On second thought, I DO have something to say about Atwater…

After I had a good night’s sleep, I thought of something I wanted to say about the Lee Atwater documentary I saw last night.

Last night I posted something sort of neutral and didn’t offer an opinion about Atwater, probably because it just seems so long ago, and the man’s dead, and since I don’t have anything good to say about him, why say it? Unlike Kathleen Parker, I do not share the philosophy of Alice Roosevelt Longworth (someone my grandma, who grew up in Washington during that period, used to talk about a lot; one gathers Alice was sort of the Paris Hilton of her day, in the sense of being a constant subject of media attention), summarized as "If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me."

That sort of attitude appalls me. Folks who think I’m just mean as hell to the likes of Mark Sanford, or Jim Hodges before him, just don’t understand how hard I have to be pushed to be that critical. Like Billy Jack, I try; I really try. But when I get pushed too far…

Anyway, a column in the WSJ this morning — by that paper’s House Liberal, Thomas Frank — said something (in a different context) that made me think of the Atwater movie:

In our own time, a cheap cynicism has been so fully assimilated by the
governing class that the disenchantment is already there, incorporated
into the orthodoxy itself. What distinguished the late conservative
era, after all, was its caustic attitude toward the state and its loud
expressions of disgust with the media….

And indeed, that was Atwater’s contribution to American politics — cynicism of the cheapest, tawdriest, most transparent sort. The sort that brings out the Pollyanna idealist in me, that makes me want to say, "Have a little faith in people." Or in God, better yet. Or in something good and fine and worthwhile. Atwater embodied, without apology — in fact, he boasted about it — the dragging of our public life, our great legacy from our Founders (do you hear the fife in the background yet?), down to the level of professional wrestling.

He made politics — already often an ugly pursuit — uglier, as ugly as he could make it and get away with it, and reveled in doing so.

Oh, and before you Democrats get on a high horse and shake your heads at Atwater as "the Other," check the beams in your own eyes. It was fitting that one of the people in the movie who defended Atwater was Mary Matalin. And it’s no coincidence that she is married to James Carville. Nor is it a coincidence that Carville — check the picture — looks like Gollum. All those years of cynicism ("It’s the economy, stupid") have done that to him as surely as carrying the "precious" did it to Smeagol.

It’s that "Oh, grow up! This is the way the game is played, so get over it" attitude that makes politics so appalling today. (I like what this writer said about Carville-Matalin: "For the love of God, please stop enabling them.") Both parties have thoroughly embraced the Atwater ethic — or perhaps I should say, nonethic.

Good news, though: Obama just may be the cure for what ails us, since so many voted for him as an antidote to all that — especially those young folks who flocked to his banner. Time to ask what we can do for our country, rather than merely sneering at it, as Atwater did.

(Oh, and before Randy says, "Why don’t you condemn McCain for his horrible, negative campaign," I should say that you know I’m not going to do that. McCain disappointed me by not running the kind of campaign he could and should have run, emphasizing his own sterling record as an anti-partisan figure. But he didn’t disappoint me enough not to endorse him, so get over it. Everything is relative. I could, as you know, condemn Obama for tying McCain to Bush, which was deeply and profoundly offensive to me given its patent falsehood, and all that McCain had suffered at the hands of Bush. That was a cynical and offensive ploy to win an election, and it worked. But I prefer not to dwell on that, and instead to dwell upon the facets of Obama’s character that inspire us to hope for something better. Those facets are real — just as the virtues of McCain were real — and we owe it to the country to embrace them, to reinforce them, to do all we can to promote the kind of politics that lifted Obama above the hyperpartisanship of Carville and the Clintons.)

Anyway, that’s what I thought of this morning to say about Atwater.

25 thoughts on “On second thought, I DO have something to say about Atwater…

  1. Doug Ross

    You blew it with your shout out to Randy on McCain.
    It was clear from day one that there wasn’t a single thing McCain could have done that would have caused you to revise your opinion of him. Those of us who supported McCain in 2000 could see the difference.
    Hypocrisy is hypocrisy no matter how much you like the guy… it’s not a case of everything being relative. Call it denial, call it hero worship, call it turning a blind eye — just don’t try to call it “relative”. You set the bar lower and lower and McCain kept crawling under it. That’s why he lost. People didn’t like McCain 2008. He was everything he claimed to despise in politics.

  2. Brad Warthen

    No, he wasn’t.
    As you see, we’re at an impasse. We can agree on one thing, though: “There wasn’t a single thing McCain could have done that would have caused” me to revise my opinion. You’re absolutely right. I don’t form my opinions on the basis of single things. My impressions are formed cumulatively. With Obama, I formed a good impression over a number of months. With McCain, I formed it over the course of decades.
    Now, can we move forward with applauding the many positive characteristics of Barack Obama? That’s what I’m trying to do here.

