Lee Atwater

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Harvey Leroy "Lee" Atwater (February 26, 1951 - March 29, 1991) was a United States Republican political consultant and strategist.

Atwater was a trusted advisor of U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Atwater's skills at attack politics brought him and his candidates success. Atwater's opponents characterized him as "the Darth Vader of the Republican party", "the happy hatchet man", and "the guy who went negative for the sheer joy of it."

Atwater's aggressive tactics were evident in 1980, when he was a consultant for Republican candidate Floyd Spence in his campaign for Congress against Democratic nominee Tom Turnipseed. Atwater's tactics in that campaign included push polling in the form of fake surveys by "independent pollsters" to "inform" white suburbanites that Turnipseed was a member of the NAACP. He also sent out last-minute letters from Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) telling voters that Turnipseed would disarm America and turn it over to liberals and Communists. At a press briefing, Atwater planted a "reporter" who rose and said, "We understand Turnipseed has had psychotic treatment." Atwater later told the reporters off the record that Turnipseed "got hooked up to jumper cables" - a reference to electroshock therapy that Turnipseed underwent as a teenager.

"Lee seemed to delight in making fun of a suicidal 16-year-old who was treated for depression with electroshock treatments," Turnipseed recalled. "In fact, my struggle with depression as a student was no secret. I had talked about it in a widely covered news conference as early as 1977, when I was in the South Carolina State Senate. Since then I have often shared with appropriate groups the full story of my recovery to responsible adulthood as a professional, political and civic leader, husband and father. Teenage depression and suicide are major problems in America, and I believe my life offers hope to young people who are suffering with a constant fear of the future." [1]

Atwater's greatest success came in the 1988 presidential election. A particularly aggressive media program, including a television advertisement related to the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who subsequently committed a rape while on a furlough from a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison, allowed George H.W. Bush to overcome Michael Dukakis's 17% lead in early public opinion polls and win both the electoral and popular vote. During the election, a number of false rumors were also spread about Dukakis, including the claim by Idaho Republican Senator Steve Symms that Dukakis's wife Kitty had burned an American flag to protest the Vietnam War, as well as the claim that Dukakis himself had been treated for a mental illness.

During the 1988 election, Atwater was assigned a "minder" by the Bush campaign, George W. Bush. The younger Bush's political strategist, Karl Rove, would later employ Atwater's tactics against John McCain in the 2000 Republican primary. After the election, Atwater was named chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In 1991, Atwater was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Shortly before his death he said he had converted to Catholicism and issued a number of public and written apologies to individuals he had unfairly attacked during his political career, including Dukakis. In a letter to Tom Turnipseed dated June 28, 1990, he stated, "It is very important to me that I let you know that out of everything that has happened in my career, one of the low points remains the so called 'jumper cable' episode," adding, "my illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood and relationships that I never understood, and probably never would have. So, from that standpoint, there is some truth and good in everything." [2]

In a February 1991 article for Life Magazine, Atwater declared:

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.

1981 Interview on Voting and Racism

In 1981, Lee Atwater was working in the White House under President Ronald Reagan when he was interviewed by Alexander Lamis. As a conservative campaign consultant, he underlined his standpoint of the southern strategy. Atwater explained how Republicans could win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves. In 1984, Alexander Lamis published his interview with Atwater without using his name directly in the book The Two-Party South.

"Now y'all aren't quoting me on this?" Atwater said.[1] This essentially was the reason Atwater was not named in the first publication of his words:

"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, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract."
Lee Atwater's 1981 interview on the Southern Strategy

Fifteen years after The Two-Party South was published, another book that did include the interview using his name was released. This was after Lee Atwater’s death in 1991. Despite this interview, Atwater had previously made a statement from his Republican campaigning that established his racial neutrality:

"My generation, will be the first generation of Southerners that won't be prejudiced." He continues to say, "people in the South are just like any people in the history of the world."

Lee Atwater used his public opinion as his way of racial innocence but in contrary to his actual belief of conforming racists to vote based merely on race.

Audio of the full forty-two minute conversation with Atwater and Lamis can be found in at The Nation' article online.


Note: Portions of this article were taken from a corresponding article in the Wikipedia.


  1. Rick Perlstein, "Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy," The Nation, November 13, 2012.