Lee Atwater

In office
1989 – 1991
Preceded by Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr.
Succeeded by Clayton Keith Yeutter

Born February 27, 1951(1951-02-27)
Atlanta, Georgia
Died March 29, 1991
District of Columbia, United States
Political party Republican
Spouse Sally Dunbar Atwater
Children Sarah Lee
Ashley Page
Sally Theodosia
Alma mater Newberry College
University of South Carolina
Profession Political Consultant

Harvey LeRoy "Lee" Atwater (February 27, 1951(1951-02-27) – March 29, 1991) was an American political consultant and strategist to the Republican party. He was an advisor of U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and Chairman of the Republican National Committee.


Atwater was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in Aiken, South Carolina and was the son of an insurance adjuster. His parents, Harvey Dillard and Alma "Toddy" Page Atwater, had three children, Harvey Lee, Ann, and Joe [1]. His childhood was marred with tragedy when his 3-year-old brother, Joe, was scalded to death [2] when he pulled a deep fryer full of hot oil on himself.

Early life and career

In 1970, Atwater graduated from Newberry College, a small private Lutheran institution in Newberry, South Carolina where he was a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.[3] While attending Newberry, Atwater served as Governor of the South Carolina Student Legislature. Atwater earned a Master of Arts in communications from the University of South Carolina in 1977.[4] Atwater married his wife, Sally Dunbar, in 1978 and together they had 3 children, Sara Lee, Ashley Page, and Sally Theodosia.[5]

Atwater rose during the 1970s and the 1980 election in the South Carolina Republican party, working on the campaigns of Governor Carroll Campbell and Senator Strom Thurmond. During his years in South Carolina, Atwater became well known for running hard edged campaigns based on emotional wedge issues.

Atwater's aggressive tactics were first demonstrated during the 1980 congressional campaigns. He was a campaign consultant to Republican incumbent 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 electroconvulsive therapy that Turnipseed underwent as a teenager.[6]

"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."[6]

After the 1980 election Atwater went to Washington and became an aide in the Ronald Reagan administration, working under political director Ed Rollins. In 1984, Rollins managed Reagan's re-election campaign, and Atwater became the campaign's deputy director and political director. Rollins tells several Atwater stories in his 1996 book, Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms. He states that Atwater ran a dirty tricks operation against vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro including publicizing the fact that Ferraro's parents had been indicted of numbers running in the 1940s. Rollins also described Atwater as "ruthless", "Ollie North in civilian clothes", and someone who "just had to drive in one more stake".

During his years in Washington, Atwater became aligned with Vice President Bush, who chose Atwater to run his 1988 presidential campaign.

Atwater on the Southern Strategy

As a member of the Reagan administration in 1981, Atwater gave an anonymous interview to Political Scientist Alexander P. Lamis. Part of this interview was printed in Lamis' 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. Atwater talked about the GOP's Southern Strategy and Ronald Reagan's version of it:

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."[7]

1988 election

Atwater's most noteworthy campaign was the 1988 presidential election, where he served as campaign manager for Republican nominee George H.W. Bush. A particularly aggressive media program included a television advertisement produced by Floyd Brown related to the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison who committed a rape while participating in a weekend furlough strongly supported by then-governor Michael Dukakis but which had been created by the previous Democratic governor (who became a Republican after leaving office). Prison furlough programs had been long established in California during the governorship of Republican Ronald Reagan, prior to 1980, though never for convicted murderers sentenced to life in prison. The Horton campaign undoubtedly helped George H.W. Bush overcome Dukakis's 17-percent lead in early public opinion polls and win both the electoral and popular vote by landslide margins. Although Atwater clearly approved of the use of the Willie Horton issue, the Bush campaign never ran any commercial with Horton's picture, instead running a similar but generic ad. The original commercial was produced by Americans for Bush, an independent group managed by Larry McCarthy, and the Republicans benefited from the coverage it attracted in the national news. In reference to Dukakis, Atwater declared that he would "strip the bark off the little bastard" and "make Willie Horton his running mate."[8] Atwater's challenge was to counter the "where was George" campaign slogan Democrats were using as a rallying cry in an effort to create an impression that Bush was a relatively inexperienced and unaccomplished candidate. Furthermore, Bush had critics in the Republican base who remembered his pro-choice positions in the 1980 primary, and the harder the campaign pursued Dukakis's liberal positions, the bigger his base turnout would be.

