The secret papers of Lee Atwater, who invented the outrageous tactics Trump normalized
It’s a Washington axiom that when a powerful player dies, so do his influence and secrets. One evening this spring, my phone rang with a text message that showed otherwise. Sally Atwater, the widow of legendary Republican political agent Lee Atwater, was deceased. She had been married to the GOP bad boy during the Reagan and Bush years until her untimely death thirty years ago. The eldest daughter of the Atwaters, Sara Lee, who lives in Brussels and is a Democrat, invited me to her parents’ house to read boxes of papers from her late father, whom I knew well when I covered the Reagan White House. They included seven chapters from Lee Atwater’s unpublished memoir project, which had remained intact since he succumbed to brain cancer in 1991, at the age of forty, and at the height of his political career.
The house on a quiet street in northwest Washington was the kind of tidy brick place that is a testament to family life. The scene inside was something else. His first-floor rooms were filled with a jumble of cardboard and plastic containers, overflowing with manila paper files, filled with everything from the former Republican president’s elementary school papers to his final thoughts, dictations to an assistant during his last days.
Some of the memories were surprising. Despite Atwater’s well-deserved reputation for his racist campaigns, there were friendly private notes and photos of him with Al Sharpton and James Brown, whose acrobatics on stage Atwater was famous for trying to emulate in his own performances. blues guitar. There were also personal notes from underground movie stars of the John Waters era. According to his daughter, Atwater was a big fan of underground cinema. While the Republican Party presided over family values and the Christian right, he helped a friend open a video store in Virginia specializing in pornography, blaxploitation and his favorite genre, horror films. Atwater experienced horror early on in his own life. At the age of five, her little brother died of burns from an overturned tub of hot grease in the family kitchen. Atwater’s papers made no mention of the tragedy, but he said he heard his brother’s screams every day of his life.
Atwater died before he could finish his memoir. What remains are pieces of yellowed typed pages, held together by rusty staples and paper clips. But the surviving seven chapters suggest that, far from dying with him, the nihilism, cynicism, and slanderous tactics Atwater introduced into national politics endure. In many ways, his memoir suggests Atwater’s tactics were a bridge between the old Nixon-era Republican Party, when dirty tricks were seen as a scandal, and Donald Trump’s new Republican Party, in which lies, racial alarmism and victory at all costs have become normalized. In particular, Chapter 5 of Atwater’s memoir serves as a Trumpian precursor. In it, Atwater, who worked in the Reagan White House Office of Political Affairs, and led George HW Bush’s presidential campaign in 1988 before becoming President of the Republican Party at the age of thirty-seven, Bluntly admits he only cared about winning, not ruling. “I always thought running for office was a bunch of bullshit. Being in an office is even more bullshit. This is really bullshit, ”he wrote. “I’m proud of the fact that I understand how BS this is.”
In the eighties Atwater became infamous for his effective use of smears. Probably his best-known example was linking Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic opponent to Bush’s presidency in 1988, to Willie Horton, a black convict who went into a frenzy of crime after being freed at large. conditional in the state. A threatening commercial featuring Horton was a blatant attempt to instill fear among white voters that Dukakis was lenient on crime. At the very end of his life, Atwater publicly apologized to Dukakis for this. But Atwater’s memoir project makes it clear that he had already mastered the dark political arts as a teenager. In fact, it seems like pretty much everything Atwater learned about politics he learned in high school. It’s easy to see the future of the Republican Party in the dirty anti-intellectual tricks of its school days.
Born in Atlanta, Atwater grew up in a white, middle-class family in South Carolina. Her father worked in insurance and her mother was a teacher. But from the start, Atwater was an ambitious and charismatic rebel, or, as he put it, a “breeder from hell.” While secretly gorging himself on history and literature – Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was one of his favorite books – he did everything possible to appear without a study in school. He made fun of the best students and the leaders of the student government. His goal, he wrote, was to be seen as too smart and too cool to care. In high school, the only position he sought was to be elected “the most spiritual.” To this end, he tried to do something funny every day. “If it wasn’t funny, it at least screwed someone up. Every day I would screw people up. And it’s fun and funny. And I pulled a lot of shit. Over time, he organized a group of a hundred students to disrupt the school under his orders. When speakers came to the assembly, Atwater signaled his followers to stand in unison and turn their backs for a few seconds, or cross their legs in synchronized motions, or burst into fierce applause. But Atwater was cunning. He writes that there was a “secret to screwing it up” successfully. He always “got the line” that he needed to stay inside so as not to get caught. Lesson # 1 was to be “so subtle they can’t catch you for anything”.
Atwater could be fun. As he rose in American politics, candidates and journalists were drawn to his subversive sense of humor, despite themselves. But throughout his life, he displayed more than a tinge of amorality. In his memoir, Atwater describes, without remorse, falsely accusing another student of starting a brawl he started and remaining silent after the student was paddled twenty-five times. “I didn’t tell the truth is worth a shit,” he admits. He describes the organization of 650 students to spit wads of spit on an official who, he writes, had not “been screwed for 20 years.” The best moment, in his opinion, was when a classmate threw a glass of ice at him, “and it really hurt him, which was funniest.
The first presidential campaign managed by Atwater was an attempt to get a friend of his chosen one as student body president – against that friend’s will. He created a list of fake accomplishments and devised a fake scoring system that ranked his friend first. He plastered the school with posters declaring his friend’s platform of false promises of “free draft beer in the cafeteria – free dates – free girls.” The campaign took a darker turn when Atwater’s sidekicks stomped on a hippie student’s bare feet until his feet bleed profusely. The group subsequently threatened to do the same with younger students unless they vote for Atwater’s candidate. Atwater recalls that he privately reveled in the tactics and was proud to be able to participate in “bullying” his comrades. But publicly he pretended to worry, or, as he writes, “I was acting like Eddie Haskell saying, ‘My young people, you could be next.’ “His candidate won a thwarted victory, but the school declared it void due to technicality. “I learned a lot,” he writes. “I learned to organize myself. . . and I learned to polarize.
Although Atwater’s adult professional rise was meteoric, towards the end of his life his double game of paying homage to black cultural leaders while dealing with racism for political gain caught up with him. His appointment to the Howard University board in Washington, shortly after Bush won the White House, sparked an uproar on campus. The student newspaper of the prestigious historically black university denounced him, and the students occupied an administrative building in protest. In his papers, Atwater complains that Jesse Jackson cheated on him, writing, “If there’s anyone in politics who has done me dirty, it’s Jesse Jackson.” Atwater writes that Jackson convinced him to step down from Howard’s board by promising to lionize Atwater for doing so. Instead, the day after Atwater agreed to resign, Jackson went to Howard and “just put my guts out.” Sara Lee Atwater, who loved her father but not his politics, finds it somewhat appropriate that, as racial politics evolved, “the trickster got tricked.”