Before Atwater was a type of dirty trick, he was a man. That man, Harvey LeRoy “Lee” Atwater, was born in 1951 and raised in Aiken, South Carolina, son of a middle-class insurance adjuster. He became infamous for his politics—or, more accurately, how he played politics. He played them first for Ronald Reagan, helping him win election to the White House. He played them best for George H.W. Bush. As Bush’s campaign manager during the 1988 presidential race, Atwater devised a strategy that allowed the incumbent vice president to overcome a double-digit deficit to defeat his opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, whom Atwater unrelentingly portrayed as soft on crime, soft on national defense and soft on pretty much anything else that required strength.
And so Atwater the political scourge was born. To run a campaign as he did is to sling more mud than a pig farmer and to consider nothing out-of-bounds. Accusing a campaign of Atwateresque methods has become, in fact, a smear tactic all its own, effectively branding the candidate and everyone who works for him as either diabolical or racist. IN FINAL STRETCH, MITT ROMNEY CHANNELS LEE ATWATER, read a recent headline from the Washington Post website. Atwater’s name was mentioned only once more in the blog post because the meaning was clear: Romney had gone as negative and as nasty as any candidate could.
Whether Atwater the man was as negative and nasty as Atwater the dirty trickster depends largely on whom you ask—and on your party affiliation. Republicans tend to defend him; Democrats tend to demonize him. This much everyone can agree on: He was a larger-than-life personality (his love of playing the blues on guitar rivaled his love of politics), and he died far too young (a vicious form of brain cancer ended his life in 1991 when he was 40 years old).
There is no one else like him today. Atwater’s playbook lives on, but the operatives and strategists who use it purposefully remain in the shadows, hidden behind the Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which makes it legal for dubious “grassroots” organizations to spend as much money as they want on a preferred candidate. In the new world of campaigns and elections, the dark arts of politics are practiced in strip malls and office complexes in nondescript suburbs by organizations and operatives with no official ties to the old party monopolies. Exhibit A: Carl Forti, a Buffalo native who distributed $400 million in super PAC money to Republican causes during the 2012 election cycle. “The most influential political strategist of the 2012 campaign works out of an unmarked suite in an anonymous office park in suburban Virginia, a few floors above a Japanese-themed steakhouse,” a July New York Times profile of Forti began. “He does not work for one of the presidential campaigns. He is not a pundit.” Forti, of course, declined to speak to the Times—further proof that the blustery ways of political bogeymen like Atwater have gone the way of the brick-size cell phone.
Below, we have gathered a collection of friends, foes and interested observers to make sense of both Atwater and the post-Atwater world in which the Obama-Romney election will take place. To start, we look at the conservative causes that shaped Atwater and the contemporary GOP.
Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America: “Atwater’s tactics originated in the 1950s and are written into the DNA of the modern conservative movement. The people who came of age politically at that time believed the Republican Party had been captured by Eastern liberal interests and were upset that the New Deal had become part of the American political structure. They also believed that the Democrats, along with former Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, had sold out to the Communists.
“A guy named F. Clifton White led the charge. He wrote in his memoirs about how he learned his political technique by observing Stalinists in the 1940s. Basically, he made their strategies his strategies: He stayed at meetings longer than anyone else in order to control the votes, and he employed diamond formations in crowds so his people were spread out enough to give the appearance of a greater amount of support for his positions.
“Republicans who followed White’s techniques were fixing conventions while creating an illusion of democracy. In particular, members of the conservative group Young Americans for Freedom schemed to take over the National Student Association, a nonpartisan omnibus group of student organizations around the country. The YAF had decided the National Student Association was run by liberals—kind of like how you hear people today say the media is run by liberals. During a big National Student Association conference in Madison, Wisconsin, the YAF members all wore suspenders so they could determine who wasn’t on their side. From there, they created what they called a ‘middle-of-the-road caucus,’ which allowed them to pass all these right-wing resolutions by claiming to be centrists.
“A few years later, the Nixon campaign was looking for people to do its dirty tricks and approached organizational movement conservatives before anyone else because they thought they were doing something that was moral. In their minds, eggs needed to be broken to make a freedom omelet. They believed the enemies—liberals and Communists—were trying to bring down civilization. Later on, they said as much. Jeb Magruder, Nixon’s deputy campaign director, admitted to the Watergate Committee, ‘Although I was aware they were illegal, we had become somewhat inured to using activities that would help us accomplish what we thought was a legitimate cause.’
