Atwater, Harvey Leroy (“Lee”)
Atwater, Harvey Leroy (“Lee”)
(b. 27 February 1951 in Atlanta, Georgia; d. 29 March 1991 in Washington, D.C.), political consultant who developed the strategy known as “negative campaigning” and who became chairman of the Republican National Committee after engineering George Bush’s victory in the 1988 presidential election.
Atwater was the eldest of three children born to Harvey Dillard Atwater, an insurance claims adjuster, and Alma Page, a high school teacher. His parents moved several times during his childhood before settling in Columbia, South Carolina, when he was nine years old. His grades at A. C. Flora High School were poor because he spent much of his time playing guitar with a rhythm and blues band. Upon graduation in June 1969 he wanted to play music professionally but bowed to his parents’ wishes and went to college. His poor academic record closed the door to most colleges, but his mother got him into Newberry College, a small school forty miles from Columbia.
During the summer of 1971 Atwater interned in the Washington, D.C., office of South Carolina senator J. Strom Thurmond, a Democrat who had bolted his party in 1948 to campaign for the presidency on the States’ Rights (Dixiecrat) party ticket. Thurmond was now a Republican in a state still dominated by the Democratic party. In At-water’s view, Democrats represented the establishment and Republicans were the outsiders, and he dreamed of reestablishing the Republican party as the majority party in the United States.
When Atwater returned to Newberry in the fall of 1971, he joined the College Republicans, plunged into a fight for control of the organization’s South Carolina chapter, and won election as the state chairman. While still in college, he managed his first political campaign, getting his candidate, a Republican running against an incumbent Democrat, elected the mayor of Forest Acres, a suburb of Columbia. He also became a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Miami in 1972.
After graduation in 1973 Atwater served as executive director of the College Republicans’ national office in Washington, D.C., but returned to Columbia in 1974 to establish a political consulting firm. He managed the campaigns of many South Carolina Republicans and began to perfect the tactics known as negative campaigning. During Senator Thurmond’s 1978 reelection campaign, Atwater ran advertisements emphasizing remarks critical of South Carolina allegedly made by Thurmond’s Democratic opponent to a New York City audience. The Democrat appeared disloyal to his state and hence unfit to be its senator. Thurmond won in a landslide.
In the same year, Atwater played a role in the successful congressional campaign of the Republican Carroll Campbell, whose Democratic opponent, Max Heller, was Jewish. Though Atwater denied having anything to do with it, a third party candidate in the race attacked Heller for refusing to believe in Jesus Christ, thus raising the issue of Heller’s faith.
Meanwhile, Atwater earned an M.A. degree in journalism from the University of South Carolina in 1977. On 24 June 1978 he married Sally Dunbar, a special education teacher. The couple had three children. In 1981 he moved to a small townhouse in Washington, D.C.; his wife joined him fully in 1982.
In 1980 a reporter asked Tom Turnipseed, the Democratic candidate for a South Carolina congressional seat, if it was true that he had undergone psychiatric treatment and electroshock therapy. Turnipseed accused Atwater of planting the question, but Atwater refused comment on an accusation made by a man who, he said, had been “hooked up to jumper cables.” Atwater eventually apologized for the remark, but the damage was done.
Republicans were not immune to Atwater’s negative tactics. During the 1980 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Atwater helped deliver South Carolina for Ronald Reagan by creating the impression that Reagan’s chief opponent, George Bush, was a staunch supporter of gun control. Reagan easily won the crucial contest and gained his party’s nomination. After Bush accepted the vice presidential nomination, Atwater served as the regional director of the Reagan-Bush campaign in a four-state area that included South Carolina.
Atwater’s reward was a job in the Reagan White House in the Office for Political Affairs, which he left in 1984 to serve as deputy director of the successful Reagan-Bush reelection campaign. He then joined a prestigious Washington political consulting firm. From 1986 to 1988 he spearheaded Bush’s successful effort to gain his party’s presidential nomination.
As Bush’s campaign manager in 1988, Atwater achieved notoriety because of a television advertisement that suggested that the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, was “soft on crime.” In 1986, while Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, Willie Horton, Jr., who had served ten years of a sentence for first-degree murder, received a weekend pass from a state prison and did not return. In April 1987 the fugitive Horton raped a woman in Maryland. The furlough program was enacted before Dukakis became governor, but he had vetoed a bill denying furloughs to people, such as Horton, convicted of first-degree murder. Atwater maintained that the issue raised by the advertisement— which was aired by a political action committee, and not by the official Bush campaign—was the issue of crime and not of race. But the fact that Horton was black and his victim white was seen by critics as an effort to interject race into the campaign.
To celebrate Bush’s inauguration Atwater, an accomplished guitarist, organized and participated in an event featuring rhythm and blues artists. Although he became chairman of the Republican National Committee in January 1989, Atwater began playing guitar in nightclubs and recorded an album, Red Hot & Blue (1990), with B. B. King, which received a Grammy nomination in January 1991 for best contemporary blues recording.
As chairman of the Republican National Committee, Atwater began an aggressive effort to attract black voters to the Republican party. Some black leaders apparently were willing to forget Willie Horton, for Atwater was named a trustee of historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was forced to resign in March 1989, however, after student demonstrators took over the school’s administration building to protest his appointment.
On 5 March 1990 Atwater collapsed during a speech, and doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor. Despite aggressive treatment with both radiation and chemotherapy, Atwater, who clung to the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee until January 1991, lost his battle with cancer a year after it was diagnosed. He died at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. He is buried in Columbia.
Although he apologized to many targets of his attacks during the final months of his life, Atwater may forever be linked to the concept of negative campaigning. Personal attacks on opponents were hardly new to American electoral politics, but Atwater, a professed student of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, elevated such attacks to a coherent strategy designed to bring victory by seeking an opponent’s weaknesses—real or apparent—and ruthlessly emphasizing or exaggerating them to destroy the opponent’s image in the eyes of the voters.
John Joseph Brady, Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater (1997), is a popular account of Atwater’s career based on extensive interviews with people who knew him. A brief biographical sketch may be found in Current Biography 1989. David Rem-nick, “Why Is Lee Atwater So Hungry?” Esquire (Dec. 1986), emphasizes Atwater’s unconventional, “down-home” style and his determination to win at any cost. Eric Alterman, “Playing Hardball,” New York Times Magazine (30 Apr. 1989), is good on Atwater’s use of negative campaigning. In “Lee Atwater’s Last Campaign,” written (or Life (Feb. 1991) with Todd Brewster, Atwater discussed his fight against cancer and took the opportunity to express regret for some of his “nakedly cruel” political attacks. Obituaries are in the Atlanta Constitution and the New York Times (both 30 Mar. 1991).
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