Lee Atwater’s Secret Papers
07 May 21
An infamous Republican political operative’s unpublished memoir shows how the Party came to embrace lies, racial fearmongering, and winning at any cost.
t’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 They included seven chapters of Lee Atwater’s unpublished draft memoir, which had remained untouched since he succumbed to brain cancer, in 1991, at the age of forty, and at the height of his political career.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.”
In the nineteen-eighties, Atwater became infamous for his effective use of smears. Probably his best-known one was tying Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, Bush’s Democratic Presidential opponent in 1988, to Willie Horton, a Black convict who went on a crime spree after getting paroled in the state. A menacing ad featuring Horton was a blatant attempt to stir fear among white voters that Dukakis would be soft on crime. At the very end of his life, Atwater publicly apologized to Dukakis for it. But Atwater’s draft memoir makes clear that he had already mastered the dark political arts as a teen-ager. In fact, it seems that practically everything Atwater learned about politics he learned in high school. It’s easy to see the future of the Republican Party in the anti-intellectual dirty tricks of his school days.
Born in Atlanta, Atwater grew up in a middle-class white family in South Carolina. His father worked in insurance, and his mother was a teacher. But from the start, Atwater was an ambitious and charismatic rebel, or, as he put it, a “hell-raiser.” While secretly gorging on history and literature—Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was one of his favorite books—he went out of his way to seem unstudious at school. He sneered at the top grade-getters and student-government leaders. His aim, he wrote, was to be seen as too smart and too cool to care. In high school, the only office he sought was to be voted the “wittiest.” To that end, he tried every day to do something funny. “If it wasn’t funny, it at least screwed somebody up. Every damn day, I’d screw people up. And that’s fun and funny. And I pulled a lot of shit.” Over time, he organized a group of about a hundred students to disrupt the school at his command. When speakers came to assembly, Atwater would signal his followers to rise in unison and turn their backs for a few seconds, or cross their legs in synchronized motions, or break out in wild applause. But Atwater was cunning. He writes that there was a “secret to screwing everything up” successfully. He always “understood the line” that he needed to stay within in order not to get caught. The No. 1 lesson was to be “so subtle that they can’t nab you for anything.”
Atwater could be amusing. As he rose in American politics, candidates and reporters alike were drawn to his subversive sense of humor, despite themselves. But throughout his life he displayed more than a tinge of amorality. In his memoir, Atwater describes, without remorse, falsely accusing another student of instigating a fight that he had started, and remaining silent after the student was paddled twenty-five times. “I didn’t tell the truth worth a shit,” he admits. He describes organizing six hundred and fifty students to spew spit wads at a female official who, he writes, hadn’t “been screwed in 20 years.” The best moment, in his view, was when a fellow-student threw a glass of ice at her, “and it really hurt her which was the funny part.”
The first presidential campaign that Atwater managed was a bid to get a friend of his elected as student-body president—against the friend’s wishes. He created a list of false accomplishments and devised a fake rating system that ranked his friend first. He plastered the school with posters declaring his friend’s platform of false promises of “Free Beer on Tap in the Cafeteria—Free Dates—Free Girls.” The campaign took a darker turn when Atwater’s sidekicks stomped on the bare feet of a hippie-like student until his feet bled profusely. Afterward, the group threatened to do the same to younger students unless they voted for Atwater’s candidate. Atwater recalls that he privately revelled in the tactics, and was proud that he could participate in “intimidating” his fellow-students. But publicly he feigned concern, or, as he writes, “I was acting like Eddie Haskell saying, ‘My gosh young people, you could be next.’ ” His candidate won an upset victory, but the school declared it void owing to a technicality. “I learned a lot,” he writes. “I learned how to organize . . . and I learned how to polarize.”
Although Atwater’s adult professional rise was meteoric, toward the end of his life his double game of paying homage to Black cultural leaders while milking racism for political gain caught up with him. His appointment to the board of trustees at Howard University, in Washington, shortly after Bush won the White House, provoked an uproar on campus. The student newspaper at the prestigious and historically Black university denounced him, and the students occupied an administration building in protest. In his papers, Atwater complains that Jesse Jackson duped him, writing, “If there’s anybody on the political scene who’s done me dirty, it’s Jesse Jackson.” Atwater writes that Jackson talked him into resigning from Howard’s board with a promise to lionize Atwater for doing so. Instead, the day after Atwater agreed to resign, Jackson went to Howard and “just kicked my guts out.” Sara Lee Atwater, who loved her father but not his politics, finds it somewhat fitting that as racial politics evolved, “The trickster got tricked.”
In the final months of his life, when it was clear that he wouldn’t recover, Atwater lamented the dirty, divisive campaigns he’d run, and apologized far and wide for them. His memoir calls on politicians to instead follow the Golden Rule. Roger Stone, who formed an early consulting and lobbying firm in the Washington area with Atwater, along with Paul Manafort and Charles Black, remains unconvinced about Atwater’s spiritual awakening. “Lee was a great storyteller,” Stone told me in a recent interview. “But, in the end, he was just grasping at straws. The Atwater family disagrees and has no doubt that he became a Christian. But at that point he was also Buddhist, Hindu, and everything else.”
Stone, of course, has had his own checkered track record in Republican politics, including a 2019 conviction for lying, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice, during the Mueller investigation—all of which Trump pardoned. In Stone’s view, however, Atwater was more of an opportunist. “We both knew he believed in nothing,” Stone told me. “Above all, he was incredibly competitive. But I had the feeling that he sold his soul to the devil, and the devil took it.”
Among the bits of memorabilia that Atwater kept was a rejection letter from the admissions office at the University of South Carolina. Having been contemptuous of grade-grubbing, his high-school transcript by his own admission was far from distinguished. But, a half century later, Atwater’s personal papers have had more luck. According to his daughter, the university has offered to find room for his memoir and other records in its archives. The Republican Party, however, doesn’t need to study Atwater’s lessons. It’s still using his playboo