“Republicans and Democrats have a different definition of the word principle. Republicans who do this kind of thing call themselves principled conservatives, meaning they’ll do anything to advance their ‘principles.’ Whereas Democrats are principled in a completely instrumental way—being principled means holding to fair procedures. I like to think of it in terms of the following allegory: Two congressmen are on their way to an important vote when they see a little old lady hobbling across the street. The Democrat stops to help her even though he risks missing the vote, because he considers that to be the principled thing to do. The Republican completely ignores her in favor of making the vote because he considers that to be the principled thing to do.
“I’m sure in his heyday Lee Atwater would have told you he was acting entirely out of principle, and the principle was saving the country from anarchy by getting Republican candidates elected and making sure Democratic candidates were defeated.”
Eric Dezenhall, Republican communications strategist who worked with Atwater during the Reagan administration: “Lee’s rise in Washington took place in Watergate’s wake, when Nixon had left Republicans with this political-viper archetype. Democratic political hardball was portrayed in the media as healthy, boisterous discourse—if it was portrayed at all. Republican hardball, on the other hand, had the whiff of shadowy operatives driving enemies off a cliff and high-fiving as they sped away into the night.
“Lee was also the first post-Watergate Republican to flush any pretense of media objectivity down the toilet, along with the canard that political aggressiveness was the unique device of Republicans. He knew that Nixon’s dark side was catalyzed by what the Kennedys did to him during the 1960 presidential election and that LBJ’s crowd placed wiretaps on potentially problematic figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. Somehow, though, Democratic rough stuff had a boys-will-be-boys, Bluto Blutarsky ring of harmlessness to it because the dominant media culture thought the ends were noble. The perception of Republicans was the exact opposite. They were allegedly Doug Neidermeyer vicious—either nasty to great effect or imbecilic, never mind the contradiction. Lee rejected this construct and did what he had to do. He refused to be blackmailed into restraint because he accepted as fact that the Democrats had the news media, academia and popular culture as allies.
“Personally, I was vaguely scared of him. If I was the political freshman in the Reagan White House, Lee was the proverbial hair-trigger senior who drove his muscle car too fast and always left a trail of cigarettes, beer bottles and joints in his wake. He had thin lips, which made him look angry, and veins always seemed to be pulsing around his neck. He reminded me of a mongoose whose eyes redden whenever he sees a snake in the garden.”
The first politician Atwater targeted was Tom Turnipseed, a South Carolina Democrat who ran for Congress in 1980 against Floyd Spence, the Republican incumbent for whom Atwater served as a consultant. “Atwater’s antics included phony polls by ‘independent pollsters’ to ‘inform’ white suburbanites that I was a member of the NAACP, because my congressman opponent was afraid to publicly say so, and last-minute letters from Senator Strom Thurmond warning voters that I would disarm America and turn it over to the liberals and Communists,” Turnipseed recalled in The Washington Post in 1991. In an even lower blow, Atwater mocked the electroshock treatments Turnipseed received as a teenager to combat depression, spinning it as though Turnipseed had been hooked up to “jumper cables.” “No matter how much Mr. Turnipseed talked about education or crime or dirty tricks after that, voters only saw the jumper cables,” The New York Times explained many years later.
As Atwater ascended as a Republican strategist, he also began consciously assembling a dictionary of code words and phrases to attract white voters in the South—a cynical ploy that frequently angered the Democratic National Committee and African American groups. “You start out in 1954 saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,’ ” he told an interviewer in the early 1980s. “By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing and states’ rights. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking totally about…economic things, and a by-product of them is that blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that’s part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger.’ ”
All of which leads to Willie Horton. In 1986, Horton, a convicted murderer, escaped to Maryland during a sanctioned weekend furlough from his Massachusetts jail cell. A few months later he was arrested for home invasion, rape and assault. Because Michael Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts at the time of Horton’s furlough, Atwater and the Bush campaign seized on Horton (and the furlough program more broadly) as a wedge issue. The wedge became even more divisive because Horton was African American—and seemingly a prime example of Atwater’s abstract race-baiting. Bush surrogates, allegedly with Atwater’s full knowledge, ran a particularly damning attack ad that prominently featured Horton’s menacing mug shot, which critics maintained played up every possible stereotype of the terrifying black male who preys on innocent white people. “Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times,” the ad’s narrator intoned. “Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes—Dukakis on crime.”
The resulting firestorm led to the ad being pulled and a heated debate about whether or not it was racist.
Willie Horton, from an exclusive December 1989 playboy interview: “Was the ad racist? Hell, you know it was. And I’m not the only victim of racism. All poor people and minorities are portrayed in a similar manner by people who exploit their woes in order to whip up public anger and fear. Obviously, many people resent the gains that blacks and poor people have made in recent years. If they had their way, they’d like to return to the good old days, when blacks and poor people had to shuffle for crumbs. Today, these bigots don’t go out and beat up black people anymore. They do it with a paper and pen. And that’s what happened to me.
