Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story
Stefan Forbes & Noland Walker
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE—
Sen. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), Presidential Candidate: —another election with lies and Swift Boat politics—
ANNOUNCER: In the wake of another bitterly fought campaign—
Sen. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ), Presidential Candidate: Do we have to go to the lowest common denominator?
ANNOUNCER: —the story of the man who wrote the book on hard-nosed politics.
VOICE: — Lee Atwater used every conceivable trick—
VOICE: — false rumors—
VOICE: — ruthless—
VOICE: — garbage!
ED ROLLINS, Campaign Manager, Reagan '84: Lee was the one who understood the country.
ANNOUNCER: Republican strategist Lee Atwater ran George Bush's controversial 1988 campaign.
ROGER STONE, Atwater Friend, Republican Operative: The American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance and prison furloughs—
NEWSCASTER: Willie Horton will become a household name.
Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: No more furloughs for people that rape, pillage and plunder!
ERIC ALTERMAN, Journalist, Professor: Race is poison, but it's poison that works for their side.
ANNOUNCER: Atwater hardened American politics—
JOE CONASON, Journalist, Salon.com, The Nation: This political party was turned over to dirty tricks.
ANNOUNCER: —and then at the end of his life asked for forgiveness.
TOM TURNIPSEED, S.C. State Senator '74-'78: Lee Atwater was telling the truth when he said, ``What I done was wrong. It was bad, and bad for the country.''
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story.
Chief Justice WARREN BURGER: I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear—
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear—
Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: —that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States—
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: —preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States—
Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIIST: —so help me God.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: —so help me God.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: You ain't seen nothing yet!
LEE ATWATER: [singing] I'm a bad boy, I'm a long, long way from home, well, I'm a bad boy—
TUCKER ESKEW, Senior Adviser, McCain/Palin '08: Can you understand American politics if you don't understand Lee Atwater? I believe not.
Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: He couldn't teach me rhythm, but he did teach the Democrats to sing the blues, and I believe they're just starting.
HOWARD FINEMAN, Senior Editor, Newsweek: He mattered in American politics because of the man he got elected, because of the party he shaped. He was very important not only to George H. W.'s victory, but to his son's victory.
KARL ROVE, George W. Bush Adviser: Lee Atwater was part myth, part showman, and part political mastermind. He was one of the most unique people I've ever met in my life.
JOE CONASON, Journalist, Salon.com, The Nation: Rove was the protege of Lee Atwater. How do politics really work? How does a presidential election really work? The depths of it deserve to be examined closely.
TUCKER ESKEW: Lee Atwater grew up in a standard Southern-looking white life. He pierced through all that. I'd have loved to have seen this guy operate at the grade school level. I mean, that's where you learn politics.
JOE SLIGH, Friend and Bandmate: He could just get a crowd into a frenzy. We were just a so-so band, but we had Lee. Only guy I knew who could do a split.
BRYANT GUMBEL, NBC Today Co-Host: Just think, if you'd have stayed with the Upsetters Revue, what you could've become.
LEE ATWATER: Yeah, I could have been making $65 a night!
JOE SLIGH: He took this one guy and ran him as president of the school, and nobody'd ever had a campaign manager in high school.
JIM McCABE, Lifelong Friend: And they won, you know? He figured out early on that, ``Maybe I don't want to be the candidate, but the behind-the-scenes guy.''
1970 - The Rebel
LEE ATWATER: Well, I— I've always been anti-establishment. In South Carolina, I just said, ``Well, if these guys are the Democrats, I'm a Republican.''
JIM McCABE: I asked Lee, ``Why did you go the Republican Party, the fuddy-dud country club set?'' Lee said, ``Hey, man, I have a lot better chance at doing something in the Republican Party.''
TUCKER ESKEW: If the Grand Old Party stayed kind of grand and old, it wasn't going to be much of a party. It had to go young. Without that, we would go into the wilderness.
JIM McCABE: The power was just waiting to be wielded, and he was going to wield it.
LEE ATWATER: [1972, Age 21] At Newberry College, where I attend, we signed up over 12,000 supporters for President Nixon, which is a national record at this point.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Isn't it a shame that he didn't decide to become a Democrat because it would have been just as easy for him. He didn't really believe in any of those things. I don't really think Lee gave a [expletive] about policy. He liked politics because he could kick the other guy's ass.
JIM McCABE: Lee built an army of College Republicans all over the state of South Carolina. First he took over South Carolina, and then went national.
STEPHEN RAPER, President, Regent Republicans: The liberal allegation has always been College Republicans only care about the rich, or we're closet fascists, or we're people who hate the human race.
COLLEGE REPUBLICAN: Free book if you sign up for Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week!
STEPHEN RAPER: Lee Atwater showed that you could be a college Republican and be cool, have musical interests. You didn't have to wear a pinstripe suit or a bow tie.
CHRISTOPHER STARK, Chairman, N.J. College Republicans: We are the grass roots force. You know, the liberals may have the unions, but we also have the College Republicans. And we're hit with liberal bias from every single professor, so we know what we believe in. You can't learn these type of things in the classroom. It's tough and it's dirty— or it appears to be dirty. And Karl Rove is a shining example of the work the College Republicans can do.
1973 - History in the Making
JOE CONASON: The 1973 Convention, it really is a seminal moment, in this little out-of-the-way place, with a bunch of College Republicans who at the time seemed the most irrelevant figures in American politics.
ROGER STONE: College Republicans were where I actually first met Atwater. We were in different factions. He was in the Karl Rove faction.
KARL ROVE: I remember one of the greatest weeks of my life, one of the wildest weeks of my life was spent in the company of Lee Atwater in a Ford Pinto.
JOE CONASON: Rove was the protege of Lee Atwater. He'd thought that it was his turn to take over the national College Republicans. The problem was, there was another guy named Robert Edgeworth who was actually the one in line to succeed. They got into a tremendous nationwide battle.
KARL ROVE: This is the big showdown in my race for chairman, and all the bad guys are on the other side. The vote count was evenly split and we were going to lose.
JOE CONASON: It was pretty clear that Edgeworth actually did have more votes. Lee Atwater and Karl Rove use every conceivable trick. Ballots are thrown away unfairly—
ROGER STONE: There's nothing more vicious then a young Republican fight, nothing, nothing.
JOE CONASON: The election was appealed to the Republican National Committee chairman, George Herbert Walker Bush. History in the making. He gave the election to Rove— you know, echoes of, you know, the 2000 election in Florida, where the ballots are disputed and the Supreme Court makes the decision on a very dubious basis. That was a pretty early lesson for Karl Rove from Lee, that you could play the hardest of hardball and get away with it.
[www.pbs.org: More on Atwater and Rove]
LEE ATWATER: I make no bones about who I am, what I am and what I do. If you're on the other team, I am going to try to beat you.
HOWARD FINEMAN, Senior Editor, Newsweek: Lee sometimes reminded me of a wolverine, you know, sort of chewing through the plywood. And he had a vaguely marsupial look about him, always sniffing the air.
TUCKER ESKEW: I've wondered about where Lee's striving came from, what it arose out of. Lee grew up in this brew of racial divides driving the country— the role of the Civil War, the South's rise from the ashes. At its heart, it's about learning lessons of defeat.
HENRY EICHEL, Writer, Charlotte Observer: The South is the only part of the United States ever thoroughly defeated and humiliated in war. It does create a very visceral backlash, and Atwater was adept at tapping into that. It was a backlash against people who think they're better than you are.
ERIC ALTERMAN: It's this cultural resentment that people in the South feel because these liberals, these smart-asses, run everything and we have nothing but contempt for them. Lee's friends said, ``You guys all think we're dumb. You have the same kind of prejudice against us that you accuse us of having against black people.''
TUCKER ESKEW: ``The big boys trying to push us around, trying to remind us how much greater they are— we'll show them.'' Well, Lee had a ``We'll show them'' kind of strain to him that was about as wide as his backbone. Resentment became the destiny of the Republican Party.
Gov. STROM THURMOND (SC), Dixiecrat Party Pres. Candidate: There's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools—
LEE ATWATER: I probably would have never even gotten into politics if it weren't for Strom Thurmond. The personal interest he took in me and my career—
JIM McCABE: Before Strom, he was, you know, ``Where's the next party coming? Let's get drunk tonight.'' Working for Thurmond transformed Lee.
