The Secret Papers of Lee Atwater, Who Invented the Scurrilous Tactics That Trump NormalizedBreaking News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, Lee Atwater, political campaigns
It’s a Washington axiom that when a power player dies, their influence and secrets do as well. One night this spring, my phone chimed with a text message that showed otherwise. Sally Atwater, the widow of the legendary Republican political operative Lee Atwater, had died. She had been married to the bad boy of the G.O.P. during the Reagan and Bush years until his untimely death, thirty years ago. The Atwaters’ eldest daughter, Sara Lee, who lives in Brussels and is a Democrat, invited me over to her parents’ home to read through cartons of papers from her late father, whom I knew well when I covered the Reagan White House. They included seven chapters of Lee Atwater’s unpublished draft memoir, which had remained untouched since he succumbed to brain cancer, in 1991, at the age of forty, and at the height of his political career.
The house on a quiet street in Northwest Washington was the kind of tidy, brick place that bespeaks proper family life. The scene inside was something else. Its first-floor rooms were filled with a jumble of cardboard and plastic containers, overflowing with manila folders, crammed with everything from the former Republican Party chairman’s elementary-school papers to his dying thoughts, dictated to an assistant during his final days.
Some of the memorabilia was surprising. Despite Atwater’s well-deserved reputation for running racist campaigns, there were friendly private notes and photos of him with Al Sharpton and James Brown, whose onstage acrobatics Atwater was famous for trying to mimic in his own blues-guitar performances. There were also personal notes from underground-film stars of the John Waters era. According to his daughter, Atwater was a huge underground-film aficionado. While the Republican Party he chaired trumpeted family values and the Christian right, on the side he helped a friend open a video store in Virginia specializing in pornography, blaxploitation, and his own favorite genre, horror movies. Atwater experienced horror in his own life early. When he was five, his baby brother died of burns from an overturned vat of hot grease in the family’s kitchen. Atwater’s papers contained no mention of the tragedy, but he said that he heard the sounds of his brother’s screams every day of his life.
Atwater died before he could finish his memoir. What remains of it are hunks of yellowing typewritten pages, held together by rusting staples and paper clips. But the seven surviving chapters suggest that, far from dying along with him, the nihilism, cynicism, and scurrilous tactics that Atwater brought into national politics live on. In many ways, his memoir suggests that Atwater’s tactics were a bridge between the old Republican Party of the Nixon era, when dirty tricks were considered a scandal, and the new Republican Party of Donald Trump, in which lies, racial fearmongering, and winning at any cost have become normalized. Chapter 5 of Atwater’s memoir in particular serves as a Trumpian precursor. In it, Atwater, who worked in the Office of Political Affairs in the Reagan White House, and managed George H. W. Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign before becoming the Republican Party’s chairman at the age of thirty-seven, admits outright that he only cared about winning, not governing. “I’ve always thought running for office is a bunch of bullshit. Being in a office is even more bullshit. It really is bullshit,” he wrote. “I’m proud of the fact that I understand how much BS it is.”
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