Atwater, GOP political operative and mentor of Karl Rove, was a
Machiavellian conman and a purveyor of sleaze. And through the
various political campaigns he ran, he not only won races, but also
destroyed lives in the process.
I was reminded of all of this when I watched the
recent PBS documentary on Atwater called Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. Even in the already distasteful arena of American
politics, Atwater dared to go where few others had ventured. He
started his career as a protégé of Sen. Strom Thurmond, someone
who thrived on white supremacy and the manipulation of the race
card, yet had a Black daughter and concealed his hypocrisy until
Obviously, Atwater learned well from his racist mentor.
The father of the modern dirty tricks school of political campaigning,
Atwater helped claim victory for Congressman (later Governor) Carroll
Campbell by characterizing his Jewish opponent, Max Heller, as someone who “should not be elected because he was not a Christian and did
not '’believe Jesus Christ has come yet.’” In addition, Atwater
was the mastermind of the infamous Willie Horton ad, which was used
for George Bush Sr.’s presidential bid against former Massachusetts
Governor Michael Dukakis. The Horton ad — which played on the narrative
of the menacing Black man who rapes White women, and in this case
was supposedly released from prison by Dukakis— represented the
ultimate in the Southern Strategy, that is, the Republican Party’s
raw, unabashed appeals to White Southerners through the invocation
of white-skin solidarity and fear of Black folk. Appointed to Howard
University’s board of trustees in 1989, then-Republican party chair
Atwater was shown the door by Howard’s students, in a level of protest
not seen on that campus since the Vietnam War. As Time magazine reported:
by his appointment in January to the Howard board of trustees,
more than 200 students seized the school's main administration
building in the most intense burst of campus unrest since the
Viet Nam War. Hundreds of other students demonstrated outside,
chanting slogans and demanding Atwater's resignation from the
board. Four days after the rebellion began, with riot police threatening
to storm the building, Atwater stepped down. In a Washington Post
piece…he complained that the students had distorted his record
on civil rights and failed to recognize the good he could do.
Wrote Atwater: ‘I had a lot to offer Howard.’
appointment to the board was a marriage of convenience. The R.N.C.
chairman wanted better ties with the black community, and Howard
President James Cheek was eager to curry favor with the new Administration….Howard's
students, however, were not so willing to go along. Atwater's
appointment, declared an editorial in Hilltop, the campus newspaper,
undermined ‘the principles this school was founded on.’”
Perhaps Atwater thought his love for Black music
would get him over, but it didn’t. And all those years of destroying
people for political gain, all on the backs of the children of slaves,
caught up with him. He reportedly had his “coming to Jesus” moment
before succumbing to a brain tumor, repented, and apologized to
those he had harmed and defamed along the way. He died on March
29, 1991, his Bible still wrapped in its cellophane.
Atwater died a second time, on November 4, 2008,
with the election of Barack Obama. And the Southern Strategy died
with him. As the party known for little else than “starting wars
and jacking votes,” as comedian David Alan Grier recently noted,
the G.O.P. could no longer depend on racism for their bread and
butter. Try as the McCain-Palin ticket did to stoke the flames
of racial anger and resentment by conjuring up the image of Obama
as the uppity communist Muslim terrorist with a radical Black pastor,
the Southern Strategy made its last stand in national politics.
Obama carried nearly every demographic across race, age, gender
and income, and his opponents soon learned that there was not enough
racism in the country to carry them to victory. They soon learned
that their time-tested strategy had become their albatross.
Now, the Republicans are relegated to the
South — an extremist backwater party of white heterosexual Christian
fundamentalism, cultural intolerance and political irrelevance.
They embrace xenophobia, islamophobia
and homophobia as America becomes a browner, more diverse nation.
They uphold the plutocratic interests of free market capitalism
at a time when the public demands greater government intervention
in the economy, as a check against corporate excess and upward wealth
But hold it, wait a minute: let’s not lull ourselves
into thinking that all is well, and that we have somehow waved a magic wand to bring us into a post-racial America. The election
of the first Black president has sparked over 200 hate-related incidents,
according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And while the president-elect
is African American, Black men are still the most marginalized,
at-risk segment of the population. They are funneled into a cradle-to-prison
pipeline, and while they are overrepresented among the clients of
social service agencies, rarely are they sought for leadership positions
in the nation’s nonprofit organizations.
Nevertheless, recent developments are promising.
Now is the time to look for leadership in new places, and from new
faces. And while we’re at it, perhaps we can reject the Atwaters
of the world who seek to defile the political discourse, detract
from the real issues and divide us from each other. Southern Strategy,
rest in peace, and may we never see you again.
Editorial Board member David
A. Love, JD is a lawyer and journalist based in Philadelphia, and
a contributor to the Progressive Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service,
In These Times and Philadelphia
Independent Media Center.
He contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing,
Detention, and Prisons (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International UK
spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality conference
as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and
served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His
blog is davidalove.com. Click here to contact Mr. Love.