LETTER FROM THE TRAIL: Atwater’s Ghost

In the middle of the week, a cemetery can often be found completely empty of the living. Those who periodically come to pay their respects to the dead are too busy with their lives to visit those who no longer grace this tired planet. In these moments, the wind seems a touch stronger than it is, and with no human life to witness, the power of death is rendered all the more real.

On the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina, in a well-manicured and deserted Greenlawn Memorial Park, lies the body of one Harvey (Lee) Atwater. What fate has met his soul is of course unknown, but the infamous political assassin was the sort of man for whom even the most ardent atheist could wish a hell. The ghost of Atwater, adopted son of the Palmetto State, danced across the recent Republican primary, as the candidates, recognizing the increased importance of the contest, trotted out countless negative ads and smear tactics on their own party brethren in an attempt to find a viable way to a presidential nomination. Standing over Atwater’s simple grave, considering a legacy devoid of simplicity, one scans over the words on his tombstone.

I do not choose to be a common man.
It is my right to be uncommon.
I prefer the challenges
Of Life to guaranteed security,
The thrill of fulfillment to the
State calm of Utopia
I will never cower before any master
Save my God

It is the creed of the South Carolina Republican Party, and its maxims regarding liberty and freedom define the G.O.P.’s notion of the true citizen of the Republic. For Atwater and his heirs, those same ideals also have provided cover for somewhat less than noble campaign tactics.

Atwater was without question the apotheosis of American Machiavellianism. As a political operative in the 1980s, he gleefully played on the fears of the nation’s white conservatives, helping to guide both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush to election victories. On the heels of the myth of the “Welfare Queen,” designed to portray blacks as lazy leeches living high on the hog off the taxpayer dime, Atwater helped to birth a new Southern strategy, by finding a space for racism in conservative areas still resentful of the civil rights movement. In an interview in 1981, Atwater acknowledged that the field of play had changed.

Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan gets 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…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’s part of it… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than saying “Nigger, nigger.”

While Atwater argued that this was a sign of progress, of a “doing away with the racial problem one way or the other,” he recognized that precisely the opposite was true. It was nothing short of a hideous, devious way of speaking to voters who were struggling to voice their racism, intolerance, and resentment in a world where an overt hate of blacks had become a political liability. It followed that finding a way, through coding and soft language, to articulate such an expression became a political strength.

The unapologetic use of this strategy reached its peak in the 1988 presidential election, when the infamous Willie Horton ad hit televisions across the land, destroying the candidacy of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. A convicted murderer, Horton kidnapped a couple and beat the man and raped the woman while briefly released from prison as part of a weekend furlough program in Massachusetts. The commercial hit white America at its most fearful, and the idea that a Dukakis presidency would lead to dangerous black felons wreaking havoc in its neighborhoods helped to turn an 18-point deficit in the polls to a comfortable victory for Bush. While Atwater and the Bush campaign never ran an ad showing Horton, Atwater helped manage to do what he knew was needed; to “make Horton his [Dukakis’s] running mate.” A recent documentary on Atwater shows Dukakis today, living in a small, humble house in Brookline, drinking vitamin water and still shaking his head.

This time round, a desperate Newt Gingrich, struggling after losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, tipped his cap to Atwater, trotting out his own old-time racial coding to rally the overwhelmingly white, conservative voters of South Carolina. Parading through the state deriding President Obama as the “Food Stamp President,” Gingrich had issued an update on the notion of the Welfare Queen, implying time and again that the poor (read: blacks) were taking advantage of the system, and Obama was only happy to help. He portrayed those on food stamps as addicts who could only be saved by the former Speaker of the House, who would graciously take the time to teach blacks the value of a job and a paycheck. Much was made of whether Gingrich’s discussion of food stamps was indeed racist, and of course it was. This was made clear by that which he didn’t say. If this wasn’t racial coding, Gingrich would have made the issue a populist one, seizing on the opportunity to discuss the widespread use of food stamps by people of all races. If this was an honest criticism, he wouldn’t draw the banal distinction between food stamps and paychecks, as he surely knows that millions of people who use the government aid are in fact employed, but paid so poorly that they desperately need the help. But he didn’t once do that because there was no need to do so. At event after event, the applause that followed this attack drowned out even the possibility for a more complete explanation of the issues of American poverty—which was good, because Gingrich had no intention of seizing that opportunity.

