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Jake Whitney: Is The Awful Legacy of Lee Atwater Finally Dead?

November 14, 2008

While John McCain descended to some sickening lows in the 2008 presidential race, his dysfunctional campaign was merely the retarded grandchild—and if we’re lucky, the last of the bloodline—of the godfather of Republican mudslinging, Lee Atwater.

But descend McCain did.

First he sold out by flip-flopping on the Bush tax cuts, on torture, and by embracing leaders of the religious right like Jerry Falwell, whom he had once referred to as an “agent of intolerance.” Then he picked an astoundingly unqualified governor from a meagerly populated state—whom he’d met only once—to be his vice presidential candidate, presumably to attract the disgruntled supporters of Hillary Clinton.

As Election Day approached and his prospects for victory dimmed, McCain grew increasingly desperate, plunging ever deeper into the dirty politics he once decried. His campaign, which included members of the Bush team who smeared him in 2000, aired TV ads comparing Barack Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. They resurrected the specter of Jeremiah Wright, raised the specter of William Ayers, and accused Obama of “paling around with terrorists.”

McCain consistently lied about Obama’s tax plan, telling people at every opportunity that the Democratic candidate would “raise your taxes”, when in truth Obama proposed significant tax cuts for the great majority of the population. He was condescending during the debates, held up a lying, unlicensed plumber from Ohio as his hero, and even branded our now president-elect a Socialist.

It was ugly—and disappointing to those of us who once admired the man.

But as bad as it all was, it could have been much, much worse. A Frontline special that aired Tuesday night on PBS made this quite clear.

The program was about Lee Atwater, the Republican master of low-ball politics. Titled “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story,” it traced Atwater’s rise from a humble Southern pedigree up the political ladder to his crowning “achievement” of launching George H. W. Bush into the presidency, and to his sudden, tragic demise from brain cancer at the age of 40.

“Boogie Man” leaves one with several powerful, if not necessarily surprising, impressions. The first is this: there is a segment of the Republican party, epitomized by Atwater and more recently by his protege Karl Rove, that is, quite simply, nihilistic. Actually, that’s not exactly right. A nihilist is a person who believes in nothing. Atwater believed in something: getting and maintaining power. That’s about it.

In the program, a friend of Atwater’s says that as far as ideals went, Atwater could just as easily have been a Democrat. In other words, he never cared about the policy part of politics, only the campaigning (and winning) part. Through interviews with friends and colleagues, we learn that Lee was obsessively driven and incredibly insecure. Ed Rollins, the Republican strategist whom Atwater worked with and eventually stabbed in the back, described Lee as an “insecure kid who everyday had that total impostor fear”—the fear that those around him would discover that he wasn’t any good.

A childhood trauma seemed to contribute to this insecurity. When he was just a few years old, Lee watched his younger brother get scalded to death after being doused with hot grease. This event apparently led to Atwater’s lingering belief that death—literally or politically—is always right around the corner; and to what was apparently Lee’s credo: somebody or something is always looking to do you in; the only way to survive is to do them in first.

If “Boogie Man” paints an accurate portrait of Atwater’s psyche, it was certainly tragic for Lee as a human being. But what is infinitely more tragic is how his scheming, insecure, win-at-all-costs mentality has taken root in our political system—and in the Republican Party, in particular.

Virtually every dirty political trick used today was either invented or perfected by Atwater. He was a virtuoso with the wedge issue: religion, phony populism, racism, whatever it took—divide and conquer, that’s how he won. Atwater believed that imagery was more important than ideas, and effective symbols trumped substance—and he came close to proving it when he transformed a New England-bred WASP into a cowboy, and a son of Greek immigrants into an out-of-touch elitist. (It was a lesson not lost on Rove when in 2004 he turned a war hero into an effete foreigner, and a war-evader into a tough guy.)

Atwater’s talents, such as they were, were never more on display than in the 1988 presidential campaign.

In July, with only four months to go until Election Day, Michael Dukakis held a 17-point lead over George H.W. Bush. Atwater, as Bush’s campaign manager, began chipping away at the lead by launching an insidious set of whispering campaigns. The first was that Dukakis’s wife, Kitty, once attended an anti-war rally where she burned a U.S. flag. The second was that Dukakis had psychiatric issues. (When Reagan was asked to respond to the rumors about Dukakis’s mental state, he said, “Oh, I’m not going to comment on an invalid.”) There was not a shred of truth to either. But that didn’t stop the press from spreading them.

That was another striking element of “Boogie Man:” what lackeys the press often are. All Atwater had to do, apparently, was crack his corny jokes, contort his boyish face, and whisper, all intimate-like, in a newsman’s ear, and the next thing you knew—corroborating sources or not—his smear would be all over the evening news. At one point in the program, a montage of newspaper and magazine clippings flash across the screen, all lauding Atwater as a “star” or “mastermind” or “genius.”

The press made Atwater. And they should not be allowed to forget it.

Atwater finally sealed the election for Bush with his despicable TV ads. First came the revolving prison door. It was an assault on Dukakis’ weekend furlough program, and it showed criminals walking into a prison through a revolving door and coming right back out again. Only one prisoner looks at the camera: a black man. The infamous Willie Horton ad soon followed. Horton, a black man who had escaped during a furlough, was presented as the face of terror—a 1980′s version of Osama Bin Laden—and the message was clear: Dukakis will let a black man rape your wife. (The 2004 version: Kerry will let Osama Bin Laden rape your country.)

As filthy as John McCain got this election season, he never quite went Willie Horton. We can be thankful for that. Our outgoing oval-office occupant, on the other hand, well, he’s another story. In other, oft-related ways, which need no retelling here, the 2000 and 2004 campaigns of George W. Bush were just as bad, if not worse, than his father’s 1988 campaign. We can thank another political “genius,” Karl Rove, for that.

In 1991, wasting away in a hospital bed, Atwater famously repudiated his tactics, and claimed to apologize to every person he ever offended. It was interesting to discover that there are conservatives out there who don’t buy this—that his deathbed confessional was an invention of the liberal press. Mary Matalin, for example, says it was manufactured to discredit his brand of politics. She maintains that Atwater was a brilliant campaign manager and a credit to the conservative cause. (A friend of Atwaters, a black musician, responded to Matalin: I was there, he said, his voice cracking from emotion, and I heard it.)

But the single biggest “a-ha” moment in “Boogie Man” comes when it’s over. With the credits rolling, you can’t help but think of Atwater’s awful legacy: Bush, Rove, Bush II. Suddenly it all comes together. The descent of the Republican Party into the cesspool it has become was not actually caused by Lee Atwater or even Karl Rove; there will always be resentful, insecure, power-mad cynics attracted to politics.

It was caused, rather, by the candidates themselves—the “deciders”—who though they may have started out with noble goals (maybe not?) allowed themselves to be dragged into the mud because they placed personal ambition over country.

So as Dubya’s final term blessedly, thankfully, comes sputtering to an end, and the country struggles to recover from eight of the most disastrous years in its history, and as all the books are being written about Dubya being one of the worst presidents ever and how the Bush name will go down in eternal disgrace, one can’t help but think: they deserve every single bit of it. Can you believe what they almost did to our country?

There’s another key moment in “Boogie Man,” but it makes you think not of Atwater and his legacy but rather of our president-elect. One of the people interviewed says that Atwater’s brand of politics was so successful because “people vote their fears, not their hopes.”

Not this time.

Not this time.

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