The proximity between the first hardball dustup of the 2008 campaign (Clinton - Obama - Geffen) and the sixteenth anniversary of Lee Atwater’s death crystallizes something. Former President Bill Clinton is the Democrat’s incarnation of the GOP’s master of smash mouth politics, Lee Atwater. Clinton’s observation that “Your opponent can’t talk when he has your fist in his mouth” could have been uttered by Atwater himself.
In the minds of the Clintons and the Democratic Party, the Republican electoral triumphs of the 1980’s were the result of Atwater’s ability to brawl, as opposed to being the by-product of better ideas and a more widely appealing philosophy.
Harvey Leroy “Lee” Atwater managed George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. Atwater then served as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, until he died at the age of 40 of brain cancer in March 1991.
Strong language and verbal intimidation were Atwater’s suit, just as it appears to be Bill Clinton’s. During the 1988 campaign, Atwater promised to “strip the bark off” of the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.
On the morning talk shows Atwater would ridicule Dukakis campaign manager and then-Harvard Law School Professor Susan Estrich, leaving Estrich either speechless or stammering.
Atwater and Clinton both loved the spotlight, living large and self-aggrandizement. Each man had an ear for music and an eye for human frailties. Atwater was famous for jamming with B.B. King and Rolling Stone Ron Wood. Bill Clinton will be remembered for playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. Atwater dropped his pants for Esquire Magazine. Clinton entertained the question of boxers or briefs on MTV.
Both men were Southerners, and each knew a thing or two about the power of race and politics. Atwater led the Bush campaign attack on Michael Dukakis, as he hammered away at the Massachusetts furlough program and Willie Horton, a convicted murderer and rapist.
In speech given before the 1988 Democratic Convention, Atwater declared that Horton “may end up to be Dukakis’ running mate.”
Clinton played those same cards, albeit with greater aplomb. During his 1992 presidential bid, Clinton, then still Arkansas governor, presided over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, an African American who was convicted of murder. Rector had an IQ of approximately 70 and was on antipsychotic medication at the time of his execution.
Later during the same campaign, Clinton delivered an attack on Sister Souljah at the Rainbow Coalition. Instead of being pummeled by the press as Atwater was, Clinton was lionized by the media. Joe Klein wrote that the Democratic Party “has come to seem craven, weak and untrustworthy in the process.
The only exception to this pathetic tradition was Bill Clinton’s criticism of Sister Souljah’s racist rap lyrics during the 1992 presidential campaign . . . .”
These days, it appears that Hillary Clinton is trying to emulate her husband, if not Atwater. In a speech before a predominately African American church in Selma, Senator Clinton peppered her speech with a Southern drawl — a far cry from her flat Midwest intonation.
Clinton and Atwater were bound by more than regional prejudice or cadence. Both men knew how to ingratiate themselves with men more powerful and wealthier than they. As a student at Georgetown University Clinton interned for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which was then-chaired by Arkansas’s J. William Fulbright. A Fulbright aide, in turn, played a role in Clinton’s avoiding the draft.
As president, Clinton gravitated toward the money and glamour of Hollywood. Indeed, David Geffen’s abandonment and rebuke of the Clintons is a reminder of the symbiosis between the Clintons and the Democratic Party, and the entertainment industry.
Atwater had his own powerful patrons, notably the late South Carolina U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond and former President George H. W. Bush. Thurmond placed Atwater in the Reagan White House. From there Atwater went on to the 1984 Reagan reelection drive, and the 1988 Bush presidential campaign.
Unlike preppy Bush inner circle members James A. Baker, III and Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas Brady, Atwater was decidedly middle class. Yet, Atwater would glow when in the presence of those who had arrived before him. Like Clinton, Atwater always had his nose pressed against the window of Tiffany’s.
Aside from the obvious, there is one big difference between Clinton and Atwater — toughness. Although Atwater would showboat his toughness and Clinton would assume the air of a soulful hound dog, Clinton was tougher.
Bill and Hillary endured impeachment and a senate trial. Through it all Clinton displayed his temper, self pity and petulance. But he never backed down.
Atwater was different. After the 1988 campaign Atwater was tapped for the Board of Trustees of Howard University, a leading Black College. Student protest and editorial outrage ensued. Atwater resigned.
Lee, please rest in peace. And Bill, remember, you’re still at bat.
The author, an attorney, served in the campaigns of former President Bush, working with Mr. Atwater and his deputies as Research Counsel at the 1988 campaign.
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