07 Nov 2006
So soon after Halloween I'm almost afraid to mention his name for fear that the invocation could revive his spirit and restore him to living flesh, just in time to rampage through the Democratic Party like some bad 80s horror villain. But, for the sake of an election eve cautionary tale, I'll risk it, the chance of him steping through a glowing pentacle while wielding a chainsaw and wearing a Willie Horton mask is relatively small:
Atwater, for those unfamiliar with the heirarchy of Republican progenitor demons, was the Karl Rove of his day, a virulent political operative largely responsible for setting the tone of modern negative campaigning. One of his favorite tactics was planting rumors and starting whisper campaigns insinuating his opponents were mentally unstable and he's probably responsible for Michael Dukakis' mental health becoming a campaign issue in 1988. He also famously attacked Tom Turnipseed over his childhood depression, claiming Turnipseed "got hooked up to jumper cables" for electroshock therapy.
So yeah, he was a real sweetheart, but if his sole claim to infamy were rolling his finger next to his head and chanting "cuckoo ! cuckoo !" when asked about his political rivals, his name wouldn't inspire such occult reverence and fear. No, Lee Atwater had a dark side beyond simple name calling and political low blows. Atwater helped Reagan perfect Nixon's southern strategy, integrating what had been a relatively straightforward appeal to racism into many aspects of the Republican platform.
From an interview he gave in 1981, right after Reagan's victory:
Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964… and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster…
- Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps…?
- Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
- And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me - because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Nigger, nigger.
Here's Atwater, speaking anonymously in 1981, basically saying "Yes, large parts of our platform is designed to appeal to racist white southerners." "Fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes", "forced busing, states' rights" are all code words telling their base in the South that they're going to stick it to blacks.
When Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson says something like this, they're often summarily dismissed, probably with a quick roll of the finger and a couple of "cuckoo cuckoos".
This interview, however, comes directly from one of the major architects of the Republican successes of the 80s and 90s, Rove's mentor, George W.'s friend, and the guy who was instrumental in getting Reagan and George H.W. Bush elected, so why harp on Jackson and Sharpton when they're just taking Atwater at his word?
And while Atwater is gone, his lingering miasma remains. Rove evolves and perfects the master's work, shifting themes from immigrants to gays with a virtuoso's ease, exploiting meaningless divisions for political gain at every opportunity. With any luck, tomorrow's elections will be a repudiation of Rove's methods. It's what Atwater would want anyway, as he turned his back on the politics of hate in the days before his death:
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.
Yeah Lee, you're not fooling anyone....
For more details about Lee Atwater visit his entry at Wikipedia.