Lee Interns with Sen. Thurmond
CHUCK JACKSON, R&B Artist, Atwater Friend: My grandfather hated Strom Thurmond with a passion, and I grew up with that same hate. And when I met Lee, I knew Lee was connected to him. He's a part of the system that hates us.
TOM TURNIPSEED, S.C. State Senator '74-78: Good ol' Strom, golly, 21 years old, has sex with the 15-year-old daughter of the maid there at his house and produces a child. And to come out and say, ``the blood will run before we integrate'' personifies what we're talking about, you know, the hypocrisy of racism.
ISHMAEL REED, Writer/Media Critic: The South is Afro-Celtic. It's where you find the Celts settled and where the Africans are. This is the place where the same person who's saying, ``Yes, sir'' and ``Yes, ma'am,'' you can go out and get lynch rope the next day. So, I mean, the South is complicated.
The '70s - While the Democrats Slept
TUCKER ESKEW: The South has got the same thing America's got, a complicated history on race. There are reasons to hate things about the South and still love the region and its people. I'm not aware of any Democrat paying attention to what Lee really learned in his early races. They existed up in some elite layer of the clouds that had nothing to do with what moved people to feel. They slept while Lee out-maneuvered them.
Turnipseed Runs for Congress
TOM TURNIPSEED: It was a Congressional race, I was the Democratic nominee. He came out and in kind of an underhanded way, in a sense, he got a reporter to ask him a question about, ``Well, isn't it true that Tom Turnipseed had some kind of psychiatric problem as a kid?'' He was the master at creating little juicy tidbits for the media.
LEE ATWATER: Well, I said that he had been hooked up to jumper cables, in reference to a bout he had had with mental illness in college which had been made public two years before. So I wasn't breaking any new ground.
LEE BANDY, Political Writer, The State, S.C.: That got quoted all over kingdom come down here. Lee Atwater said— accused Tom Turnipseed of being hooked up to jumper cables.
TOM TURNIPSEED: ``Hooked up to jumper cables.'' I'm laughing now, but it ain't funny.
LEE BANDY: Atwater's candidate won.
TUCKER ESKEW, Senior Adviser McCain/Palin '08: It's so much easier to blame dirty tricks than it is to acknowledge hard work. Did he give his opponents ammunition to criticize him for negative tactics? Yes. Does that obscure the fact that he outfoxed them at nearly every turn? Not to those of us watching closely. [laughs]
1978 - Divide & Conquer
Campbell versus Heller
LEE BANDY: Southerners like a good, hard-fought political campaign. He first made a name for himself on a race between Carroll Campbell and a Democrat by the name of Max Heller.
JACK BASS, Author, Journalism Professor: Max Heller had been an immigrant. He was, as a Jewish teenager, escaping Hitler. And he was a popular mayor.
SAM DONALDSON, White House Correspondent '77-88: Lee was one of the first advocates of the push poll. The first few questions are routine. The next question is, ``Well, if you came to believe that Governor X was a pedophile, would that change your opinion?'' Now, the poller hasn't said that Governor X is a pedophile, simply planted the idea that if he were—
JACK BASS: They did a poll which asked, ``Would you vote for a Jew who did not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?'' No, they wouldn't.
LEE BANDY: Lee was accused of recruiting a third party candidate, sort of a redneck-type candidate, who made religion an issue in that race. Said he entered the race on his own, but none of us really believe that.
JACK BASS: He had a press conference and he attacked Max Heller.
DON SPROUSE (I), S.C. Congressional Candidate: I believe in Jesus Christ, I believe he died to save my sins. Mr. Heller does not.
Mayor MAX HELLER (D-SC), Congressional Candidate: Anything you want to know about me?
SHOPKEEPER: I think I've heard quite a bit about you. What do you know about the Lord? I'm a little bit prejudiced towards people in the Lord.
LEE BANDY: Lee Atwater's candidate won. He denied that he recruited this guy, but none of us believed it. Lee Atwater did not leave his fingerprints on his dirty tricks. He liked to take an issue and use it as a wedge— abortion, he would use race. Divide and conquer, that's how Lee Atwater operated.
1980 Primary - Reagan's in Trouble
LEE BANDY: Reagan did poorly in New Hampshire. I don't think Ronald Reagan would have been elected if he had lost the South Carolina primary. It was pivotal. Reagan had to win.
TUCKER ESKEW: The Reagan campaign needs operatives. Lee Atwater wanted to roar into Washington and onto the national political stage. But you got to get people to win big government office.
LEE BANDY: Lee Atwater figured that Connally was their biggest threat here in South Carolina. So Lee leaked a story to me that John Connally was trying to buy the black vote. Well, that story got out, thanks to me, and it probably killed Connally. He spent $10 million for one delegate. Lee saved Ronald Reagan's candidacy. A few years later, Lee laughed about that story. He said, ``Bandy, you got used.'' [laughs]
TOM TURNIPSEED: Anything goes. Tell them what they want to hear. Lie, cheat, steal, make it up— making up stuff. He used to go back in a room, make up these polls. I tell you, he'd come back with a poll in about a half an hour. [laughs]
TUCKER ESKEW: Strom Thurmond wanted to make a call to remind people what all this boy from South Carolina had done. It was in keeping with Lee Atwater's nature to have it be for something as big as getting inside the White House and playing at that level. This was a bigger challenge. This was a bigger prize.
ED ROLLINS, Campaign Manager, Reagan '84: Strom Thurmond was trying to get Lee a job in the White House. And you know, here's this young kid without a real resume. He came into my office. He was fidgety — hands, legs, everything moving — but there was something about his eyes. He had these piercing eyes that— you know, and as I've always thought, those— those are the eyes of a killer. This was someone who was going to get what he wanted.
He said, ``I'll give you 20 hours a day.'' I said to him, ``I don't have a slot for you. I don't have a title for you. You're going to be at the bottom of the rung.'' In 24 hours, he'd figured out how to detail people and confiscate furniture out of other peoples' offices.
JIM McCABE, Lifelong Friend: We'd be out there running around the memorials, and he's just, ``This is where I make my living, the most powerful city in the world.''
1981 - ``Lee Was Scrappin''
ROGER STONE, Atwater Friend, Republican Operative: He was grabbing as much life as he possibly could. Everything that he ate, everything including ice cream, he doused with an enormous amount of hot sauce. He searched the world to find a sauce hotter than the sauce that he had. Tabasco was to him, was for wimps.
ED ROLLINS: I watched him grow up. He was like a little brother, had great energy. No one will ever outwork him. He ate his meals there. He was there seven days a week. Worked for me for a year, one day he comes in, he said, ``I'm bringing up my wife and my child.'' And I said, ``Lee, I didn't even know you were married. You never talked about them.'' He said, ``Well, they're in South Carolina. I'm going to bring them up.''
ROGER STONE: His house was like a Marx Brothers movie. It was just chaotic, one cult movie after another, Zombies From Outer Space. He was always surrounded by an entourage. This is something he and his wife fought about. I don't think they ever had any time alone for themselves and just with their family.
ED ROLLINS: A lot of families suffer in Washington. There's nothing else that's important. If he could have slept on his couch and showered in the White House, he would never have gone home.
ROBERT NOVAK, TV Host, Columnist: I've met a million of them, little political errand boy, very ambitious. A lot of people in Washington are still Ivy Leaguers— feeling that the Snopes family had invaded, that he had gone too far, too fast. In the Reagan administration, they didn't take him seriously. He's a guy on the make, devious, manipulative.
TUCKER ESKEW: That need, that burning need to become something and transform and show them. Lee was scrappin'. What forces will drive this person to new heights or crash them to the greatest depths? He kept learning.
LEE ATWATER: I do not ever remember sitting in a meeting in which someone didn't bring up how such-and-such would play in the press. I think there is a preoccupation, and justifiably so once you understand the nature of power in America today, with how, quote, a story ``plays out'' on television.
ED ROLLINS: Here was this insecure kid who I'm sure every day had that total impostor fear, ``Is Ed Rollins going to fire my ass today? Are they going to find out that I'm really not a Ph.D. candidate? Is someone going to walk in and say, `It's all [expletive] Lee. Get the [expletive] out of here!' '' Anything he had access to, he would always give it to some reporter. Everything was leaked. He was a big source. He knows what they need.
