Published on Aug 6, 2014
Harvey LeRoy “Lee” Atwater (February 27, 1951 — March 29, 1991) was an American political consultant and strategist to the Republican Party. He was an advisor to U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and chairman of the Republican National Committee.
As a member of the Reagan administration in 1981, Atwater gave an anonymous interview to political scientist Alexander P. Lamis. Part of the interview was printed in Lamis’s book The Two-Party South, then reprinted in Southern Politics in the 1990s with Atwater’s name revealed. Bob Herbert reported on the interview in the October 6, 2005, edition of the New York Times. On November 13, 2012, The Nation magazine released what it claimed to be audio of the full interview. James Carter IV, grandson of former president Jimmy Carter, had asked and been granted access to these tapes by Lamis’s widow. Atwater talked about the Republican Southern Strategy and Ronald Reagan’s version of it: Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. 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.”
Atwater also argued that the Reagan did not need to make racial appeals, suggesting that Reagan’s issues transcended the racial prism of the “Southern Strategy”: Atwater: But Reagan did not have to do a southern strategy for two reasons. Number one, race was not a dominant issue. And number two, the mainstream issues in this campaign had been, quote, southern issues since way back in the sixties. So Reagan goes out and campaigns on the issues of economics and of national defense. The whole campaign was devoid of any kind of racism, any kind of reference. And I’ll tell you another thing you all need to think about, that even surprised me, is the lack of interest, really, the lack of knowledge right now in the South among white voters about the Voting Rights Act.”
Atwater’s most noteworthy campaign was the 1988 presidential election, where he served as the campaign manager for Republican nominee George H. W. Bush. A particularly aggressive media program included a television advertisement produced by Floyd Brown comparing Bush and Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis on crime. Bush supported the death penalty for first-degree murderers, while Dukakis opposed the death penalty. Dukakis also supported a felon furlough program originally begun under Republican Governor Francis Sargent in 1972. Prison furlough programs had been long established in California during the governorship of Republican Ronald Reagan, prior to 1980, but never allowed furlough for convicted murderers sentenced to life in prison.
During the election, a number of allegations were made in the media about Dukakis’s personal life, including the unsubstantiated claim that his wife Kitty had burned an American flag to protest the Vietnam War and that Dukakis had been treated for a mental illness. In the film Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, Robert Novak reveals for the first time that Atwater personally tried, but failed, to get him to spread these mental-health rumors.
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 call him “the best campaign manager who ever lived.”
During that campaign, future President George W. Bush took an office across the hall from Atwater’s, 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 the younger Bush and Atwater became friends.
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