Originally created 03/31/97

Making of a spin doctor



Lee Atwater.

The name is still an anathema to many Democrats, especially in South Carolina.

The former Aiken resident developed a national reputation as a crafty political consultant and dirty trickster who perfected the art of negative campaigning and "mean" politics before his death of brain cancer in 1991.

But, the "real" Harvey LeRoy "Lee" Atwater was more than a spin doctor. He was a Southern boy who stuck close to his roots. And, he was a force in the rise of media politics nationally and in the growth of the Republican Party into a dominant force in the South.

That's the crux of a new biography by Boston journalist John Brady. The book, Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater, is published by Addison-Wesley and is available in hardcover for $23.

Mr. Brady said he decided to write the book after his daughter asked him during the 1992 campaign about Mr. Atwater.

While trying to answer his daughter's question, he found that much of what had been written and said about the man was incorrect or part of Mr. Atwater's own re-creation of his image, Mr. Brady said.

"Although Lee Atwater is mentioned in numerous books about Southern politics and the Reagan and Bush years, there is much that the press missed or got wrong," he said. "The man was always spinning, ever the maelstrom of conservatism and controversy."

The book portrays Mr. Atwater as a man obsessed with winning at all costs and as a doer with a flamboyant and, often, shocking touch - a view many friends and opponents share.

Mr. Atwater was a man of many passions - barbecue, low-down blues, women, Tabasco sauce, politics and, in his last years, Jesus.

Born three weeks early in 1951, he was a relatively unremarkable child. He was hyperactive - always demanding attention - and a poor student.

His family was in his own words, "the middle of the middle class."

But, one moment as a child haunted him for the rest of his life. When he was 6 he saw his 3-year-old brother die as a result of severe burns after an accident involving a deep fryer.

Aaout the same time, he got his first taste of politics while living in Aiken. He met Sen. Strom Thurmond while trick-or-treating in 1957. The senator gave him a Snickers bar.

"That was the best thing I got that year," Mr. Atwater said years later.

That began a lifelong admiration for Mr. Thurmond, for whom Mr. Atwater worked as an intern and later as a campaign consultant in 1978.

Mr. Atwater had a distinctive perspective on the state when he started his own consulting business right out of Newberry College. He had lived in Aiken, Charleston, Spartanburg and Columbia as a child and young adult, which he said gave him insight into all areas of South Carolina.

Mr. Atwater didn't really cut his teeth on campaigns until he met former Gov. Carroll Campbell.}

After working for Gen. William Westmoreland Jr. in an unsuccessful run for governor, Mr. Atwater, then 21, joined Carroll Campbell's campaign for lieutenant governor in 1974.

The fiery Mr. Atwater, who was a lowly statistician, showed sparks of greatness - namely the ability to keep in touch with common people, fellow campaign workers said.

"The most important thing he had was an intensity and an exceedingly creative mind," said Aiken attorney Elmer Hatcher, who worked with Mr. Atwater on the Campbell campaign.

"He was a genius at keeping up with thoughts of the working-class people," Mr. Hatcher said. "Most of the people who do this kind of political stuff are incapable of thinking like the common man. He liked to go to places and talk to people."

Mr. Atwater was not afraid to frequent blue-collar bars, wrestling matches and county fairs - anywhere he could talk to people about politics without telling them who he was, Mr. Hatcher said.

Mr. Campbell lost the race, but Mr. Atwater gained valuable experience that helped him mastermind winning media campaigns for Mr. Campbell in 1976, a tight Senate race for Mr. Thurmond two years later and eventually a winning presidential campaign as George Bush's chief campaign consultant in 1988.

It also gave him a resume he could later embellish in creating his legend.

Throughout his career, Mr. Atwater was also a showman of sorts.

As a teen-ager, he liked the "big gamble" - often taking money from other students in silly bets he would set up as a means to gain attention.

As a consultant, he loved to brag about the dirty tricks he pulled on opposing candidates and went for the "shock" factor when describing opponents.

One of his more infamous statements came in 1980, when he was working for U.S. Rep. Floyd Spence: He joked that Democrat Tom Turnipseed had been "hooked up to jumper cables" as a teen-ager.

Mr. Turnipseed had openly discussed receiving shock therapy as a young adult to combat severe fits of depressions.

Years later, Mr. Turnipseed still remembers what he considers Mr. Atwater's callousness.

"When I worked for George Wallace, I practiced the politics of hatred and divisiveness," he said. "But I don't think I did it with the same impish delight he seemed to have."

However, one of Mr. Atwater's negative campaign tactics haunted him until the end of his life.

In 1988, he used convicted rapist and murderer Willie Horton to derail then-Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis's campaign for president.

A year earlier, Mr. Horton broke into the Maryland home of Clifford Barnes while out of Massachusetts state prison on a weekend furlough. He pistol-whipped and cut Mr. Barnes 23 times. He then raped Mr. Barnes's fiancee Angela Miller twice while Mr. Barnes, who was tied up, listened helplessly.

Mr. Atwater used Mr. Horton in a series of commercials and speeches to attack Mr. Dukakis as a liberal. He said at the time that he wanted to make Mr. Horton the Democrat's "running mate."

After the election, Democrats accused Mr. Atwater of being a racist and using race as a wedge issue in the campaign. They said Mr. Atwater used Mr. Horton, who is black, to scare white voters into supporting Mr. Bush.

Mr. Turnipseed described it: "He was up against the Devil. It's not good for politics to win at all costs. To burn the village down."

Mr. Atwater denied the charges, but was never able to escape them.

Late in life, Mr. Atwater tried to make amends.

He had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 1990 while serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Before his death, he rejected many of the tactics he had used and called the 1980s a decade of decadence. Along the way, he became a born-again Christian.

As Mr. Brady writes, "Lee Atwater's most memorable creation was Lee Atwater."