During the election, a number of allegations were made in the media about Dukakis's personal life, including the unsubstantiated claim that Dukakis's wife Kitty had burned an American flag to protest the Vietnam War, and that Dukakis himself 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 called him to spread these mental health rumors.

The 1988 Bush campaign overcame a seventeen-point deficit in midsummer polls to win forty states. Atwater's skills in the 1988 election led one biographer to term him "the best campaign manager who ever lived."

During that campaign, future president George W. Bush, son of Vice President George H.W. Bush, took an office across the hall from Atwater's office, 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 George W. and Atwater became friends.

RNC Chairman

After the election, Atwater was named chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Shortly after Atwater took over the RNC, Jim Wright was forced to resign as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and was succeeded by Tom Foley. On the day Foley officially became speaker, the RNC began circulating a memo to Republican Congressmen and state party chairmen called "Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet." The memo compared Foley's voting record with that of openly gay Congressman Barney Frank, with a subtle implication that Foley was himself gay. It had been crafted by RNC communications director Mark Goodin and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. In fact, Gingrich had been trying to get several reporters to print it.[9] The memo was harshly condemned on both sides of the aisle. Republican Senate leader Bob Dole, for instance, said in a speech on the Senate floor, "This is not politics. This is garbage."

Atwater initially defended the memo, calling it "no big deal" and "factually accurate". However, a few days later, he claimed he hadn't approved the memo.[9] Under pressure from President Bush, Atwater fired Goodin, replacing him with B. Jay Cooper.

In 1989, Atwater was appointed as a new member of the Historically black Howard University Board of Trustees. Howard U. gained national attention when students rose up in protest against Atwater's appointment. Student activists disrupted Howard's 122nd anniversary celebrations, and eventually occupied the university's Administration building.[10] Within days, both Atwater and Howard's President, James E. Cheek, resigned.

R&B music

Atwater was also a musician. He briefly played backup guitar for Percy Sledge during the 1960s and frequently played with bluesmen such as B.B. King. Atwater recorded an album with King and others on Curb Records in 1990 entitled Red Hot & Blue.[11] He once sat in with Paul Shaffer and his band on Late Night with David Letterman.

As a teenager in Columbia, South Carolina, Atwater played guitar in a rock band, The Upsetters Revue. His special love was R&B music. Even at the height of his political power he would often play concerts in clubs and church basements, solo or with B.B. King, in the Washington, D.C. area. He released an album called Red, Hot And Blue on Curb Records, featuring Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore, Chuck Jackson, and B.B. King, who got co-billing with Atwater.[11] Robert Hilburn wrote about the album in the April 5, 1990 issue of the Los Angeles Times: "The most entertaining thing about this ensemble salute to spicy Memphis-style '50s and '60s R&B is the way it lets you surprise your friends. Play a selection such as 'Knock on Wood' or 'Bad Boy' for someone without identifying the singer, then watch their eyes bulge when you reveal that it's the controversial national chairman of the Republican Party...Lee Atwater."


On March 5, 1990, Lee Atwater collapsed during a fundraising breakfast on behalf of Senator Phil Gramm.[12] Doctors searching for an explanation to what was initially thought to be a mere fainting episode discovered a grade 3 astrocytoma, an unusually aggressive form of brain cancer, in his right parietal lobe.[13] Atwater underwent interstitial implant radiation, a then-new form of treatment, at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, and received conventional radiation therapy at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. The treatment for the brain tumor left him paralyzed on his left side, robbed him of his tone discrimination, and swelled his face and body (from steroids). He spent the remainder of his life in a wheelchair.

