This is the grave of [spit] Lee Atwater.
Unfortunately born in 1951 in Atlanta, possibly one of the worst moments in the history of the early Cold War for the United States, Atwater grew up in Aiken, South Carolina. His upbringing seems fairly unremarkable, just your standard white supremacy of the civil rights era. His mother taught school and his father was an insurance adjuster. His brother died as a young child when he pulled over a vat of hot oil on himself. I’m not going to say it was the wrong Atwater because who knows what the kid would have become. But still. He went to Newberry College, where he was involved in that school’s white political machine. He then got a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina
From the time he was a young man, Atwater’s mission was to make the Republican Party the White Man’s Party of the South and pull all those historic Democrats to the Republicans. That he was working in South Carolina thus required the worst kind of race-baiting. Luckily for Atwater, he was a stone racist so that was pretty easy for him to do. He worked for such stalwarts as Strom Thurmond and Carroll Campbell, making them even more racist than they already were.
Atwater’s music makes me sick. Not so much the style itself. The guy was a pretty good blues guitar player. But that someone would steal from Black music while opposing basic rights for Black people is just too much for me to handle. Hell, the asshole even played in Percy Sledge’s band as a backing guitarist when he was a teenager. And yet, because he became rich and powerful, when he recorded an album, could he pay B.B. King and Carla Thomas enough to give it authentic legitimacy. Oh yeah. And I don’t blame King or Thomas or the other real blues musicians for this; people need a paycheck. But still. I actually hate him more for his music than I would if he had just been a racist political operative.
Atwater first rose into national prominence in 1980, when he ran the Senate reelection campaign for Floyd Spence against the ridiculously named Democrat, Tom Turnipseed. He was already mastering his tricks. He sent out fake messages to voters that Turnipseed was a member of the NAACP. He got Thurmond to write out that a Turnipseed election would hand the nation over the communists. He also spread rumors that Turnipseed was a psychiatric patient who had undergone electroshock therapy. None of this was true. It didn’t matter–not to Spence, not to Thurmond, not to Ronald Reagan, and most certainly not to Lee Atwater, who only saw his star rise.
In fact, Atwater was fully compensated for his work in South Carolina. Ed Rollins brought him to Washington as an aide. Rollins loved the young guy. Why? Because he had no morals at all. He played a big role in Reagan’s reelection campaign in 84, dropping all sorts of lies and half-truths about Mondale and Ferraro. Rollins later remembered him as “Ollie North in civilian clothes.” This is the level of scumbag we are talking about here.
At Atwater’s core, such as a man with no morals has a core, was how to make the Republican Party the White Man’s Party. This is after all the fundamental transformation in American politics over the past half-century. For all the talk about everything else, nothing tops this point. The Democratic Party was the White Man’s Party. Then came a period of transition between the 1960s and early 1990s. And now the Republican Party is fully the White Man’s Party. No one did more to accomplish this than Lee Atwater. He didn’t even hide it. This came out in the 1981 interview Atwater gave to the political scientist Alexander Lamis, although it was not published until after Atwater was dead. This is the original quote, with none of the racist language hidden (in case trigger warnings are desired here):
Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now you don’t have to do that. All that you need to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues that 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: 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.
But hey, little Maddie and Connor just deserve the best schools and I am by no means racist by sending them to schools that just happen to primarily white. Also, what about my property values?
This was the kind of coded, or not so coded, language that Atwater made his own and in doing so, he tapped into the fears and anxieties of whites around the country over a changing nation. One can see his fingerprints all over the Critical Race Theory freakout, even though he’s been dead for 30 years. This was an issue made for Lee Atwater. And his acolytes learned well from Master Lee.
By 1988, George Bush, Reasonable Moderate (TM), needed a campaign manager. Who better to turn to than Lee Atwater. One thing that just kills me about the nostalgia for someone like Bush upon his death is that he himself did so much to make this nation a worse place and much of that was about Lee Atwater. The Willie Horton ad was all Atwater, pure racism at its finest without using any of the old words. Dukakis had done nothing wrong here, but it was 1988 and white Americans were in full racial backlash, where they mostly remain today. Atwater was there to rock and roll with it. He used his other tricks too. He lied and claimed that Kitty Dukakis had burned an American flag during the Vietnam War and that Dukakis had undergone counseling for a mental illness. Robert Novak, a terrible human being himself, later said that Atwater personally pressured him to spread these lies, but even he wouldn’t go that far.
After Bush’s victory, Atwater became the new head of the Republican National Committee. This is a good time to remind everyone that there is nothing special about Donald Trump. The party elites had ginned up racism for their own ends for decades. It helped that they were racist themselves. All Trump represented was the rubes taking control over the party and running it like a rube would. The fact that someone like Atwater could rise in power based on racism and lies to the point of heading the RNC should tell everyone that the moral cancer that is the Republican Party is by no means anything new. And on the day Tom Foley became Speaker of the House, the RNC dropped a memo suggesting that Foley was gay and maybe even lovers with Barney Frank. Even Bob Dole decried this from the Senate floor, and who knew more about dirty politics than Dole! Atwater defended the memo, calling it “factually accurate” but later had to fire his underling who had put it together. What’s more, in a sign of just how cowardly people can be when faced with power, Howard University actually named Atwater to its Board of Trustees in 1989!!!!! This led to massive student protests and the resignation of both Atwater and Howard’s president.
Atwater’s next goal was to take out Bill Clinton. He saw Clinton as a rising star, the biggest threat to Bush’s reelection. So he worked with Tommy Robinson in 1990 to run against Clinton’s reelection as governor.
However, not only did Robinson lose the primary, but Atwater came down with brain cancer in 1990. I don’t usually wish horrible cancers on anyway. However, if anyone deserves an exception to this rule, it was definitely Lee Atwater, who did more damage to this nation in his 40 years than all but the most evil individuals in American history did over lives twice as long. That this was discovered after he had a seizure during a fundraising breakfast for Phil Gramm is somewhat fitting. We all know that disease is not connected to justice, but you can imagine God finally saying, OK enough of this guy.
As he realized he was going to die, Atwater tried to atone for his many sins. He converted to Catholicism for one thing. He began a public campaign to rehabilitate himself. He wrote personally to Tom Turnipseed, apologizing. He wrote for Life magazine about how horrible he was and how much his illness had taught him about humanity, apologizing to Mike Dukakis in that article too.
I don’t care. Fuck you buddy. In fact, I hate Atwater even more for all of this. In the end, not only was he a racist and fascist, but he didn’t even have the courage of his convictions. Certainly no one in the Republican Party took any of this as anything but the worries of a dying man. They stole every play in Atwater’s book and haven’t looked back 30 years later.
There are lots of people to blame for what America has become. But there may well not be a single person who deserves more blame than Lee Atwater. May he be suffering in Hell.
Atwater died in 1991, at the age of 40.
Lee Atwater is buried in Greenlawn Memorial Park, Columbia, South Carolina.
This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. This was a big part of the reason why I chose South Carolina for my January trip. If you would like this series to visit others of the monsters who ruined this country, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Unfortunately, a lot of them are still alive. But some of them are dead and available for a good visit. In fact, I am off for my first flight in over a year next week to four very Trump states in order to collect more horrible human beings for this series. I’m not going to tell you which states, but you will be satisfied. Anyway, in terms of the more recent scumbags, G. Gordon Liddy is in Poughkeepsie, New York and Rush Limbaugh is in St. Louis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.