The Curious Case of Lee Atwater
Perception is reality – Lee Atwater
Born in South Carolina in 1951, Atwater was one of the most complicated and influential personalities of the 20th century. He redefined the role of the reactionary political operative, enlarging upon Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” His “dirty tricks,” racially charged tactics and magnification of emotional wedge issues such as abortion and crime helped Republicans win over disaffected white working-class voters to a largely pro-business agenda and away from the New Deal priorities of the Democrats. A friend of Atwater’s – a friend – observed, “Resentment became the future of the Republican Party.”
Without him, there might not have been a Ronald Reagan Presidency, and certainly no Bush (I or II), nor few of the horrors of the past thirty years: no war on terror, no war on drugs, no mass incarceration, no destruction of Welfare, no destruction of the tax laws, no mass voter suppression and no Trumpus.
Atwater was assistant campaign manager in Reagan’s 1984 re-election. That Ronald Reagan, the man about whom James Baldwin said, “What I really found unspeakable about the man was his contempt, his brutal contempt, for the poor.” By 1988 Atwater was George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager, and he created the reprehensible “Willie Horton” attack ad that portrayed Michael Dukakis as soft on crime and a friend to rapists and murderers. After the election, Atwater rose to become chairman of the Republican National Committee.
He was not only a brilliant, evil genius who faithfully served three Presidents. He was also a vicious infighter among his own peers, about whom he said, “There’s always a bunch of guys trying to outsmart you, to stick it to you. Your job is to stick it to them first.”How nasty was this bastard? Working for Reagan in 1981, he admitted:
Y’all don’t quote me on this. 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”. So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the back-burner.
Atwater, despite never having run for office, was perhaps the person most responsible for shifting the country’s priorities toward a reactionary stance in which we could well ask – as I write – Did the South Win the Civil War? The man was a political thug who, in a time when America was beginning to welcome all the “Others” into the family, helped resurrect the most hateful and hurtful aspects of our national psyche. But now this story starts to get downright weird.
In 1989, still RNC chairman, Atwater was appointed to the Board of Trustees of historically black Howard University. But students rose up in protest and disrupted its 122nd anniversary celebrations, forcing him to resign. The next year, sick with a brain tumor and apparently seeking redemption, he claimed to have converted to Catholicism and very publicly apologized to several people whom his tactics had hurt, including Dukakis. In 1991, the dying Atwater wrote in Life Magazine:
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 1980s 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…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.
An odd and heartwarming story, right? Well, it gets stranger. As a teenager Atwater played in rock bands. He was good enough to briefly play backup guitar for visiting soul singers such as Percy Sledge and Marvin Gaye. Years later, even at the height of his political power, he often played concerts, solo or – are you ready? – with B.B. King. In 1988 he and other Republican politicians opened a barbecue and music restaurant, Red Hot and Blue, in Washington.
Lee Atwater was a Blues cat.
In 1989 he produced an inaugural concert for Bush the elder, clowning onstage along with him and many Black performers. Ben Sisario writes:
Atwater’s reputation preceded him with some of the musicians he pursued, but playing for a president is a hard gig to turn down…(Koko) Taylor’s manager recalled bringing the offer to his client. “I went to Koko and said, ‘These awful people who I hate and think are a bunch of racists want you to come and perform at an inaugural ball.” And she said, ‘I want to play for a president.” As the guitarist Joe Louis Walker put it, “It’s an honor for the blues to go all the way from the outhouse to the White House, no matter who the president is.”
Recalling the event, several of the musicians said they were paid well and treated with respect. Still, there were odd moments. Willie Dixon wore a “Jesse Jackson for President” button. The music scholar Peter Guralnick wrote in an essay for the DVD of seeing musicians backstage, “…each wearing an expression of incredulity on his or her face that as much as said, What are you doing here?”
In 1990 Atwater released a Blues album featuring him playing with Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore, Chuck Jackson, and King. What the Hell is going on here? Professor and author Jelani Cobb, who was one of those students protesting at Howard University in 1989, writes:
Atwater was exemplary of a nuance in Southern politics, that people can be virulent race-baiters and still have an intimate familiarity with black and shared Southern culture, that those things are not at all contradictory.
Rock critic Dave Marsh was more direct: “Even if (Atwater was a great performer), the presence of the Republican Party chairman on the recording scene would be toxic.”
Hayes (ironically predicting the Blues Foundation’s 2021 response to Morganfield) responded,
First of all, music should be for all people…It should be free. No one should put a tag on music and say who’s to like what. If it suits your fancy, you embrace it, and that’s what that little boy from South Carolina did. I don’t see it having anything to do with party affiliation.
Hayes was being kind, with the capacity for forgiveness that perhaps only African Americans can achieve. Jackson actually insists that he and Atwater were close friends. But I’m not that kind. I’m left with the fact that Atwater deeply loved Black culture, and probably Black people, but was willing to support politicians and policies that contributed quite directly to the suffering and deaths of millions of those people.
So – We all contain multitudes, don’t we? It gets weirder still. One of the essential, even archetypally American characters residing among those multitudes is the con man, about whom I write here. If there is one thing we can say about Lee Atwater that might – weirdly – give some insight into his (and perhaps our) character, it is that almost every Republican interviewed in the ironically titled 2008 documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story comments on the man’s sheer cynicism.
According to these people, he really didn’t believe in any of his hateful rhetoric. He probably didn’t even believe that he was a racist; only that absolutely anyone or any group could and should be used for his personal aggrandizement. One long-time friend even says that he could just as well have been a Democrat. All he cared for was proximity to power. Ed Rollins, another GOP operative and all-round horrible person, says of Atwater: “Those were the eyes of a killer.”
Remember his dying conversion and very public apologies? In the film, Rollins admits:
Atwater was telling this story about how a Living Bible was what was giving him faith and I said to Mary [Matalin], “I really, sincerely hope that he found peace”.
Matalin is another person carrying a mountain of contradictions. The lifelong reactionary operative who is married to Democratic consultant James Carville responded,
“Ed, when we were cleaning up his things afterwards, the Bible was still wrapped in the cellophane and had never been taken out of the package”, which just told you everything there was. He was spinning right to the end.
Let’s not miss the bigger picture. Are people like Atwater, Matalin and Carville too big a bunch of contradictions to wrap our minds around? Sorry, we don’t get that luxury this time around. Atwater and all the rest of the racist white Blues cats – and all the millions of us white folks who refuse to understand, let alone admit, let alone do something about our privilege – are Americans. Atwater stands in for us all. Yes, his hypocrisy was more extreme, but, as I’ve argued about Donald Trump – Trumpus – he is us. Our work is to understand this basic American story, and to work to reframe it. I conclude my book pondering about it:
Shared suffering is the great gift otherness offers us. We would realize that if we suffered together in a ritual container, democracy would invite a higher (in Christian terms, the Holy Spirit) or deeper (in pagan terms, the spirit of the land) intelligence that could resolve conflict. We would realize that an appropriate metaphor has already arisen out of this land: the spirit of Jazz improvisation. Here is Wynton Marsalis: “… to play Jazz, you’ve got to listen (to each other). The music forces you at all times to address what other people are thinking, and for you to interact with them with empathy…it gives us a glimpse into what America is going to be when it becomes itself.”
Our work is to look into our darkness, identify these multitudes, welcome them, and, as Fred LaMotte writes:
Don’t pretend that earth is not one family.
Don’t pretend we never hung from the same branch.
Don’t pretend we don’t ripen on each other’s breath.
Don’t pretend we didn’t come here to forgive.
Thanks for reading. You might like two other essays of mine on music: