Aiken – Political consultant and strategist to the Republican Party
(February 27, 1951 – March 29, 1991)
Atwater was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in Aiken, South Carolina, and graduated from Newberry College, a small private Lutheran institution in Newberry. He married and was father of three daughters.
Atwater was an advisor of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He was also a political mentor and close friend of Republican strategist Karl Rove. Atwater invented or improved upon many of the techniques of modern electoral politics; including promulgating unflattering rumors and attempting to drive up opponents’ “negative” poll numbers as techniques. His foes have characterized him as the “happy hatchet man” and “the Darth Vader of the Republican party.”
Atwater rose during the 1970’s and the 1980 election in the South Carolina Republican party, working on the campaigns of Governor Carroll Campbell and Senator Strom Thurmond. During his years in South Carolina, Atwater became well known for running hard edged campaigns based on emotional “wedge issues.”
Atwater’s aggressive tactics were first demonstrated during the 1980 congressional campaigns. He was a campaign consultant to Republican incumbent Floyd Spence in his campaign for Congress against Democratic nominee Tom Turnipseed. Atwater’s tactics in that campaign included push polling in the form of fake surveys by “independent pollsters” to “inform” white suburbanites that Turnipseed was allegedly a member of the NAACP. Atwater also highlighted that Turnipseed had been “hooked up to jumper cables” as a teen undergoing electroshock therapy for depression.
After the 1980 election Atwater went to Washington and became an aide in the Ronald Reagan administration, working under political director Ed Rollins. During his years in Washington Atwater became aligned with Vice President Bush, who chose Atwater to run his 1988 presidential campaign.
Atwater’s most noteworthy campaign was the 1988 presidential election, where he served as campaign manager for Republican nominee George H.W. Bush. A particularly aggressive media program included a television advertisement related to the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison who committed a rape while participating in a weekend furlough strongly supported by then-governor Michael Dukakis.
The Horton campaign undoubtedly helped George H. W. Bush overcome Dukakis’s 17-percent lead in early public opinion polls and win both the electoral and popular vote. Although Atwater clearly approved of the use of the Willie Horton issue, the Bush campaign never ran any commercial with Horton’s picture, instead running a similar but generic ad. The original commercial was produced by Americans for Bush, an independent group managed by Larry McCarthy, and the Republicans benefited from the coverage it attracted in the national news.
During the election, a number of allegations were made in the media about Dukakis’s personal life, including the unsubstantiated claim that Dukakis’s wife Kitty had burned an American flag to protest the Vietnam War, and that Dukakis himself had been treated for a mental illness. Although Atwater was attributed with having initiating these reports, there has been no proof that he did so.
The 1988 Bush campaign overcame a 17 point deficit in midsummer polls to win 40 states. Atwater’s skills in the 1988 election led one biographer to term him “the best campaign manager who ever lived”
During that election, future president George W. Bush, son of George H. W., vice president, took an office across the hall from Atwater’s office, where his job was to serve as “the eyes and ears for my dad,” monitoring the activities of Atwater and other campaign staff. In her memoir, Barbara Bush said that George W. and Atwater became friends.
After the election, Atwater was named chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Shortly after Atwater took over the RNC, Jim Wright was forced to resign as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and was succeeded by Tom Foley. On the day Foley officially became speaker, the RNC began circulating a memo to Republican Congressmen and state party chairmen called “Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet.” The memo compared Foley’s voting record with that of openly gay Congressman Barney Frank, with a subtle implication that Foley was himself gay. It had been crafted by RNC communications director Mark Goodin and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. In fact, Gingrich had been trying to get several reporters to print it. The memo was harshly condemned on both sides of the aisle. Republican Senate leader Bob Dole, for instance, said in a speech on the Senate floor, “This is not politics. This is garbage.”
Atwater initially defended the memo, calling it “no big deal” and “factually accurate.” However, a few days later, he claimed he hadn’t approved the memo. Under pressure from President Bush, Atwater fired Goodin, replacing him with B. Jay Cooper.
Atwater was also a musician. As a teenager in Columbia, Atwater played guitar in a rock band, The Upsetters Revue. His special love was R&B music. Even at the height of his political power he would often play concerts in clubs and church basements, solo or with B.B. King, in the Washington, DC area. He released an album called Red, Hot And Blue on Curb Records, featuring Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore, Chuck Jackson, and B.B. King, who got co-billing with Atwater. Robert Hilburn wrote about the album in the April 5, 1990 issue of the Los Angeles Times: “The most entertaining thing about this ensemble salute to spicy Memphis-style ’50s and ’60s R & B is the way it lets you surprise your friends. Play a selection such as ‘Knock on Wood’ or ‘Bad Boy’ for someone without identifying the singer, then watch their eyes bulge when you reveal that it’s the controversial national chairman of the Republican Party… Lee Atwater.”
He briefly played backup guitar for Percy Sledge during the 1960s and frequently played with bluesmen such as B.B. King. Atwater recorded an album with King and others on Curb Records in 1990 entitled Red Hot & Blue. He once sat in with Paul Schaeffer and his band on Late Night with David Letterman. His life is the subject of the feature-length documentary film Boogie Man.
On March 5, 1990, Lee Atwater collapsed during a fund raising breakfast on behalf of Senator Phil Gramm. Doctors searching for an explanation to what was initially thought to be a mere fainting episode discovered a grade 3 astrocytoma, a usually aggressive form of malignant neoplasm, in his right parietal lobe. Atwater underwent interstitial implant radiation, a then-new form of treatment, at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, and received conventional radiation therapy at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC.
Political insiders have speculated that, had Atwater lived, he would have run a stronger re-election campaign for Bush than the President’s unsuccessful 1992 effort against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
Shortly before his death from a brain tumor, Atwater said he had converted to Catholicism, through the help of Fr. John Hardon, SJ, and, in an act of repentance, Atwater issued a number of public and written letters to individuals to whom he had been opposed during his political career, including Dukakis. In a letter to Tom Turnipseed dated June 28, 1990, he stated, “It is very important to me that I let you know that out of everything that has happened in my career, one of the low points remains the so called ‘jumper cable’ episode,” adding, “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.”
In a February 1991 article for Life Magazine, 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.”
edited 2008 KAG