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Lee Atwater

John Simkin

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I saw an interesting documentary about Lee Atwater the other night. It was claimed that Lee Atwater was the inventor of the "negative campaign". He was an American political consultant and strategist to the Republican party and ran the political campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He was also a political mentor of Karl Rove. Atwater invented or improved upon many of the techniques of modern electoral politics, including promulgating unflattering rumors.

Atwater's most important work was as campaign manager for George H.W. Bush in 1988. Atwater ran a smear campaign against Michael Dukakis, who had a 17-percent lead in early public opinion polls. This included the unsubstantiated claim that Dukakis's wife Kitty had burned an American flag to protest against the Vietnam War, and that Dukakis himself had been treated for a mental illness. It is believed that if Dukakis had won the election Bush would have ended up in prison for his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

After the election, Atwater was named chairman of the Republican National Committee. On March 5, 1990, Lee Atwater collapsed during a fundraising breakfast. Doctors discovered that he was suffering from a brain tumor. Afraid of going to hell (he converted to Catholicism while in hospital) he confessed to his sins. He wrote several letters to the people he smeared during political campaigns. For example, he wrote a letter to Tom Turnipseed, a Democratic politician he destroyed with false rumours, about him being a member of the NAACP and that he had been "hooked up to jumper cables" as a teenager undergoing electroshock therapy for depression.

In the letter Atwater said: "It is very important to me that I let you know that out of everything that has happened in my career, one of the low points remains the so-called 'jumper cable' episode... my illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood and relationships that I never understood, and probably never would have. So, from that standpoint, there is some truth and good in everything."

In a February 1991 article for Life Magazine, Atwater wrote:

"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."

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