REPORTER: Lee, what are you selling?
LEE ATWATER: Nothing in particular.
ED ROLLINS: National Journal did a profile. And Lee had written that he had a record of 26 and 0. I said, ``Lee, we've not won 26 races in the South since the Civil War. What kind of [expletive] that?'' And he goes, ``It's my record now. It's in The National Journal.'' The media never caught on. He was a very good con man.
SAM DONALDSON: The best political operatives make friends with the press. And it's easy, if you don't watch yourself, to fall into that, particularly if you're dealing with someone that you like personally, because they like you.
LEE ATWATER: Well, I must say, you are a very dapper dresser.
REPORTER: Thank you.
LEE ATWATER: You got the right collar, right tie with the suit, even down to the socks.
REPORTER: Thank you. I appreciate that.
TUCKER ESKEW: [laughs] Oh, man, don't you know when somebody is gaming you?
SAM DONALDSON: An operative never comes and says, ``Here is a story I'd like you to run for me,'' but just in private conversation, ``Did you know this about So-and-So? We're still checking it, mind you, but it's probably going to turn out to be true.'' Well, you don't want to be beaten by your competition and wait until, you know, they announce it. They just put it on the conveyer belt and you just run it out.
LEE ATWATER: And I ain't going to sit here and spin y'all. This is a high quality news conference. [laughter]
HOWARD FINEMAN, Senior Editor, Newsweek: He was an attractive figure to cover because he could wink and nod with the reporters, saying, ``We all know what a phony deal this is, right?'' He used his own cynicism to anesthetize people to what was going on.
JIM McCABE: In college, Lee totally detested sports, except wrestling. His thing was, ``This is the only honest sport out there.'' Everybody knew wrestling was fake.
JOE CONASON, Journalist, Salon.com, The Nation: He may have felt that wrestling was the only honest sport because it was so obviously dishonest. What's there to entertain, what's there to distract is what counts. And actually, things are run on a much more cynical basis by the people at the top.
HOWARD FINEMAN: He was basically saying that politics is phony, the government is phony, that a lot of personal life is phony. And ``phony'' was a big word with him.
1985 - Age 34
NEWSCASTER: There's a bill in the Senate called the Clean Campaign Act of 1985. It's intended to restrict the so-called negative political advertising.
LEE ATWATER: What I think you would wind up doing if this bill passes is polluting the air with these kind of candy-cane type commercials that are ooey and gooey. They are polluting the atmosphere more than anything else.
TUCKER ESKEW: Reagan benefited from having a scrapper to remind even some wavering Republicans what they should fear.
LEE ATWATER: We had a kind of a rating scale of a 1, meaning that this is kind the guy you just go and blatantly intimidate in his district and—
TUCKER ESKEW: The Washington establishment begins to take notice of this Southern-accented, fast-talking knife fighter. Even if you thought he was a rube, you did not take him lightly.
ED ROLLINS: I was appointed assistant to the president. A lot of people told me he wouldn't be loyal to me, told me not to pick him, but I admired his work ethic. I admired where he came from. ``How are we two guys here? My old man a shipyard worker from Vallejo, California, your parents from South Carolina, we're in the big leagues together.'' I made him my deputy. Lee became my protector, my antenna. He was very loyal to me.
I told him very early on, ``Don't you get any pipe dreams here that you're going to take my place because you won't. We're a team.'' But if you looked in his eyes, you knew that this was someone who basically was going to get what he wanted.
When he betrayed me in '84, in the last four weeks of the campaign, he had been involved with a producer for NBC, and so he came in to me one day and he said, ``Would you give them an interview?'' NBC News led that night with the story that Ed Rollins was running a dirty ops operation.
NBC CORRESPONDENT: Our sources, all top Republican staffers, say there is an undercover operation led by campaign director Ed Rollins designed to undermine the more important/Ferraro campaign.
ED ROLLINS: Took me 35 seconds to find out that— you know, he'd brought the producer in. It was his old girlfriend. Lee had put a spear in my back. The day I walked in his office after this thing, he thought I was going to beat the [expletive] out of him. And I told him, I said, ``You ever do anything like this again to me, I'll [expletive] beat the living crap out of you. I'll find your ass and I'll beat the living [expletive] crap out of you.''
LEE ATWATER: [singing] Love is like a game, but it's sharp like a razor blade. Love is like a game—
ED ROLLINS: It was just a two-year effort to destroy me. He wanted to run Bush's campaign. He worked Bush very hard. He said, ``George W. never trusted you, so I kept feeding it.'' He clearly made it that I would never be anywhere in the Bush world.
SAM DONALDSON: Everybody is jockeying for the great man's attention, and let me tell you, those knives flashed brilliantly for a year or so.
ED ROLLINS: I had put so much trust in him. In spite of everyone telling me you couldn't trust him, I trusted him.
HOWARD FINEMAN: What creates somebody who's that cold-blooded are events in his background and his upbringing that leave them with a very bleak, remorseless view of life.
JIM McCABE: He didn't talk about Joe much. His mother, you know, she had a deep fryer I think, and full of hot grease, and the little kid— you know, he pulled on the cord and pulled the thing over and— you know, he didn't talk about Joe much.
JOE SLIGH: The grease on the stove ended up on Joe, and it killed him.
TUCKER ESKEW: Lee said he heard his brother's screams the rest of his life every day. How haunting could that be?
HOWARD FINEMAN: He believed that there was little or no mercy in life. What kind of God produces this?
George H.W. Bush, the good son of the establishment, of tremendous privilege and access to power and money, and here Lee Atwater was, the bad seed of the anti-establishment. I think there were times when he was brutally brought up short by the Bushes, when Lee may have been presumed to have been allowed into the mansion to sip the sherry.
The Bushes never regarded him as anything other than the hired help, and a somewhat untrustworthy member of the hired help. They could always jettison him, if they had to, cut him loose in a second. And Lee was perfectly willing because it gave him entree to the world of power and celebrity that he so craved.
ROGER STONE: Lyndon Johnson would humiliate his aides by having a meeting while he sat on the toilet and defecated. Atwater decided to open his pants and urinate with an Esquire reporter, David Remnick.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Lee complained about this to me because all he was doing was talking to the guy while he was taking a piss. And Remnick wrote it up. And Lee said, ``What was I supposed to do? Say `This piss is off the record?' '' Barbara Bush was very offended by his vulgarity. It almost cost Lee his job running the Bush campaign.
[www.pbs.org: Read the article]
TUCKER ESKEW: He had to overcome the family suspicion. Who was this upstart? He's a kid. So then who arrives in town? George W. Bush. The family liked the fact they had one of their own keeping a close eye on Lee.
KARL ROVE: And Lee responded to that by saying, ``Why don't you come and work with me, work alongside me, in the office next to me, and Let's work together in this campaign.''
TUCKER ESKEW: So he's got a guy there who's lived a lot closer to the earth than some of his relatives. He and Lee hit it off.
GEORGE W. BUSH:  A true test of a good campaign manager is to be able to figure out how to deal with my mother. Would you please welcome a South Carolina cracker, Lee.
MARY MATALIN, Atwater Aide '88: They were a magnifying force. They were both deeply intellectual and well read and—
ROGER STONE: Atwater said he read four books a month. That was [expletive]. He didn't read one book a month. He had Jim Pinkerton read them and tell him what they said. He read, like, the Cliff Notes for four books a month.
LEE ATWATER: And my number one soulmate and a guy who's with me thick and thin, George Bush, Jr.
TUCKER ESKEW: He's got mojo, leader of the next campaign, the eyes of the world upon you. This was an even bigger leap up. It's either going to make them master politicians or it's going to ruin them. It's either going to show their way to victory in the future or show them to the door.
1986 - Trafficking with Terrorists
JOE CONASON, Journalist, Salon.com, The Nation: Iran-Contra must have been perceived by Atwater as a very serious threat, one of the biggest scandals in American history and your guy is in the middle of it. That's a big problem.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: [November 13, 1986] A charge has been made that the United States has shipped weapons to Iran, trafficking with terrorists. Those charges are utterly false.