  3. beetrave

    Your problem is that you subscribe to the Great Man theory of politics. Let’s ask a serious question you tend to avoid:
    Q: Who was McCain going to have run the gummint agencies if he won?
    A: The only people available from the Republican ranks: a bunch of hacks raised on the Atwater-Rove-Dubya view of politics. You know, people who care more about a candidate’s view on abortion than their professional qualifications, people who snort blow & canoodle with the folks they’re supposed to regulate, and then turn around and call their critics out-of-touch elitists.
    That’s why a McCain presidency would have looked a lot like a Bush presidency, despite McCain’s best efforts. The Republican Party has been drinking from a poisoned well for twenty years, and it’s going to take more than a little time for principled conservatives to sort things out.
    (BTW, my favorite part of “Boogie Man” is the way it showed how our current president was so close to Atwater. Very telling.)

  4. bud

    How about this “single thing”, Sarah Palin. Look at this shocking story about what a truly horrible mother she is. And this was McCain’s hand-picked choice to succeed himself upon his death. Shocking, simply shocking. From the E & P Pub:
    Alaska’s Worst Family?
    The Palins hit a new low, allowing 7-year-old Piper to do brief Today show interview. She’s even asked about 2012. And guess what? She admits she missed “a lot” of school being exploited on the campaign trail and that it is “really hard” to catch up now. Let’s hope she makes out better than oldest brother (high school dropout) and oldest sister (pregnant in 11th grade, boyfriend also high school dropout).

  5. Brad Warthen

    Ah, jeez, not another lecture about the problems with the Great Man theory of politics?
    The widespread rejection of the Great Man approach to history is the reason why my children didn’t learn the fundamentals of U.S. history in school. They read about slaves, and Chinese workers who built the railroads, and how we mistreated the Indians, and so forth, but didn’t learn what the white guy big shots were doing during all that. Consequently, for instance, my daughter who is now a lawyer didn’t learn things about the Constitution that I learned as an undergraduate until she went to law school. (My point: By all means learn about Sally Hemings — but learn about Thomas Jefferson first, so that you’ll have some context about the society in which she lived.)
    But to turn that argument on its head: You’re proposing that McCain was merely another cog in a mass movement of history. But do you not think that Barack Obama is something more than just another liberal Democrat, that he is as Colin Powell suggested, a “transformational” figure, which is a fancy, polysyllabic way of saying, a Great Man?
    I thing so. But then, I think in outmoded ways. I’m unembarrassed by subscribing to Great Man theory.

  6. Brad Warthen

    Oh, and just to bring us full-circle: Lee Atwater was the opposite of a Great Man. He was the kind of man who sought to drag all men, great and small, through the same sewage.

  7. Brad Warthen

    bud and I just passed each other.
    You’re right, Palin was a “single thing.” A pretty significant single thing — sufficient for many to vote against McCain (although polls indicate that the majority of people for whom she was a factor SUPPORTED the ticket) — but not sufficient for me.
    For me, Sarah Palin wasn’t this awful thing. What she was was a missed opportunity to do a great thing — choose Joe Lieberman.
    And that’s where McCain failed — he failed to boldly run on his actual “Maverickness,” rather than just talk about it. If he’d picked Joe, he wouldn’t necessarily have won, but many of us would have felt a lot better about the ticket. Not the far right, who preferred Palin. And not the far left, which HATES Joe. But the rest of us would have had something to celebrate, win or lose. As it is, those of us who believe in McCain are left to mourn the missed opportunity to play to his strength, rather than wasting energy trying to shore up his weakness.

  8. beetrave

    “But to turn that argument on its head: You’re proposing that McCain was merely another cog in a mass movement of history. But do you not think that Barack Obama is something more than just another liberal Democrat, that he is as Colin Powell suggested, a ‘transformational’ figure, which is a fancy, polysyllabic way of saying, a Great Man?”
    No, I don’t think Obama himself is a transformational figure: but he is “great” in the sense that Ronald Reagan was great, because he and his team have managed to bring a disaffected part of the electorate together with more moderate voters to shift — however temporarily — the direction of the country. Hillary and other centrist Democrats could have done much of the same work if they hadn’t gone along with our “sivilizing” mission in Iraq and tried to marginalize everyone opposed to the war as a far-left whack job. (My relatives in rural Illinois, who are not exactly a bunch of rabid lefties, saw the Iraq war as totally misguided. Who were they supposed to vote for in 2004?)
    Also: I don’t think McCain is a cog in a mass movement. He’s the last of a dying breed of conservatives who take the work of governing seriously. (I admired him, in fact, for saying that he didn’t know much about economics. I trust leaders who know their shortcomings and will find the right people to help them out. We could use more of that on our City Council.) Nonetheless, it’s naive to argue that McCain somehow could have rooted out all the Monica Goodlings, Great-Job-Brownies, and Triple Canopy types from the gummint & its subsidiaries after eight years of the current administration.

  9. Brad Warthen

    For my part, I never thought there was anything great about Reagan, but I get why other people think there was.
    And I think that Obama IS, all by his lonesome, a transformational figure, and if he is not yet great, he certainly has the potential to be.
    Individual people do matter. They do change things. Some more than most.