Of course, the product of the use of Atwater’s strategy and tactics goes far beyond simply ratcheting up long-held racial resentment. A generation of political operatives raised on his perverse successes has managed to make a series of nothings, well, somethings. Consider the major issues of the South Carolina primary. Aside from Gingrich’s race-baiting, the campaign and coverage of it was dominated by his request to his second wife for an open marriage, which candidate was more erratic, more desperate, less principled, less conservative, and just what in God’s name was in Mitt Romney’s mysterious tax returns. All of these so-called issues were completely empty of meaning, firmly removed from any discussion about the state of the nation, and the actual ideas of those wishing to be president. The massive amount of time and press consumed by Romney’s taxes is a perfectly tragic example of an attempt at a political assassination that helps to drain the issue of any honest examination. With so much attention paid to the man’s taxes, we move squarely away from his tax plan for the nation, and instead of discussing taxation, we manage to reduce the conversation to the pathetically mundane back and forth about an individual’s filing. It had become more important to talk ad nauseam about Romney’s financial history than the disconcerting fact that as president, the man would trot out the same weary trickle-down, feed-the-rich, coddle-the-job-creators mode of taxation that has played no small part in the dangerous stratification of wealth that has taken place in America over these past decades. How tired one becomes of a body politic predicated on making these nothings into somethings. This is Atwater’s defining legacy, scorching the earth of any valid discourse and reducing our politics to only its worst, realizing its worrying potential for emptiness, callousness.

Thirty years of these vapid politics have helped create a system where this is no longer simply an issue of strategy and tactics, it has become the thing itself. And, while trickle-down economics may not have worked so well, this trickle-down rhetoric forced upon generations of voters has created a citizenry who easily accept that this is in fact what politics is.

In Walterboro, a small rural town in the southeast corner of the state, Newt spoke at a cookout held by the Lowcountry Sportsmen, a local hunting club. Milling through the wide-grinned crowd, the people appeared not quite human, but a bizarre crossbreed of man, sheep, and parrot. His punchlines littered the conversation before he ever said a word, everyone knowing what was coming, everyone happy to hear what they’d already heard. One such person, named B.J., or Breeze, his southern drawl making it impossible to discern, sat at a picnic table, imploring the government to “get the hell out of the way.” A small businessman trying to open a restaurant, he told Newtesque stories of imbecilic government regulations, “they’re even trying to tell me where I have to put my fucking shrubs.” Upon finding out how much a pack of cigarettes cost in New York City, he waded through the crowd, yelling “thirteen dollars!” at anyone within earshot, as though nothing else needed to be said about a greedy, overreaching government. But, going further into conversation with this former professional wrestler, it was clear that the incessant banality that now makes up the political discourse had created a sort of schizophrenia in him. Despite having followed the campaign for over a year, he still wasn’t sure who to vote for. Even worse, although a Republican, he figured that the candidates were “pretty well all pieces of shit.” This presents one of the fundamental dilemmas for the modern conservative. So strong is the disdain for government and so void of substance the process itself, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for him to either like or trust anyone. It is no surprise that a record amount of people have remained undecided for longer than in any election held in recent times. How does one make a decision when there is nothing but nothing upon which to build one’s choice?

It is a commonly held myth that this confusion is a result of the current Republican field being the worst in the party’s history. This is merely treating the symptom as disease. Republican politics itself makes the devolution of the candidate inevitable. As Atwater’s progeny have become embedded in the party and its process, the constant stoking of fears and the consistent personal attacks have eaten away at the credibility of its candidates, and in turn, the candidates actually don’t particularly require credibility to become the nominee. Far more important is money, organization, effective destruction of the other, and an ability to address as little as possible. The campaign is now about only the campaign. Accordingly, mere electability becomes the only major issue, the ability to campaign all that matters. It is not he who is best who will win, but he who runs best that will be awarded the chance to run again.

The Republican Party is a cult of simplicity, an entity built upon facile rhetoric, revisionist history, and American myth. The well-worn crutch of American exceptionalism has created voters who truly believe they are uncommon, and that their hyper-individualism is not only a right but an imperative, no matter how common they may be, no matter how squarely in the masses they are. Left with nothing else to listen to, they cling to those who assure them they are still great, those who claim to believe that if just left alone, the fulfillment of a challenging life will surely follow.

At the young age of 40, a lethal tumor was found in the brain of Lee Atwater. As he limped and twitched his way to an early demise, bloated and slowed by an infusion of steroids, he began the process of confession. Telling a friend that “it’s all bullshit, the truth has nothing to do with it,” Atwater talked with regret of his actions, seemingly fearful of that which he was leaving behind. Whether the repentance was genuine or just a calculated attempt to gain passage to a peaceful afterlife will never be discovered. But the damaging effects of his earthbound legacy were plain to see in his home of South Carolina. If one is seeking an analogy to describe the current incarnation of the Republican Party, one could do worse than a dying Lee Atwater. Its brain consumed with a deadly cancer, its words erratic, their credibility under assault by its own crisis, its body radiated, fattened, atrophied. At the last, the analogy runs dry. For while Lee let out a cry for forgiveness, a plea for heaven, the party and its voters seem to be headed in the opposite direction.

Contributor

Michael Terry

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