SAM DONALDSON: It's a lie. It's a lie. I mean, presidents lie.
TERRY McAULIFFE, DNC Chairman 2001-5: We were selling them arms, which was a clear violation of the law. It was the Boland amendment. You just couldn't do it. And Ronald Reagan went on television and went to the American public and said this never occurred. He came out months later and admitted—
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: [March 4, 1987] I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.
TERRY McAULIFFE: ``There were some renegades in the White House.'' He acted like, you know, he didn't know who was working in the White House.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: I didn't know about any diversion of funds to the Contras.
Rep. DICK CHENEY (R), Wyoming: He deserves our support, not Monday morning quarterbacking from people who were not faced with the decisions he had to make.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS (D-MA), Presidential Nominee 1988: You had the president and the vice president lying to the American people and the Congress, documents being shredded in the White House. Terrible violation of American values, American law, you know, everything this country is supposed to stand for.
REPORTER: Vice President Bush, did you know about the Contra aid or not, sir?
JOE CONASON: Bush was really damaged goods because of the sense that he was involved in a cover-up, secretly promoting a war in Nicaragua that a lot of Americans opposed. And just the deviousness of the whole thing raised the most serious possible questions about his integrity and fitness.
ALEXANDER HAIG (R), Sec. of State '81-'82, Presidential Candidate: If you can't answer your friends, what in heaven's name is going to happen next November if you are our standard-bearer and these Democrats get after you on this subject?
LEE ATWATER: People want to get this Iranian situation behind them. They're tired of it. They've got their children to think about. They've got their pocketbooks to think about. Farmers have their crops to think about.
ED ROLLINS: He knew that in all probability, his candidate had been up to his eyeballs in this activity. He'd get knocked out of the game pretty quick. There were a lot of very nervous moments.
DAN RATHER, Anchor, CBS Evening News: [January 24, 1988] You said if you had known this was an arms-for-hostages swap that you would have opposed it. You also said—
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH, Presidential Candidate: Exactly.
DAN RATHER: —you did not know—
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: May I answer that?
DAN RATHER: That wasn't a question, it was a statement.
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: It was a statement, and I'll answer it.
DAN RATHER: Let me ask a question, if I may, first—
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: The president created this program as testified—
SAM DONALDSON: It's very difficult to say that's a lie. You just can't do that for a whole variety of reasons when you're in a television interview and a great mass of people are watching, and they know this. They'll just sit there and lie to you.
DAN RATHER: —that this what leads people to say, quote, ``Either George Bush was irrelevant or he was ineffective.'' He said himself he was out of the loop. Now, let me give you an example. You said ask a question—
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: May I explain out of the loop? No operational role. Go ahead.
MARY MATALIN, Atwater Aide '88: And this is another thing Lee had a particular mastery of is staying on message. Bush was out of the loop. He was out of the loop. There was never any evidence that he was in the loop. They couldn't break that story, so just don't say anything different.
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?
DAN RATHER: Well—
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: Would you like that?
DAN RATHER: Mr. Vice President—
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: I have respect for you, but I don't have respect for what you're doing here tonight.
BRUCE MORTON, CBS News: Sources in other campaigns speculate Bush's strategy may have been to set up Rather, the vice president always planning to go on the attack. CBS News correspondent Terrence Smith asked Bush campaign director Lee Atwater about that today. Atwater laughed and then answered, ``We never talk about how we make sausage.''
CORRESPONDENT: Atwater says he can't relax or take it easy because he's always preparing for a mental sparring match.
LEE ATWATER: You're always in a battle of wits. There's always a bunch of guys out there trying to outsmart you and trying to stick it to you, and your job is to stick it to them first.
1988 Primary - Stick it to Them First
ROGER STONE: The plan was pretty easy— win Iowa and win New Hampshire, and you won't have to worry about Dole.
TUCKER ESKEW: Under the pressure of a campaign and under the hot lights of the television, Bob Dole might be forced to make an error. Lee had the campaign throw things at their campaign to press him.
REPORTER: The Bush campaign said this morning that Senator Dole broke the January 13th truce. The Bush campaign says that, you know—
Sen. BOB DOLE (R-KS), Presidential Candidate: Come on~! We're not going to answer— I'm not going to answer any more questions like this. We don't answer—
HOWARD FINEMAN: Lee put out so many different things, that others were hearing voices everywhere. And he got them off their game by making them angry. He understood that the media beast can only be chewing on one ankle at a time. Make sure the ankle is the other guy's.
Sen. BOB DOLE: You know, this kind of scurrilous, last-minute, desperation tactics— and this is only the first state.
REPORTER: Did you, in fact, spread any false rumors about Elizabeth Dole?
LEE ATWATER: You know better than that.
REPORTER: I don't know.
LEE ATWATER: No, I did not. No, I did not.
REPORTER: Bob Dole says you did.
LEE ATWATER: No, I did not.
JIM McCABE, Lifelong Friend: This always fascinated Lee. He was in a profession, your career could get dashed in a day. You know, that totally intrigued him.
REPORTER: Iowa has turned the Republican race upside-down.
Rep. JACK KEMP (R-NY), Presidential Candidate: It's obvious that George Bush is deeply damaged and Bob has to be considered the front-runner in New Hampshire.
ED ROLLINS: When you [expletive] up in this arena, the spotlight is amplified a thousand times. Washington cheers for two things, the Washington Redskins to win on Sunday, and it cheers for whoever is in power to fail.
New Hampshire Primary
ROGER STONE: Atwater vomited for several days after that. Losing made him physically ill. If they lost New Hampshire, they were done. They were looking into the abyss. I visited him in his hotel room. He was nervous energy. It was snowing so hard outside that Atwater's running in the stairwell of his hotel, up and down, up and down.
REPORTER: Lee Atwater will either solidify his image as the political wonder boy or be known as the man who steered presidential front-runner George Bush into the ground. Reports surfaced that Bush was prepared to fire Atwater if he lost the New Hampshire primary.
LEE ATWATER: Sure, we're concerned. We're out there campaigning day and night. But in the end, George Bush is going to win.
MARY MATALIN: The vice president had to do something that he isn't naturally comfortable with. It's been called, wrongly, negative. It wasn't negative. This is play big or go home.
BUSH CAMPAIGN COMMERCIAL: Bush says he won't raise taxes, period. Dole straddles. He's been on both sides, and you know what that means. Dole actually advised—
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: Read my lips, no new taxes!
ROBERT NOVAK: Dole could not take the no tax increase pledge. It killed him in New Hampshire. Bush was less ethical. Bush took it. He lied. [laughs]
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: I would be remiss if I didn't say how well Lee Atwater, our great chairman, performed. He did a superb job, and it's not just because he's standing here. There's something wonderful about fighting back in life.
REPORTER: What did you have to do to him to turn him into a hit man?
LEE ATWATER: He was not a hit man. What he did during that campaign was discuss issues.
SAM DONALDSON: Bush had won in New Hampshire, and Tom Brokaw on NBC was interviewing the two of them.
TOM BROKAW, Anchor, NBC Nightly News: And Senator Dole, is there anything you'd like to say to the vice president?
Sen. BOB DOLE: Yeah. Stop lying about my record.
SAM DONALDSON: The look on his face and the tone of voice— I interviewed him later about it, and you know, he said, ``I lost my cool and it cost me. You work for two years of your life for something, and it's taken away from you. What are you supposed to say, Gee, heck?''
Sen. BOB DOLE: We're not going to comment. I don't comment on Atwater.
LEE ATWATER: The fact that the vice president got the nomination so overwhelmingly is very indicative of the kind of support he's got in this party.
PRESENTER: [Paramus, N.J.] I'm happy to welcome one half of that winning tandem, the honorable John Bush— George Bush— God!
MARY MATALIN: They thought Bush was a wimp and a wuss, Atwater was a hick and hack.
ROBERT NOVAK: With his big power boat in Maine and his upper-class background, being from Yale, do you think he is really the guy who's going to appeal to the blue-collar workers, the ordinary citizens of America?
LEE ATWATER: Well, but you just named a bunch of things that have nothing to do with issues, and this is going to be a campaign of issues.
ROGER STONE: People scoffed at the Atwater issues. The American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance and prison furloughs— who would buy that? This is so irrelevant.