In the months after the severity of his illness became apparent, Atwater said he had converted to Catholicism, through the help of Fr. John Hardon[14] and, in an act of repentance, Atwater issued a number of public and written letters to individuals to whom he had been opposed during his political career. 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."[15]

In a February 1991 article for Life magazine, Atwater wrote:

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.

This article was notable for an apology to Michael Dukakis for the 'naked cruelty' of the 1988 Presidential Election Campaign.


Atwater died on March 29, 1991 of his brain tumor. Funeral services were held at the Trinity Cathedral Church in Atwater's hometown of Columbia. A memorial service was held at the Washington National Cathedral.[8]


Sidney Blumenthal has speculated that, had Atwater lived, he would have run a stronger re-election campaign for Bush than the President's unsuccessful 1992 effort against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.[16]

Atwater's political career is the subject of the feature-length documentary film Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story.

See also

Further reading

  • Lee Atwater and T. Brewster, "Lee Atwater's Last Campaign," Life Magazine, February 1991, p. 67.
  • Tom Turnipseed, "What Lee Atwater Learned and the Lesson for His Protégés," Washington Post, April 16, 1991, p. A19.
  • John Joseph Brady, Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater (1997), ISBN 0-201-62733-7.
  • Alexander P. Lamis (editor), Southern Politics in the 1990s (1999), ISBN 0-8071-2374-9.
  • Alexander P. Lamis, The Two-Party South (1990), ISBN 0-19-506579-4.
  • "American National Biography". Supplement 1, pp. 18–19. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • "The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives". Volume 3, 1991-1993, pp. 37–38. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001.


  1. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CEED91F3DF933A05750C0A967958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
  2. [1], The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater by John Brady
  3. http://www.nndb.com/people/019/000043887/
  4. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CEED91F3DF933A05750C0A967958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=3
  5. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/pcpid/pcpid_2002bios.html
  6. 6.0 6.1 What Lee Atwater learned and the lesson for his protégés, Washington Post, April 16, 1991, Page A19
  7. Lamis, Alexander P. et al. (1990) The Two Party South. Oxford University Press. See also Herbert, Frank (October 6, 2005) "Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant." New York Times.
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Lee Atwater, Master of Tactics For Bush and GOP, Dies at 40.". New York Times. March 30, 1991. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CEED91F3DF933A05750C0A967958260. Retrieved 2008-11-12. "Lee Atwater, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a major architect of George Bush's Presidential election victory in 1988, died this morning at George Washington University Hospital. He was 40 years old. He died after a yearlong fight against a brain tumor that struck him at the peak of his political success and power." 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Carlson, Margaret (1989-06-24). "Getting Nasty". Time. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101890619-152038,00.html. Retrieved 2008-05-28. 
  10. Stanley, Alessandra; Jacob V. Lamar (March 20, 1989). "Saying No to Lee Atwater". Time.com. Time Warner. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,957283,00.html. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Allmusic: Red Hot & Blue: Lee Atwater & Friends Accessed 2008-05-23.
  12. Oreskes, Michael Lee Atwater Dies at 40 New York Times March 31, 1991
  13. Brady, John I'm Still Lee Atwater; Washington Post December 1, 1996
  14. Thomas Aquinas College. In Memoriam: Fr. John Hardon, S.J.. Accessed 2008-05-23. "His converts were many, including Lee Atwater, the feisty chairman of the Republican National Committee, to whom Fr. Hardon gave last sacraments when he was on his death bed with brain cancer in 1990."
  15. Turnipseed, Tom. What Lee Atwater Learned and the Lesson for His Protégés, Washington Post, April 16, 1991. Accessed 2008-05-23.
  16. Sidney Blumenthal article in New Yorker

External links


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