November 1, 2008

Dirty tricks, wedge politics, class warfare. Push polling and playing to racist instincts of voters. All's fair in political battles. If reading those things makes you think of Karl Rove, then you have forgotten the godfather of those tactics: Lee Atwater. Atwater was the originator of the winner-takes-it-all tactics, something that still reverberates today within the Republican Party. Wikipedia:

Harvey Leroy "Lee" Atwater (February 27, 1951 – 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. He was also a political mentor and close friend of Republican strategist Karl Rove. Atwater invented or improved upon many of the techniques of modern electoral politics, including promulgating unflattering rumors and attempting to drive up opponents' "negative" poll numbers with the aggressive use of opposition research. He has been characterized as the "happy hatchet man" and "Darth Vader" of the Republican Party. In spite of criticisms of Atwater's tactics as unethical and dirty tricks, he was widely regarded as a near-brilliant political operative who helped candidates to win.[..]

Atwater rose during the 1970s and the 1980 election in the South Carolina Republican party, working on the campaigns of Governor Carroll Campbell and segregationist 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 allegedly a member of the NAACP.[4] Atwater also highlighted that Turnipseed had been "hooked up to jumper cables" as a teen undergoing electroshock therapy for depression.

In 1990, Atwater was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. On his deathbed, Atwater had a famous epiphany where he renounced and apologized for his toxic contribution to politics:

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


The Emmy-nominated filmmaker Stefan Forbes is here to discuss his new documentary, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, still playing in limited release around the country and available on DVD.

Please join me in welcoming Stefan and learn how the ghost of Atwater still haunts the Republican Party.

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