Saturday, January 19, 2008

Lee Atwater's Gone But His Song Lives On

Today's history lesson --- at least for you young'uns -- is about Lee Atwater, the daddy of the South Carolina Republican primary as we know it and prototype for Karl Rove and every dirty-trick political consultant to come down the mud shoot in the last 25 years.

It was Atwater who mastered some of the slimier aspects of modern American politics, including push polling and floating reputation-destroying rumors.

Atwater mentored Karl Rove, among other hatchet men, and Rove used one of his teacher's most effective tricks – starting a whispering campaign, in this instance a claim that John McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock – in the 2000 South Carolina primary. This dirt, as well as an attendant rumor that McCain's wife was mentally ill, arguably cleared the way for George W. Bush to win the primary and begin his ascendancy to the Republican nomination.

Among Atwater's other dirty tricks:

* Push polling for Republican candidate Floyd Spence in South Carolina in 1980 through fake surveys that informed white suburbanites that his opponent, Tom Turnipseed, was a member of the NAACP.

* Spreading rumors in 1984 that Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro's parents had been indicted for numbers running in the 1940s.

* The legendary 1988 television commercial on behalf of George H.W. Bush tarring Michael Dukakis for furloughing Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who subsequently committed a rape while on a furlough from a life sentence while the Democratic candidate was governor.

It was Atwater who in 1980 talked the South Carolina Republican State Committee into moving the primary to late January after Iowa and New Hampshire to ensure that southern conservatives would have some say in who the GOP nominee would be.

He was an advisor to President Reagan and Bush senior and became the chairman of the Republican National Committee after Dukakis was thumped in 1988. Atwater's controversial tenure lasted less than two years because in 1990 he was diagnosed as having an unusually aggressive form of malignant neoplasm.

Shortly before his death from the brain tumor, he said he had converted to Catholicism and in touching acts of repentance that moved me to reconsider a man I once loathed, made public and written apologies to the people he had slimed, including Dukakis and Turnipseed.

In an article for Life magazine written a month before his March 1991 death at age 40, Atwater wrote:

"My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The '80s were about acquiring -- acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. 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."
It goes without saying that since his passing Atwater has been remembered not for his deathbed humility but as a seminal player in the debasement of American politics.

As today's South Carolina primary goes down to the wire, the dirt-encrusted knives have again been unsheathed against John McCain, including the use of robo-calls that accuse him of voting "to allow scientific experiments to be done on unborn children."

While Poppy Bush couldn't play his way out of a paper bag, Lee Atwater was an accomplished guitarist. Rhythm and blues was his forte. He briefly played backup guitar for Percy Sledge during the 1960s and even at the height of his political power would play concerts in the Washington, D.C., area including several appearances with B.B. King.


Anonymous said...

Nice to see that I'm not the only one around who remembers the walking piece of @%$! that was Lee Atwater.

Anonymous said...


To stir up innuendo and false rumors has to be
Upon the fateful road of life a shameful legacy;
A road which hastens unto death allowing no return--
Therefore the ways iniquitous the best of men do spurn.

It may be second best, at least, if one comes to repent,
Regretting heinous harms for which he was not innocent,
But it is not unique among the human legacies
Since immemorial time to label slander a disease.

He called himself a good man did George Herbert Walker Bush,
Leading unwary souls to cliffside, giving them a push,
And even so considers himself a good man today--
But from the mirror both he and his dear Barbara look away.