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: [Portland, Oregon] —and keep this country great.
SHIPYARD WORKER: What about the deficit?
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: The deficit? Let me tell you what about it. I don't think you're paying too little in taxes, I think the government's spending too much.
SHIPYARD WORKERS: Go home, Bush! Go home, Bush! Go home, Bush!
Gov. ANN RICHARDS (D), Texas: [1988 Democratic convention] Poor George. He can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.
Sen. TED KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: [1988 Democratic convention] They're the party that talks tough on drugs but deals softly with drug-running dictators. And George Bush is a dead duck.
Gov. MARIO CUOMO (D), New York: Dukakis wins big everywhere. He's going to win in a landslide. I think he will win in every part of this country.
REPORTER: The governor just came out here and said that Mr. Dukakis is going to win big everywhere.
LEE ATWATER: Well, I'm glad they have that kind of attitude because that leads to the kind of overconfidence and cockiness that's probably the most unhealthy attitude you can have in politics. 'Bye!
REPORTER: Who's going to be V.P.? Wait a minute! One more question. What about the vice presidency? When are we going to find out?
LEE ATWATER: That's a very interesting question. I will contemplate it when I go jogging. See ya, gang.
JOE SLIGH, Friend and Bandmate: Lee's favorite statement was, ``Just play dumb and keep moving.''
GEORGE W. BUSH: The great state of Texas proudly casts all its votes for her favorite son and the best father in America, George Bush.
TUCKER ESKEW: Republicans have often been dismissed as slow, dumb, and it's one of the fundamental reasons why Republicans are successful. Lee loved exaggerating that image and just outfoxing everybody around him.
RICH PETERSON, Atwater Friend, RNC '89-'90: In the South, that's called ``slow-playing 'em.'' Being a slow talker and easygoing, well, a lot of Northerners perceive that as not very bright. Suck them in, you end up running all over them.
HENRY EICHEL, Writer, Charlotte Observer: ``You can run, you can run, tell my big boy Willie Brown, I'm standing at the crossroads, baby, I think I'm sinking down.''
LEE ATWATER: This is a crucial, crucial election. If we lose the presidency this time, we lose it all.
ROBERT NOVAK: It's very hard for any party to win three presidential elections in a row. This was really— should have been a Democratic year. He tried to get me to write about Governor Dukakis having psychiatric problems. It really was a slander. He thought my weakness was that if I could get an exclusive story, I would jump at it and bite at it and not be as careful as I should be. Well, that might be true, but I was careful enough not to get involved in that one.
REPORTER: Do you feel that Michael Dukakis should make his medical records public? Do you think that the American people deserve to know whether he's fit to govern?
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: Look, I'm not going to pick on an invalid.
TERRY McAULIFFE: He got away with those kinds of things because he did it in a sort of jocular way, with his Irish wit. That statement was on the front page of every newspaper in America. Immediately, Michael Dukakis's numbers started to drop.
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: Did you guys meet Lee Atwater, our campaign manager?
LEE ATWATER: Hey, gang. Pipe down. [laughter]
Vice Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: Enough applause. It goes to his head.
ED ROLLINS: No one hires people like Lee Atwater to lose. There are no silver or bronze medals in this game. And it's not about how you win, it's about winning. I'm a former altar boy. This is not a business that recruits altar boys.
SAM DONALDSON, White House Correspondent '77-'88: You do have to be tough to win the presidency. I've been around a lot of them, and you do have to do things that the normal person might shrink from. But that's it— where's the line? Wanting to win makes people do things that they wouldn't consider in a normal sense. They wouldn't hire Lee Atwater. To win, though, that's what it takes.
NEWSCASTER: Earlier this week, Republican senator Steve Symms of Idaho said that he had been told of reports that Kitty Dukakis had burned an American flag during an anti-war demonstration in the '60s.
Sen. STEVE SYMMS (R), Idaho: I said it was an allegation that had been told to me.
REPORTER: But from who, though? Something like that is very important nationally. Who actually said it to you? I mean, at this point, somebody needs some kind of fact.
Sen. STEVE SYMMS: I wouldn't want to disclose the sources.
REPORTER: What about pictures? You mentioned pictures. Have you seen any pictures?
Sen. STEVE SYMMS: No, I have not. I said I hadn't seen them. I've been told by some very responsible people that there are pictures floating around.
KITTY DUKAKIS, Wife of Gov. Michael Dukakis: There couldn't be a photograph because there was never any such incident. It is outrageous. It did not happen. And there is nobody who loves the flag as much as Michael and myself. That flag is a symbol of freedom, a symbol of what this country is all about.
REPORTER: Were you at a demonstration at any time?
KITTY DUKAKIS: Never.
RICH PETERSON, Atwater Friend, RNC '89-'90: When you're back on your heels and you're defending yourself constantly, it kind of looks like you're in the wrong. And therefore, Lee's candidate usually comes out looking like he's in the right.
LEE ATWATER: And what does Dukakis do? Every time he stands up, he attacks George Bush. He's a hypocrite. We all know that. You know it, too. That is reflective of the kind of out-of-touch crowd they are. They probably sat up in Brookline eating Belgian endives and quiche out of a can and figured, ``Well, what we need to do is go attack''—
HENRY EICHEL, Charlotte Observer: Quiche out of a can! [laughs]
LEE ATWATER: Thank you! Thank you!
HENRY EICHEL: See, it works because there's a ring of truth to it. They probably think, you know, Dukakis— they were a bunch of elitists.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS, Dem. Presidential Nominee 1988: Well, obviously, he and the folks around Bush were trying to make me a kind of Northeast liberal who was out of touch, and that kind of a thing. I mean, the irony of this is that, you know, I'm the guy who is the son of Greek immigrants who came over here and lived the American dream. Nothing against Yankee Brahmins, who were here since 1630.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: A nice WASP kid, born in Milton—
LEE ATWATER: And Texans want a Texan for president.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Texans want a Texan as president, not someone from Massachusetts.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Born in Massachusetts, we lived down in, grew up in Connecticut.
ED ROLLINS: Bush could eat pork rinds, but he was a Yalie and he was an elite. And he may have lived in Texas, but people still thought of him from Connecticut. Lee was the one who understood the country.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Don't let them tell you I'm no Texan. Take a look at that. [showing off cowboy boots]
TUCKER ESKEW, Senior Adviser McCain/Palin '08: Lee understood the power of image and how American symbols resonate with a lot of Southerners and a lot of people all over the country. And Democrats to this day scratch their head and can't believe that people vote against their own interests by supporting these Republicans, when in fact, the audacity and arrogance of that is proud patriotism transcends money.
LEE ATWATER: The question I really want to hear him answer is, why in the world did he veto this bill calling for the Pledge of Allegiance to be said in our classrooms? Can you imagine that? Get down here, Dukakis, and answer that question!
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Kids salute the flag every day. It's part of the law. I'm all for it. The question was, could you put teachers in jail who refused to lead the pledge? Supreme Court of the United States said you can't do that.
1st FARMER: What's wrong with the Pledge of Allegiance? It's just showing that you believe and you stand behind your country. I don't think there's nothing wrong with that.
2nd FARMER: Every one of us could stand some more patriotism.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: What I should have done was to make it very clear to Mr. Bush that I wasn't going to let him question my patriotism.
Vice Pres. GEORGE H.W. BUSH: I'm not questioning his patriotism, I'm questioning his judgment.
REPORTER: —really extraordinarily strident, almost, in attacking Mike Dukakis.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I don't think it's strident. I think that— I think that's a mis-adjective. I would say strong.
REPORTER: What's yours?
GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, mine is issue clarification.
3rd FARMER: I don't like them taking my gun.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, obviously, I wasn't taking people's guns away in Texas, although the president's son, now the president, ran around Texas telling them that that's what I was doing.
4th FARMER: If we didn't have any guns here, you know, we might as well be a communist country.
NEWSCASTER: Texas Republicans didn't waste a minute. Five million letters told Texas voters that Michael Dukakis was nothing but a Northeast liberal, and that's a cuss word for a lot of Texans.
KARL ROVE, Bush Campaign Consultant: A liberal is somebody who wants more government, more taxes, more spending, more regulation, and more interference in our lives. And the only thing they want less of is defense, and that's the one thing we want more of.
