Sunday, February 08, 2009

Liveblogging: a reading of "Lee Atwater's Last Campaign"

Right now I've got, in my hot little hands, a copy of LIFE magazine from February 1991. Inside of it, there is an article written by Lee Atwater, political adviser to Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush (later to become chairman of the RNC). Two months after this article was published, Atwater would die of a brain tumor.

Atwater was responsible for Dukakis's defeat against Bush I in 1988, when he decided to exploit the fact that Dukakis backed a furlough program in Massachusetts that saw convicted murderer Willie Horton rape and kill while out of prison. Atwater had attack ads run in the hopes of, in his words, "making Willie Horton a household name." Soon, the public was associating Dukakis with Horton. It worked, Bush I won.

So here we have a pretty good idea of the roots of neocon political strategy: exploit middle class fears of blacks and you have an economic foundation for cutting social spending, as well as a tangible target for fear and hate.

The following is an excerpt from Southern Politics in the 1990s :

Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues 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: 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.

This ad that cost Dukakis the presidency, and, in my opinion, paved the way for the future ideologue prince that is Bush II:

Atwater had two high profile disciples: Tucker Eskew and Karl Rove. Eskew has been linked to the McCain/Palin strategy of smearing Obama by accusing him of "palling around with terrorists." I don't even need to get started on Karl Rove.

The rise and fall of this sinister, Machiavellian henchman is nearly operatic in its theatrical element; the LIFE article the only significant account of the man behind the legacy. In his own words, Atwater highlights his accomplishments, as well as the ugly remorse he held with him to his death bed.

And how, I shall read through it and break it down:

9:42: The article begins stretching over two pages, Atwater's massive, bloated face stretches across 1 1/2 pages with the title to the left of his gargatuan head. It appears that Atwater is looking into a sunset, with a crosshatch pattern of dark bars falling against his chin and darkening half of his face. This both brings out his turquoise blue peepers to make him look steely, and suggests that he is in some kind of prison. A prison of the mind, with no furlough in sight, haha!

9:46: His writing begins by talking about his awesome accomplishments before hitting the age of 40: managing a winning presidential campaign, and getting the chairmanship of the RNC. (At this point the reader is supposed to think, "whoa, this dude is so important. I better read about him!")

9:50: Atwater on top of the world, wife is preggers, what a MAN! Successful in every way! What cajones!

9:51: Recounts how he started spasming at a fundraising event and knew something was deeply wrong when he couldn't feel the left side of his body. Ironically, Atwater was trash-talking Dukakis at the time of spasing out, comparing him to "Rocky Squirrel" (whoever the hell that is).

I'm no god-believer, but you'd think the "man upstairs' was trying to tell Atwater something (perhaps something to the effect of, "Stop being evil, asshole! Or I shall punish thee for thy toxic tongue!")

9:55: Medical stuff. You must know the heartache, the intricacies of the doctors' visits, oh the horror! The horror! A "roller coaster of good news and bad news."

9:57: And I quote: "Though I've cried many times during the past year, that day I tried to be strong. 'Never underestimate your enemy,' I said, shaking my head." --wow. Confusing a brain tumor with Democrats. Sorry dude, but no attack ad can squash the grim reaper. *Also note, what a man! Of course he didn't cry when faced with his own mortality. What a man.

10:00: More medical details: decides to do some sort of experimental process whereby tubes or straws or something are inserted into the brain to inject some toxic gunk. Weird. Oh, a Plato quote! What a man of letters!

10:03: ...blah blah...."I had listened to the pundits of traditional Western medicine." --everybody's a pundit!...weird, he saw some Tibetans that told him to eat more herbs. This is why Tibetans aren't considered proper medical doctors in this country.

10:04: He watched movies to make him feel better--a little laugh therapy--oh and he lists them: Redneck Zombies and Hillbillies in a Haunted House are favs.

10:06: Daughter impersonates Oprah and does a mock interview, she is 11. Dan Quail makes a visit and it is surreal.

10:08: Moving back in time now, rant on personal politics. Atwater fancies himself a revolutionary--the 60s and 70s hippie liberal movement somehow didn't speak to him; it offended him.

10:09: Three books of inpsiration: Plato's Republic, Machiavelli's The Prince, and Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Wow, this man is just full of surprsies.

10:12: Third spread of pages now, note, there have been all sorts of pathetic pictures of this man in his hosptial bed all bloated. He likes to wear old school New Balance tennies. Oddly I want to purchase a pair.

10:13: Name-dropping visitors. Mrs. Bush visits him regularly because he is special.

10:15: Rediscovers Jesus. Previously had called himself Christian but never went to church or picked up the bible. I have a hard time conceptualizing a neocon that I am more religious than, but it's true.

10:16: "A group of young black kids came to visit their pal, a gunshot victim, and I talked to them about what is important in life...I felt someone else drawing me into the arena, someone else speaking my words for me..." Whoa. Heavy. This is the only moment in the reading that I am wanting him to have lived. Imagine if he went with this thought and became a civil rights leader or something? What if he used his evil powers for good?

10:19:The remorse is beginning to show. Quotes himself in '80 when launching a campaign against Democrat Tom Turnipseed, who had psychological problems and underwent electroshock therapy: "I'm not going to respond to allegations made by someone who was hooked up to jumper cables." --crap this man was evil. Also, when attacking Dukakis, said that he "would strip the bark off the little bastard" and "make Willie Horton his running mate."

10:22: Revelation: politics and human relationships are separate. Admits that he personally despised politicians he attacked professionally.

10:25: Moment drawing near. Funeral discussions.

10:26: Quoting Sun Tzu's quote about drawing enemies near. Finally realizes that cancer is not the same enemy as a Democrat.

10:27: More specifics about his physical pain and overcoming, blah blah...

10:29: "My illness helped me to see what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood." Talks of going beyond partisan politics. Amazing that it takes facing death to come to this recognition.

10:30: Ooh ooh! Commentary about the gluttony of the '80s, all about "acquiring"'s a quote for the modern times: "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."

10:33: Okay, conclusion time. He now has a "fourth favorite book," has a few mantras about courage, likes to have his driver cruise around Capitol Hill so he can watch all the suits scurry about. Very sad indeed.


Mama said...

At 9:51 you wondered about Rocky Squirrel. Could this be in reference to the one and only Rocky THE Squirrel? And don't forget about his buddy Bullwinkle.

amityb said...

Oh right. Like Rocky and Bullwinkle, just never heard of him referred to in that way. Plus, I was pretty caffeine addled and feeling manic at the time of writing this..but thanks ma!