Lee Atwater, Tough Ex-Head of GOP, Dies


Former Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater, whose political career was shaped by ceaseless combat, lost the last battle of his life Friday to a brain tumor. He was 40 years old and is survived by his wife, Sally, and their three daughters.

“Barbara and I lost a great friend in Lee Atwater,” said President Bush, who chose Atwater to manage his 1988 presidential campaign and then to head the GOP. “The Republican Party will miss his energy, vision and leadership.”

For Harvey Lee Atwater, the pursuit of politics was crowned with victories but clouded by controversy and criticism. Without ever holding public office or even seeking it, he became one of the nation’s most prominent political figures, rising from the back rooms of local politics in his native Columbia, S.C., where he will be buried Monday, to the inner councils of the White House.

Along the way, he left his personal mark on American politics, for better, in the view of Republicans who shared in his success, but for worse, in the view of Democrats who were victims of his slashing style.

“While I didn’t invent ‘negative politics,’ I am among its ardent practitioners,” Atwater once conceded. Looking back on the tactics he pursued in 1988, he said: “Frankly I didn’t care what anyone called me so long as we won.”


But the pain and finality of his affliction caused Atwater to reconsider in the closing months of his life. Atwater told Life magazine, after recalling that in the 1988 campaign he had vowed to “strip the bark” off Democratic standard-bearer Michael S. Dukakis and “make Willie Horton his running mate”: “I am sorry for both statements, the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not.

“Mostly, I am sorry for the way I thought of other people. Like a good general, I treated everyone who wasn’t with me as against me.”

“We obviously were on opposite sides of a tough and negative campaign, but at least he had the courage to apologize,” Dukakis said Friday. “That says a lot for the man. My heart goes out to his family.”

“We should all remember the picture of bravery and regained perspective Lee brought us over these past months,” said Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown, who had the flag at his party’s headquarters lowered to half staff.

Former President Ronald Reagan, in a statement issued Friday, called Atwater “a true patriot” who “never lost the will to fight.”

The GOP had continued to call on Atwater’s combative spirit, even in the closing days of his life. A fund-raising letter sent out over his signature and received this week said: “I’ve never seen any political organization as out of touch--so far off the mainstream--as the liberal Democrats who control legislation.”

In part, Atwater owed his celebrity to his provocative and complex personality. He was intense, steel-willed and infinitely restless. Even when he was seated, his body was always in some form of motion. He talked in bursts and was given to biting rejoinders and harsh language that fostered his reputation as a master of political negativism.

When a political opponent complained that Atwater had spread the word that the opponent had undergone electroshock therapy, Atwater replied disdainfully that he saw no need to respond to someone who once had been “hooked up to jumper cables.”

Winning at politics was the focal point of his life, but he also had a deep fascination with music that emanated from the roots of the nation’s black community. His earliest ambition was to be a jazz musician, and he made an imprint on the Bush presidency by organizing and performing with his electric guitar at a post-inaugural rhythm and blues concert.

The intense public exposure he received often made him uneasy. Yet he craved the spotlight, once posing for a gag photo for Esquire wearing a pair of gym shorts with his sweat pants draped around his ankles.

But Atwater commanded attention on more substantial grounds. His success was a metaphor for the political era in which he thrived and helped to shape, embodying some of the major themes that have defined American politics and particularly the Republican Party that he led.

In the first place, Atwater was a Southerner. His lifetime spanned the transformation of his native region from Democratic bulwark to Republican stronghold in presidential elections. This heritage thrust him into the crucible of racial politics and taught him the strategies that Republicans used to make massive inroads among Southern whites by playing on their resentment of the Democratic-backed drive for integration.

Then, too, Atwater cast himself as spokesman for his own baby boom generation, which he believed held the key to the political future. “We are the most educated, most intelligent generation in the history of any society,” he once proclaimed to a group of fellow baby-boomers.

He believed also that this generation, because of its powerful acquisitive instincts, was bound to be drawn to the GOP, with its emphasis on economic growth and the promotion of affluence.

An additional significant factor in Atwater’s career was that he was a leading example of a new breed of political operator--the consultants who rove the political landscape like the hired guns of the Old West, trading on their acquired skills in the new technology of campaigning.

He was quick to grasp the potential for combining communications and polling techniques to gauge and manipulate voter attitudes. After getting a bachelor’s degree from tiny Newberry College in his home state, he received a master’s in mass communications from the University of South Carolina, then spent years in the political trenches, learning how to use the findings of opinion polls and focus groups to sharpen the point of political commercials and exploit the opportunities to win attention from the media.

He combined this savvy with an infinite capacity for hard work and a lust for victory and, during his first four-year cycle in the business, helped local Republican candidates in South Carolina win 28 elections. He followed that up in 1978 by steering Strom Thurmond’s Senate candidacy to a reelection victory with a whopping 56% of the vote.

Similar successes on behalf of Reagan’s presidential campaigns in 1980 and--after a stint as a White House political aide--in 1984, were enough to persuade then-Vice President Bush to recruit Atwater to lead his own drive for the White House.

Atwater brought to this effort the same clinical insight that had marked his early career. In midsummer of 1988, when polls showed Bush trailing Dukakis, Atwater kept his cool.

“What is important is who has control of the agenda for the last five or seven weeks, who is on offense and who is on the defense,” he said in an interview at the time. “We plan to be on offense.”

Accordingly, Atwater helped to persuade Bush to place heavy emphasis on emotionally laden issues known as “values,” thus fostering the impression that Dukakis was insufficiently patriotic and overly permissive. The most notorious example of this tactic was Bush’s focus on the case of Willie Horton, a convicted killer who committed another brutal crime when on a weekend furlough granted under a prison release program in Massachusetts, the state governed by Dukakis.

Because Horton was black, the episode led to charges of racism against Atwater, which he denied but which he had a hard time living down. Thus, last year, student protests forced him to resign from the board of trustees at Washington’s predominantly black Howard University, a position that he had hoped to use to advance Operation Outreach, the GOP effort to gain black support.

Atwater was in the midst of preparing for the 1990 congressional campaign when the illness that ended his career and his life struck him in March of last year. He suffered a seizure and collapsed when addressing a group of party fund-raisers here. It was his last public appearance.

The brain tumor was found to be inoperable. Atwater underwent intensive radiation treatment for months in an effort to bring the disease under control.

Last January, after being sidelined for months because of his illness, Atwater assumed the title of general chairman of the GOP, and former U.S. Trade Representative Clayton K. Yeutter took over as chairman.

“I really had only two goals in life,” he once said, “to manage a presidential campaign and to be chairman of my party.” Whatever else fate denied him, these prizes could not be taken away.