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.”