ROGER STONE: If you let the campaign be about Bush, he probably would have lost. The campaign had to be about the values you project onto Dukakis. It was an early example of the culture war.
ERIC ALTERMAN, Journalist, Professor: The Republican Party has turned into a stealth party that argues on behalf of the common man and gives all the benefits to the wealthiest one tenth of 1 percent. It argues on behalf of certain morality policies, engages in completely different private behavior. He used to describe those anti-abortion forces as the ``extra chromosome group'' and the ones who had a hand coming out of their head, or a third eye, you know. Those were the people who were most devoted people to his cause.
One thing Lee told me, by the way, though, is never, ever, allow yourself to be photographed in a funny hat. [laughs]
SAM DONALDSON: I was there. I know exactly what you're going to show.
BUSH CAMPAIGN COMMERCIAL: Michael Dukakis is opposed to virtually every defense system we developed. He opposed new aircraft carriers. He opposed—
SAM DONALDSON: The tank ad went down his voting record. I remember thinking, ``Now, we've got to check every one of these points.'' I'm not certain we did.
JOE CONASON, Journalist, Salon.com, The Nation: Atwater knew that the Washington press corps is extremely cynical, shallow, superficial in many cases, doesn't want to discuss policy, they're bored by it. What they care about is personalities and a kind of received narrative about how the election is going that they want to dictate. Playing to the cheap seats would always work best.
ROGER STONE: First of all, the Bush campaign wouldn't have put those statistics on the air if they weren't correct. But again, that commercial is more about Dukakis's record.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I was a governor. If there were bills involving national security and defense in Washington, obviously, I wouldn't have voted on those. I never served a day of my life in the Congress of the United States.
GEORGE W. BUSH: One reason Marvin and I, and brother Jeb from the state of Florida, are working so hard is because our dad needs a real job.
TUCKER ESKEW: Now-President Bush was learning a lot about politics. This was a new level of playing field, and he was watching a master in Lee Atwater.
HOWARD FINEMAN, Senior Editor, Newsweek: What George W. saw in Lee was an attitude he might have been afraid to express the first time he ran for Congress. Probably wasn't nearly manipulative and cold-blooded enough. He was probably trying to please his dad, who he somewhat mistakenly thought was a good guy, uncapable of tough politics. George W. was saying, ``Now I see how this has to be done, do the deal, do the deed.''
GEORGE W. BUSH: Sometimes the sons can say something their fathers can't, and that is, we're counting on you because we want you to go out there and kick some of Michael Dukakis and kick it hard. Thank you very much!
Fall '88 - The Powderkeg
JOE CONASON: Atwater had a genius for the sticky issue, simple enough and scary enough that the media could latch on to it.
BUSH CAMPAIGN COMMERCIAL: As governor, Michael Dukakis vetoed mandatory sentences for drug dealers. He vetoed the death penalty. His revolving door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes, like kidnapping and rape, and many are still at large. Now Michael Dukakis says he wants to do for America what he's done for Massachusetts. America can't afford that risk.
ISHMAEL REED, Writer, Media Critic: I was angry. I was, like, very angry because I saw through it right away. I saw the ad where they had these guys coming out of prison, and the black guy was the only one who looked up at the camera. So I said, ``These are diabolical minds behind this thing.''
[www.pbs.org: View the '88 campaign ads]
SAM DONALDSON: That's the guy to be afraid of. This was calculated to emphasize the one African-American here.
TUCKER ESKEW: Race is a powderkeg. It deserves to be, in many ways. And Lee got close to that powderkeg, and you know, setting off sparks nearby.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: This was a piece of literature that was being distributed in a number of states. ``All the murderers and rapists and drug pushers and child molesters in Massachusetts vote for Michael Dukakis.'' I thought it was despicable.
ISHMAEL REED: Then they had the rape victim, this woman, go on tour and talk about in explicit details what happened during the rape. She was raped twice.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: It was a so-called independent committee ad where they simply used Horton's face.
CAMPAIGN COMMERCIAL: One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: The candidate and the people around him deny any responsibility. Anybody who believes that believes in the tooth fairy.
REPORTER: I just wonder whether there isn't a tinge of racism.
LEE ATWATER: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I don't even think many people in South know what race Willie Horton is. I think that's totally irrelevant.
TOM TURNIPSEED, S.C. State Senator '74-'78: I don't believe that. I think he was used primarily because he was black. Like Lee said before he died, you don't call them nigger, nigger, nigger anymore like you did 30 years ago. You know, you got to be more subtle than that. It wasn't very subtle at all to me.
JOE CONASON: Everybody saw how provocative it was, and so it got a tremendous amount of free airtime. Who knows how many times ``hooked up to jumper cables'' got repeated in South Carolina, and who knows how many times Willie Horton's scowling, angry face of a killer was televised absolutely for free.
LEE ATWATER: There's a story about a fellow named Willie Horton—
GEORGE H. W. BUSH: —Willie Horton—
LEE ATWATER: —convicted murderer—
GEORGE H. W. BUSH: —murderer—
1st CAMPAIGN COMMERCIAL: —convicted murderer Willie Horton—
2nd CAMPAIGN COMMERCIAL: —Willie Horton—
LEE ATWATER: —weekend vacation—
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: —the weekend passes—
LEE ATWATER: —convicted murderer—
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: —first degree—
LEE ATWATER: —convicted murderer—
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: —killer, murderer—
LEE ATWATER: They rape people—
REPORTER: —raped his wife—
LEE ATWATER: They maul people—
REPORTER: Willie Horton will become a household name.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: No more furloughs for people that rape, pillage and plunder! Thank you, and God bless.
LESLIE STAHL, 60 Minutes: Do you think the Willie Horton commercial, though, gives hints of racial politics?
LEE ATWATER: I haven't seen the Willie Horton commercial.
LESLIE STAHL: You don't have a Willie Horton commercial on the air?
LEE ATWATER: No.
LESLIE STAHL: A furlough program commercial? You don't have a crime— you don't have an ad on the air about the crime issue?
LEE ATWATER: No.
LESLIE STAHL: So there's no plan in this campaign at all to use the Willie Horton commercial at all to appeal—
LEE ATWATER: Well, there's no Willie Horton commercial. I do think that the criminal furlough program that Dukakis supported, in which convicted murderers were allowed to go on weekend furlough—
ROGER STONE: I went into the headquarters to see Atwater, at his request. He locked the office door, and he popped the famous Willie Horton spot onto a television. He said, ``I got a couple boys going to put a couple million dollars up for this independent.'' And I said, ``That's a huge mistake. You and George Bush will wear that to your grave. It's a racist ad. You're already wining this issue. It's working for you. You're stepping over a line. You're going to regret it.'' And he said, ``Y'all a pussy.''
SAM DONALDSON: I was amazed that the Dukakis camp never seemed to find it in them to forcefully explain that that program in Massachusetts was copied after a popular state whose governor was the first governor to sign a law for weekend prisoner release. That governor's name was Ronald Reagan.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Two of his furloughees went out and murdered people, and he defended the program. But I never said that. Now—
INTERVIEWER: Why not?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I wasn't going to respond. I mean, that was the decision I made. Crazy in retrospect. Crazy.
TERRY McAULIFFE, DNC Chairman 2001-05: If you don't defend yourself and they're doing negative ads against you and you just say, ``Oh, I don't want to play that game, I'm going to be positive,'' you are going to get destroyed.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Race is poison, but it's poison that works for their side. People vote their fears and not their hopes, and Lee understood that.
JOE CONASON: It was bizarre that the Willie Horton case became the focus of the election. The press learned to speak the Republican talking points without even getting them through the fax machine.
BERNARD SHAW, CNN, Debate Moderator: The first question goes to Governor Dukakis. If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?
Gov. MICHAEL DUKAKIS (D-MA), Presidential Nominee: No, I don't, Bernard. And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty all my life—
ISHMAEL REED: The question was so personal. It was totally out of order. And I thought that Bernard Shaw contributed to Dukakis losing that election.
JOE CONASON: W. learned that the only thing that really matters is who wins. Whatever really happened doesn't matter. They create their own reality, as people in this Bush White House later said.