“Sadly, there’s no black leader who possesses the moral authority of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If this had happened to me when he was alive, I believe that the public would have known the truth by now. In many ways, blacks are their own worst enemies. We have a tendency to blame everyone else for our problems. And those who do make it often say, ‘To hell with everyone else. I made it. And I’m not going to let anybody take it away from me.’ And some politicians—like George Bush—won’t let the old hatreds die. Why? Because they understand that racial smears win elections.
“Bush said he didn’t authorize the ad, that it was produced by the National Security Political Action Committee, which was totally independent of the Republican campaign. Bullshit. The fact is, the committee worked for George Bush. And it was headed by his top media advisor, Roger Ailes. Do you mean to say that Bush had no idea what was going on? Hell, he used to be the head of the CIA. If you believe that statement, I’ve got some terrific swampland you might like to buy. I didn’t graduate from Yale, but I can certainly tell a scam when I see one.”
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a member of the 1988 Republican Platform Committee’s campaign staff: “William Horton—Willie Horton is what Democrats call Horton to make it sound as if people are using a diminutive for a black guy—is a murderer. In retrospect, there has been an effort to suggest the furlough issue was somehow a dirty trick, but it only became a dirty trick when it became a problem for Dukakis in winning the 1988 election.
“When Massachusetts gave up on the death penalty, its people were promised that murderers would be sent to prison for life without parole. What the public and the juries weren’t told was that the state had a furlough system. Every prisoner got a furlough, regardless of what they did. Republican governors had furlough programs too, but those were different: If an inmate had only six months left on his sentence, he was given a weekend off to visit relatives and find an apartment. The chances of escape were low because if the inmate escaped, he was sentenced to another five years in prison just as he was about to get out.
“The furlough program under Dukakis spoke to his mental state and the fact that you wouldn’t want him to be president. It was furloughing guys who were supposed to spend the rest of their lives in prison, meaning they didn’t have an incentive to return to the penitentiary. Other furloughed prisoners had gotten out and committed crimes; some had even committed murder. The difference with William Horton was that he committed a crime in Maryland. And Maryland started asking questions, such as ‘Did he escape?’
“ ‘No, we let him out on a furlough. Can you please send him back to us?’
“ ‘So you can let him out on a furlough again? He’s wanted here for kidnapping and rape!’
“I always thought it was unfair to attack Lee for the Horton ad as if it was a dirty trick. The Democrats looked at Horton and saw a black guy; the rest of the country looked at him and saw a murderer. Who is the racist? The Democrats are obsessed with race. They governed much of the country based on that platform for a long time. But they couldn’t deal with the facts on the ground of the William Horton story. What Dukakis did was indefensible. How do you hear that story and still think Dukakis should be president?”
In the months after the 1988 presidential election, Atwater remained defiant. “We had only one goal in the campaign: to help elect George Bush,” he said, dismissing criticism of his bare-knuckled attacks against Dukakis—at one point Atwater had vowed to “strip the bark off the little bastard” (Dukakis is five-foot-eight) and suggested that Horton should serve as Dukakis’s running mate. “That’s the purpose of any political campaign. What other function should a campaign have?”
But after being diagnosed with brain cancer in March 1990, Atwater, then head of the Republican National Committee, rejected the political crassness of his entire career. As aggressive steroids and chemotherapy treatments distorted his face, figure and persona, Atwater offered a 5,000-word mea culpa in Life magazine.
Lee Atwater, from that article, entitled “Lee Atwater’s Last Campaign”: “In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate.’ I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not. Mostly I am sorry for the way I thought of other people. Like a good general, I had treated everyone who wasn’t with me as against me. After the election, when I would run into Ron Brown, my counterpart at the Democratic Party, I would say hello and then pass him off to one of my aides. I actually thought that talking to him would make me appear vulnerable. Since my illness, Ron has been enormously kind—he writes and calls regularly—and I have learned a lesson: Politics and human relationships are separate. I may disagree with Ron Brown’s message, but I can love him as a man.”
Tom Turnipseed, from a 1991 Washington Post op-ed published shortly after Atwater’s death: “In the last few months of his life, Lee apologized to me. In a letter dated June 28, 1990, Lee wrote, ‘It is very important to me…that out of everything that has happened in my career, one of the low points remains the so-called “jumper cable” episode.’ He [also] said in his letter to me that ‘my illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood and relationships that I never understood, and probably never would have. So, from that standpoint, there is some truth and good in everything.’
