Since all mainstream media outlets are currently authoring saccharine hagiographies of former President George H.W. Bush, this is a good time to look back at the man he chose to run his 1988 presidential campaign: Lee Atwater.
Atwater is sometimes credited with creating the infamous Willie Horton ad, whose basic message was that if Michael Dukakis were elected president, violent black felons would ride roughshod over the country. Although Atwater wasn’t behind the anti-Dukakis ad as some believe, he did promise to “make Willie Horton his running mate.” The ad was true to Atwater’s understanding of how Republicans could win white votes in a post-Civil Rights era world.
After signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said that it would cost the Democrats the South for a long time. He was right, and that prophecy is still being fulfilled thanks in part to the Southern Strategy pioneered by some Republican operatives in the late 1960s. The idea was to appeal to the racism of white Southerners, but in a way that’s not overtly racist.
Atwater was one practitioner of this strategy. As a campaign consultant for a Republican House candidate in South Carolina in 1980, he successfully railroaded his Democratic opponent by reminding voters of his support for the NAACP (while also making his childhood treatment for depression a campaign issue). In a 1981 interview, Atwater described the Southern Strategy this way:
“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, 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. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”
(You can listen to the whole interview here.)
What we have here is a very stark explanation, an admission really, of how a campaign can be made about race by not actually mentioning race. Instead, talk about cutting social programs that just happen to help a lot of black people. Talk about welfare queens in neighborhoods that just happen to be predominantly black. Talk about states’ rights in states with histories of oppressing groups of people who just happen to be black.
It was an effective strategy then, and it still is very much an effective strategy now.
After the 1980 election, Atwater joined the new Reagan administration as an aide and in 1984 served as Reagan’s deputy campaign director. Immediately following the president’s reelection, Atwater joined the lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly to represent dictators, big tobacco, and other bottom feeders. (And yes, that’s Manafort as in Paul and Stone as in Roger because of course it is.)
So that, in very brief, is the guy George H.W. Bush tapped to be his presidential campaign manager for the 1988 election, which he won handily after the Horton ad fiasco and after Atwater may have floated rumors about Michael Dukakis having a mental illness. After the election, Atwater became chair of the Republican National Committee, where he circulated rumors that Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley was gay.
Atwater died in 1991 from a brain tumor at the age of 40. Before passing he converted to Roman Catholicism and sought forgiveness from those he’d wronged, including Dukakis for his “naked cruelty.” On death’s door, Atwater felt the need to atone for who he’d been. And who he’d been was exactly the man George H.W. Bush wanted.