TUCKER ESKEW: He was the first guy I ever heard who said that. It's now kind of rote in politics, but Lee was saying early, ``Perception is reality.'' Lee was ahead of the pack.
ROBERT NOVAK: Republicans tend to be people who don't believe in anything, that just want to win elections. Democrats, I think, have really sincere beliefs. I think they're all wrong, most of them, but they're sincere. [laughs]
ISHMAEL REED: Runs one of the most racist campaigns in history, marketing the wedge between whites and blacks, yet he admired African-American culture. He got up there in blackface.
CHUCK JACKSON, R&B Artist, Atwater Friend: He was a head of the Klan— I mean, this is the way people felt about Lee Atwater. But he truly loved me as a man and as a brother, and he treated everybody else the same way. He loved everybody because he loved the music that we were doing.
JIM McCABE, Lifelong Friend: Lee didn't have a racist bone in his body. Never heard him say the N word. When it came to music and his dancing, you can ask anyone that ever saw him dance or whatever, Lee was a black person in a white body.
HOWARD FINEMAN: That inaugural party was the culmination of Lee Atwater's life. He was the center of attention. He was the star. All the history, all the yearnings all came together on that night. He was dancing as fast as he could. And I didn't know exactly what lay ahead for him.
BRYANT GUMBEL, NBC Today Co-Host: One network called you the architect of the evil campaign. You are proud this morning of the achievement. Are you as proud of the tactics?
LEE ATWATER: If the American people truly thought he was running a negative campaign, they would have reacted negatively. And I think that—
BRYANT GUMBEL: Well, I don't— Lee, in fairness, I'm not sure that's true. I mean, in poll after poll, they did say they didn't like the negative campaign, saying— maybe the lowest turnout in 64 years and faulting people like you.
REPORTER: Was it you who told George Bush you've got to raise fear of black men?
LEE ATWATER: We didn't do that.
TERRY McAULIFFE: He destroyed Michael Dukakis. They love that. They destroyed the Democrat. They all sit around, and you know, toast themselves at their happy hours that they took a man down.
KITTY DUKAKIS: Upsetting. I was angry, a whole bunch of emotional feelings. They were falsehoods. The untruth of all that was very disheartening.
Vice Pres. GEORGE H.W. BUSH, Presidential Nominee: If he can't stand the heat, he oughta get out of the kitchen!
The whole concept of going negative, how much negative campaigning is troubling, but there's a time here when sound political judgment says this kind of negative stuff might work. Did we ever do it? Yeah. Did we feel comfortable about it? No.
SAM DONALDSON: George Herbert Walker Bush has to take the responsibility for his campaign. And he's not a dummy. You couldn't be around Lee Atwater without knowing how he did it.
TERRY McAULIFFE: But you know what? You never saw George Bush I ever ask him to stop. What did they do? They made him chairman of the Republican National Committee.
NEWSCASTER: Lee Atwater looks to become one of the most powerful party chairmen in modern times.
LEE ATWATER: President told me, sitting in his office, ``There's one job that I think you'd be good at, and it's the job I used to have.'' So I'm thinking, ``Wow, CIA.'' [laughter] And by the way, I wouldn't have been bad there!
ROBERT NOVAK: You did not name political operatives as chairman of the Republican National Committee. You just didn't do it.
BRYANT GUMBEL: Is it your intention to try to reshape the party in your image, to your tactics?
LEE ATWATER: Well, actually, I'm really a lovable guy, and I just haven't gotten an opportunity— [laughter]
BRYANT GUMBEL: I wasn't speaking about you personally, I'm talking about your style.
LEE ATWATER: But actually, my political style is lovable.
JOE CONASON: When Atwater became the RNC chairman, this political party was turned over to dirty tricks, the new spirit of kind of ruthless, win-at-any-cost Republicanism.
TUCKER ESKEW: He rose to a position that many of us couldn't have imagined him holding.
JIM McCABE: People would just come running up. I mean, it was like being with a movie star. Lee calls me, ``Come on over to my office. James Brown's here.'' My Lord, royalty!
ANNOUNCER: [``Late Night With David Letterman''] Ladies and gentlemen, please say hello to, on guitar, the national chairman of the Republican Party, Mr. Lee Atwater, the man who brought the blues to the White House, ladies and gentlemen! [applause]
DAVID LETTERMAN: Just take a shot of the band. Find the Republican! [laughter]
TUCKER ESKEW: The fame became kind of all-consuming. He was on an increasingly intense search for the buzz of fame, the hype. Lee got all these things. I felt like he took some satisfaction from it, but not enough to be happy.
CALLER: [CNN ``Larry King Live''] Listen, Lee, along with Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker, you're one of my musical idols!
JOE CONASON: Atwater had perceived, long before anybody else in American politics did, that the biggest threat to Bush was a guy from Arkansas named Bill Clinton. And what he did was bring two important operatives from Arkansas, J.J. Vigneault and Rex Nelson, to the RNC headquarters. Clinton was getting ready to run for another term as governor, and Atwater wanted to put up a candidate named Tommy Robinson, kind of a swaggering, demagogic figure. The idea was to dirty up Clinton, to do enough damage to him with rumors about women and drugs that he would simply be too damaged to run for president.
RICH PETERSEN, RNC '88-'90: Lee recognized the threat of Bill Clinton and the quality of the candidate and tried to take him out of the game as early as possible and was not successful doing that.
[www.pbs.org: The campaign against Clinton]
JOE CONASON: Atwater started transforming politics into a series of tabloid moments in a way that was incredibly powerful for the Republicans.
TUCKER ESKEW: I'd watched politics fought like war under Lee Atwater. I think it's had some bad effects on the country. He'd had to struggle to get everything he'd gotten in his life. He wasn't going to stop.
LEE ATWATER: I ain't changed a bit. I am the same guy I was the day I walked into politics. I'll be the same guy I am the day I walk out of it. I'm proud of who I am and what I am, and I don't disavow anything I've ever done.
ERIC ALTERMAN: There was actually an incident where Lee went to Howard University, because he got on the board, and he told them all the great things he was going to do for them, like organize a blues concert for them. And they didn't have any interest at all. First of all, they listened to hip-hop. Second of all, they were taking him seriously in terms of the political. His purpose was to try to fool black people into thinking that they had a place in the Republican Party.
STUDENT PROTESTERS: [March 1989] Lee's got to go! Lee's got to go~! Get out, Lee!
NEWSCASTER: The students say they won't end their protest until Atwater is removed from the board of trustees.
PROTESTER: We know the Horton ad has America thinking that black men are rapists or murderers.
STUDENT PROTESTERS: [chanting] Atwater snuck in behind our backs. We ain't going to take no stuff like that!
JIM McCABE: If the Howard group had given him a chance, they would have loved him. He got booted out. That hurt Lee.
TUCKER ESKEW: Lee would collapse occasionally, the guy would be so exhausted. When you're at the top of the hill, well, all arrows get fired up, right, and people were gunning for him.
TOM BROKAW, NBC Nightly News: Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater was rushed to a Washington hospital yesterday after fainting during a political speech. Doctors found a small brain tumor. Sources tell NBC News that Atwater will undergo radiation treatment.
LEE ATWATER: I'm very pleased to get back to my wife, Sally. She's going to have a baby next month. And my two little girls. I've missed them tremendously, and— but an experience like this really does a lot for you.
REPORTER: What do the doctors say, Lee?
LEE ATWATER: My problem can be done away with after six weeks of radiation treatment. See you, gang!
REPORTER: What does your shirt say, Lee?
LEE ATWATER: ``Just say Moe.'' [laughter] One of my intellectual heroes. See you, gang. Thank you so much.
MARY MATALIN: It's hard to describe the pain— two little ones and one on the way.
ED ROLLINS: We had a three or four-year period at odds. I'm on the second floor, he's on the fourth floor in the same building. So Mary calls down to me and I go racing up. And he holds my hand and he's just— he's shaking. He's just— he's having a seizure. And so I ride with him to the hospital. And on the way over there, he just said ``You're the only one I can trust. You've got to take care of me.'' He said, ``They're going try and finish me off. Please, please, take care of me.''
All the hatred just sort of goes out, and I said, ``Lee, I promise you I'll take care of you.''
MARY MATALIN: He fought it, and he'd come to work when he shouldn't have. And he was physically debilitated.
