Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lee Atwater

Legendary poltical dirty trickster Lee Atwater was unanimously voted class clown in eigth grade at W. J. Keenan Junior High School in Columbia, South Carolina (the photo above is Atwater at age 13). The Atwaters spoiled young Lee's fun the next year by enrolling him at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia (he had been hoping to join his friends at J.C. Flora High School). Eventually, Atwater convinced his parents to allow him to come home and attend Flora High where he returned to his prankish ways. In the book Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater, Lee's eleventh-grade English teacher recalled giving the colorful student a "D" for content, but an "A" for originality on his book report on the Columbia telephone directory. The teacher recounted for the author that "He said it jumped around from character to character without sustaining any of them." At Flora Atwater became interested in theater and music and starred as Conrad Birdie in the high school production of Bye, Bye Birdie. He also started his first Rhythm and Blues band called The Upsetter's Revue. R & B and comedy (he loved W.C. Fields and the Three Stooges) would remain a lifelong passions of Atwater's.

But it was his slash and burn political instinct that would eventually make Lee Atwater's name synonymous with negative campaigning. He developed his craft in the 1970s in South Carolina working on campaigns for Governor Carroll Campbell and Senator Strom Thurmond. In 1980 Atwater helped South Carolina Republican congressman Floyd Spence beat challenger Tom Turnipseed by using so-called "push polls" to suggest to voters that the opposing candidate was a member of the NAACP. Atwater also infamously told a "plant" reporter at a news conference that Turnipseed had once been hooked up to "jumper cables" (electroshock therapy) for depression.

Atwater's masterpiece of character assassination came eight years later when he convinced George HW Bush to "go negative" on Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. The morning after the Massachusetts governor gave his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination, Atwater told an assembly of senior Bush campaign staff: "I'm going to scrape the bark off that little bastard." And that he did. In a more subtle reprise of the Turnipseed shock therapy tactic, Atwater is widely believed to have been the source of the rumor that Dukakis had sought professional help after the death of his younger brother in an automobile accident (although New Hampshire Governor John Sununu had publicly advised reporters to look into this matter as well). Once the rumor was "out there" reporters even asked President Reagan about whether Dukakis was "fit to govern" if such an accusation was true. Reagan replied with a lame joke: "Look, I'm not going to pick on an invalid." Ultimately, Dukakis was forced to deny the rumor and he quickly dropped eight points in the polls. But it was Atwater's success in raising questions about the governor's patriotism (the Pledge of Allegiance issue in Massachusetts public schools) and in making a convicted African-American rapist and murderer, Willie Horton, his "running mate" (who remembers Lloyd Bentsen?) that really sank Dukakis. The candidate's own missteps such as not hitting back, riding in a tank and calmly answering a debate question about his wife's hypothetical rape and murder did not help matters.

Bush, of course, won in 1988 and his defeated opponent went back to riding the T to work in Boston. Atwater, in what many viewed as karmic payback, developed brain cancer and began apologizing to people he had wronged during his career--including Turnipseed and Dukakis. The wily political strategist did not live to see Bush's 1992 loss to Bill Clinton, but one suspects he probably would have been amused by how thoroughly James Carville had learned the lessons of 1988.

Atwater's less interesting friend, Karl Rove--whom he helped get elected as chairman of the College Republican National Committee in 1973--carries on the good work with no regrets...


No comments:

Post a Comment