“Touched by the sincerity of his letter of apology and subsequent phone conversations, I attended Lee’s funeral in Columbia, South Carolina. Sitting across the church from me was a young Republican political consultant whom I recognized. I had recently seen him on CNN boasting about how Republicans were going to drive up the negatives on all the Democrats who voted ‘against America’ in opposing [George H.W.] Bush’s force resolution [for the first Persian Gulf War] and beat them in 1992. How sad.
“I hope those young political consultants who would emulate Atwater’s tactics of driving up the negatives of their opponents with the politics of fear will realize that Lee, confronting death, became, through the grace of God, an advocate of the politics of love and reconciliation. Rather than remembering him as one who polarized politics and exploited insecurity and prejudices to win elections, it would be good if we could remember him as a positive role model.”
Such a legacy, of course, is impossible. Atwater’s earlier antics were too contentious—and effective—to be forgotten or obscured by his deathbed apologies. And maybe just as important, Atwater himself was too fascinating a character to cast as either all good or all evil. He had many redeeming qualities, which made his irredeemable ones even more interesting. To wit, he had an engaging sense of humor that he rolled in and out of his sleeve like a pack of Marlboros. The excellent 2008 documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story shows a clip of Atwater wearing a Three Stooges T-shirt as he’s leaving the hospital after an initial round of treatment for his brain tumor. When a reporter asks him what his shirt says, Atwater turns toward them and replies “ ‘Just Say Moe!’ One of my intellectual heroes.” Another incongruent Atwater fact: He earned a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues recording. In this way, he could not have been more different from the current crop of political strategists.
Chris Lehmann, author of Rich People Things: Real Life Secrets of the Predator Class and former editor at Mother Jones and Congressional Quarterly: “If you live in Washington, D.C. long enough, eventually you don’t make a distinction between the two parties. It’s like Hollywood. It’s a company town, and people do what they can to get their candidates in for one cycle. All the Mary Matalin and James Carville types have a lot more in common with each other than the base of either party.
“Besides, the real political operatives are no longer found within the Republican National Committee or the Democratic National Committee. Instead, they can be found at any of the million lobbying firms in Washington, none of which draws political lines either. Most of these firms have a Republican team and a Democratic team. When Congress is won or lost, each firm simply goes out and buys the party plaque for whichever party happens to be in power at the moment. In that sense, I don’t think Atwater would adapt well to this world, because it’s post-ideological.
“But the real crime of the contemporary consulting class is that they’re so fucking boring. These people have all by and large gone to the same schools; they’re all from the same social backgrounds. At a minimum, you want them to be charming. After all, charm is their stock in trade. But today’s consultants are an unbelievably charmless group of people—precisely because they don’t believe in anything. They’re a mushy mass. I literally cannot tell the difference between the ones who are on TV, people like Alex Castellanos and David Gergen. They’re trapped in this weird spiritually and technologically unsustainable position of feeling they’re in charge of the political discourse. The only thing they have to offer, however, is ‘The Obama administration had a bad day’ or ‘The Romney campaign was unable to get X message out.’ Who cares?
“It offends me on some level that people who put out negative political products today are so bland personally. There’s something to be said for being animated enough to get your set of beliefs into a position of influence. Lee Atwater was that kind of personality, which is why I have a perverse admiration for him. He wasn’t some generic talking head. By that count, something has been lost.”
Jordan Lieberman, political campaign strategist: “Someone like Lee Atwater will never exist again. The industry has changed a lot. What matters in 2012 has nothing to do with the guy who is willing to stay up until three in the morning to come up with a creative idea. Those types of guys are no longer the center of the universe. The important things today are money, access to money and data. With the data I have access to, I can tell you that Texas Republicans are heavy news readers with an IRA value of $200,000 who watch CBS and don’t eat ethnic food unless it has an Americanized label. In the realm of targeted online advertising, that’s more important than party affiliation.
“I go to work for the candidates who want to hire the best guys. I’ve worked on everything from a Democratic primary to campaigns for Tea Party favorites Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell. Ten years ago people went to work for the guy they believed in. If he won, they were in luck and on the rocket ship back to the Senate or White House. If they happened to believe in someone who lost, they kept losing until their guy won. Now, though, the campaigning never stops. You can have a career in the industry for the first time. There are graduate schools and best practices for being a political operative.
“These days you will work for any guy who is running. After all, you need a job. Drinking the Kool-Aid is dangerous if you’re going to have a successful campaign—and career. Today there is a big discrepancy between your candidate’s beliefs and your beliefs. You have to reconcile that. I like to think of my dad. He’s a dentist. He cleans the teeth of a lot of people he doesn’t like.”