LEE ATWATER: Hey, Ben,
WHITE HOUSE GUARD: Morning, Lee. How are you?
LEE ATWATER: Everybody doing all right?
ED ROLLINS: They were trying to figure out how they could get him out as the national chairman. No one cared about him anymore. It had to be extremely painful for him. Everything that matters in Washington is power, and when that power is gone, it's gone.
JIM McCABE: They found a tumor and they literally drilled a hole and dropped radiation to burn the tumor out. There was a lead wall and he was literally radioactive.
JOE SLIGH, Friend & Bandmate: The steroids just blew his face— he looked like the man in the moon. I mean, he was really embarrassed. He really did not want us to see him. Very hard to see somebody that strong be that weak.
TUCKER ESKEW: [reading] ``I recalled Sun Tzu's maxim, `Get inside the head of your enemy.' We'd used that to such effect on Bob Dole in 1988. Now cancer had used it on me.''
HOWARD FINEMAN: Horribly alone, in that lead-lined room, radiation pellets in his head, he couldn't spin his way out of that. The guy who had been so unwilling to really believe in anything other than power began a frantic search for spiritual meaning.
ROGER STONE: You would be waiting in the hall, there'd be rabbis, witch doctors, Buddhists, shamans, these radical Catholic priests. He told all of them he was on board. His theory was, ``If one of these is the true path, I'll be on it.''
TUCKER ESKEW: Lee was confronting some very troubling facts, that in winning, he had hurt people. Fear had been part of his toolkit. That fear came back on him. What was next for him in the afterlife?
ROGER STONE: He was scared to death. He described it as sheer terror.
LEE BANDY: While Lee was growing uglier on the outside, there was a remarkable change inside of him.
CHUCK JACKSON, R&B Artist, Atwater Friend: He said, ``Chuck, I had never read a Bible in my life, and the first thing I wanted was a Bible.'' He told me that. Wow.
LEE BANDY: He came back to South Carolina for one visit.
LEE ATWATER: [singing] Well, I'm a bad boy, as bad as I can be—
LEE BANDY: People just couldn't believe it. That's Lee?
LEE ATWATER: I had money. I had power. I had fame. And I had fortune. Guess what? It meant nothing. It was all— it was all a waste. And in one day, I learned what counts, and that's you all, human relationships—
TOM TURNIPSEED: Here's the letter I received from Lee Atwater. He says, ``My illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood, relationships that I never understood and probably never had.''
And I have every reason to believe that Lee Atwater was telling the truth when he said, ``What I've done was wrong. It was bad and bad for the country.'' Since then, I've written articles about it and hoping that others who want to be like him in politics would realize that Lee finally said, ``We don't want to do this anymore.'' I'm sure he did change when he died, and that's a good thing.
MARY MATALIN: What really disgusted me about Lee's ``deathbed'' pronouncements was that he was purposefully misportrayed. It wasn't about, ``I want to go to heaven,'' or some confessional or something like that. Democrats want to leave— have the legacy of Atwater be that he was some dirty trickster. He was not a dirty trickster. He was a brilliant strategist.
CHUCK JACKSON: If anybody said that this man did not apologize, they lied. I was there when he was on his deathbed. I was there. He told me, ``I have sent out telegrams to everybody that I might have hurt, even to Willie Horton.''
MARY MATALIN: They had to kill the messenger because they couldn't kill the message. They had to turn him into a boogie man, Satan incarnate.
HOWARD FINEMAN: Lee Atwater made himself a figure of demonology to psych out his opponents and to anesthetize people to his tactics. And the sad part, some people would say the justified part, was that the role he made for himself ended up literally imprisoning him.
JIM McCABE: He always had a driver, and we'd just get in the car and ride.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: [reading magazine article] ``In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I would strip the bark off the little bastard and make Willie Horton his running mate. I'm sorry for both statements, the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not.''
LEE BANDY: There was one verse in the Bible that stuck with Lee— ``What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul?'' And that stuck in his craw.
TUCKER ESKEW: Died on Good Friday. He was buried on April Fool's Day, but it was Easter Sunday— in his jogging suit. There's Lee right there, seeking redemption, and yet he goes out thumbing his nose.
Sen. STROM THURMOND (R), South Carolina: [April 1, 1991] He was a kingmaker.
JAMES BAKER, Secretary of State: He referred to himself as Machiavellian, and he was, in the very best sense of that term.
ED ROLLINS: This little guy from South Carolina was being treated like a head of state. I cried and I cried like a baby. The emotion just poured out of me. The tragedy is not the legacy of the greatness, it's the legacy of sort of one of the evildoers of American politics. He wasn't that. He was an insecure kid who got to play in the big leagues and got to the top of the mountain. He showed them. He definitely showed them.
HOWARD FINEMAN: Some people say that he did find spiritual peace. I hope so. But I'm not convinced because his cynicism, his skepticism, was always at war with his desire to believe.
ED ROLLINS: He was telling the story about how the living Bible was what was giving him faith, and I said to Mary, `` I really sincerely hope that he found peace.'' She said, ``Ed, when we were cleaning up his things afterwards, the Bible was still wrapped in the cellophane. It had never been taken out of the package,'' which just sort of told you everything there was. He was spinning right to the end.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: I, William Jefferson Clinton, do solemnly swear—
RICH PETERSON, Atwater Friend, RNC '89-'90: If Lee was alive, Bill Clinton would've never gotten elected. That was really sad to see.
MARY MATALIN: When you have a talent as deep as Atwater's and Rove's, you lose, but you don't lose. Losing a battle is not losing the war, and they don't go away.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: —preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States—
Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIST: —so help me God.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: —so help me God.
Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIST: Congratulations.
HOWARD FINEMAN: To me, the Lee Atwater story is a great story because of its human dimension, not because of politics. It's a story of American yearning and striving to be accepted, to be powerful, to be great, and the personal risks of doing that. Life gets even with you in the end.
BOOGIE MAN: THE LEE ATWATER STORY
Stefan Forbes & Noland Walker
ADDITIONAL SOUND MIX
ASSISTANT ARCHIVAL EDITOR
H. Gerard Fleurima
E. Conor Hagen
Bad Man Walking, Wandering Child,
Thorazine Shuffle written/performed by Gov't Mule,
Cherry Lane Music
Pick Robin Clean
Performed by Elijah Wald
Hard Time Killing Floor
Written by Skip James, Wynwood Music
Written/performed: Lightnin' Hopkins
The P-Man, Rooster Walk
Written/performed: Johnny Hoy & the Bluefish
Move on Up
Written by Curtis Mayfield
Cleveland Clinic Neurology Institute
Fred J. Macdonald
The Washington Times
The Washington Post
US News & World Report
The New York Times
The College Republicans
Alex Gibney, Eva Orner
The Towfiq Family
Kathryn Washington, Claire Aguilar
DIRECTOR OF BROADCAST
ON AIR PROMOTION
Michael H. Amundson
Sandy St. Louis
WEBSITE ASSOCIATE DEVELOPER
WEBSITE RESEARCH ASSISTANTS
DIRECTOR OF NEW MEDIA
Louis Wiley Jr.
An InterPositive Media Production for FRONTLINE
FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH/Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.
INTER POSITIVE MEDIA
WGBH Educational Foundation
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
ANNOUNCER: This report continues on our Web site, where you can watch excerpts from the film again on line, explore more about Atwater's life and legacy, read our interview with producer Stefan Forbes about what it was like to make this documentary and what he learned, and then join the discussion at PBS.org.
Next time on FRONTLINE: He calls Castro a god and George Bush a devil.
— He's convinced George Bush goes to bed thinking of ways to assassinate Hugo Chavez.
ANNOUNCER: To his followers, he is Venezuela's hope. To his critics, he is, at worst, a dictator, and at best, a master of the media.
— He sings. He can be funny. He obeys none of the rules for a public official on television.
ANNOUNCER: The Hugo Chavez Show. Watch FRONTLINE.
Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story is available on DVD. To order, visit Shoppbs.org or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS. [$24.99 & s/h]
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With major funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, helping to build a more just world. And additional funding from the Park Foundation. With additional funding for this program from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Independent Television Service, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by the Lef Foundation and the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media.