigns," she says. "But this was life and death." As Lee bravely fought the cancer, the birth of baby Sally inspired the family. "She kept us going," Sally says. "With a new baby, you don't have one minute to think." In a final act of courage before his death, Lee publicly apologized to Michael Dukakis for, in 1988, having conceived the ads that made murderer-rapist Willie Horton "his running mate." "I committed myself to the Golden Rule," Atwater explained to LIFE magazine. "That meant coming to terms with some of the less than virtuous acts in my life."

Atwater died at the George Washington University Hospital. Sally insisted that her husband be buried in his jogging suit because "that was typical Lee." In his hands she placed a photo of their three daughters and a copy of Red Hot & Blue, a 1989 album he cut with B.B. King. In the period since, Sally has avoided listening to the album and has taken the kids to visit the grave in Columbia, S.C., just once. "If I sat there and cried, it would be tough for them," she explains. Most of all, Sally is conscious of how quiet it is without Lee. "He was enthralled with life," she says. "Five minutes with Lee was like a lifetime with someone else."

DAVID GROGAN
LINDA KRAMER in Washington, D.C., and Columbia

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