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.”