  10. Don H. Doyle

    You write that both parties have embraced the Lee Atwater philosophy; have they? I haven’t seen national Democratic campaigns trying to arouse racial fears or indulge in character assasination against the opposing candidate. I’m not aware of Democratic presidential campaigns that have employed push polling, an Atwater tactic. Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II embraced Atwater and his tactics. Who is the counterpart to Lee Atwater in the opposing Democratic campaigns? It is a common device to say, the other guys are doing it too, but it is not substantiated in your comments and for good reason; it cannot be.

  11. Phillip

    Don, excellent points. Brad correctly identifies folks like Carville as practitioners of a kind of cynical politics-as-a-game, but as you point out, Don, there was no Democratic corollary to the GOP Southern strategy, which relied on Atwater’s and later Rove’s tactics as indispensable ingredients.
    I think when we look back at the 2008 election many years hence, we will identify that as the point at which the GOP went to that well one time too often, resulting in its solid rejection and the end of the “southern strategy.”
    I’m hopeful that we’ll also identify that as the time when the Republican party reinvented itself and shed itself of most vestiges of the Atwater/Rove legacy, making the Republican party appealing again to those who favor a greater role for free markets, a lighter hand for government, a strong national defense, but have a hard time with all the social-issues baggage and race-baiting.
    Have both parties engaged in divisive rhetoric? Yes. Have both parties employed some misleading or cynical rhetoric in their campaigns? Yes.
    Have both major parties “thoroughly embraced the Atwater ethic?” Absolutely not. To say otherwise is to completely misunderstand the very specific nature of Atwater’s legacy, and the whole direction of national elections in the period after LBJ pushed through the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights legislation in the 1960’s. To live in South Carolina and not “get” that is puzzling.

  12. Brad Warthen

    So the Democrats haven’t used the Southern Strategy. Well, duh. When the parties chose up sides back in the 60s, the Republicans got most of the white people, and the Democrats got pretty much all of the black people. So guess which set of jerks is going to appeal to white racism? You’re going to try to tell me the other set of jerks is more virtuous because they DON’T, because, to the contrary, they can make more political hay out of making the Republicans out to be white racists than by being similarly racist themselves? Come on!
    You know, there was a time when I, too, thought the Republicans had cornered the market on mean and nasty. Chalk it up to my being a newspaperman, and all that venom that the right liked to aim our way. But then a number of things happened. A watershed year for me, as far as having the scales fall from my eyes about our innocent little doves on the left, was 1998. Two things happened that year: We said that if the president of the United States lied under oath, and then shook his finger at the American people self-righteously and lied to all of us for several months, he ought to resign. Not that he should be removed from office forcibly (we agreed both with the House’s impeachment and the Senate’s decision not to convict), but that he should have the decency to resign.
    That same year, a guy we had always liked ran for governor. He was a guy we had agreed with about a lot of things. For instance, he had fought the idea of a state lottery for all the right reasons — the fact that it would exploit the poor, the fact that states that had lotteries always ended up spending LESS on education, not more, and so forth. But, influenced by a stunningly unprincipled campaign manager (one who would eventually appall many Democrats who dealt with him as well as Republicans), he decided to make instituting a state lottery the very centerpiece of his campaign. So we opposed his candidacy strongly.
    The vitriol we experienced from Democrats that year, over Bill Clinton and Jim Hodges, rivaled anything we had ever heard before from Republicans. And at that point it occurred to me that the reasons Democrats had seemed nicer was that they had ASSUMED WE WERE ON THEIR SIDE. Once they decided that was not the case, they were just as mean and nasty as the Spiro Agnews of the world. Sorry; I’m not going to give them medals for not being racist. Mean and nasty is mean and nasty.
    I’ve paid attention since then, and done so without any personal feeling of fondness for either side, and as a result, I’ve seen that each side demonizes the other with equal vehemence.
    It’s critically important that someone — or a lot of someones — take bold steps to end that vicious cycle. I have hopes that Obama — with the help of lots of idealistic people he brought into the system, people untainted by the old scores and resentments — can do so, and I’ll be cheering for him to do so, every step of the way.
    He can rise above the partisanship. But don’t try to snow me for a second that the party that HE is personally rising above has any sort of corner on virtue or good intentions. It does not.

  13. Phillip

    You missed my point. I would never claim (and did not do so above) that the Democratic party as an institution “has any sort of corner on virtue or good intentions.” Of course not. (And don’t forget it was the Democrats in the south who institutionalized Jim Crow racism.)
    And you’re right, nobody deserves medals for NOT being racist. But being racist deserves a special place, somewhere. I don’t believe in heaven or hell so I leave that to the theologians.
    Mean and nasty is one thing. Mean and nasty and exacerbating racial divides is another. To say that Atwater and his disciples perpetrated a singular, unparalleled disservice to their country does not correlate to their political opponents always being angels or incapable of divisiveness or demagoguery on occasion. I thought I made that perfectly clear.
    Race is a special case, though. The history of race relations in America is our holocaust. The Republican party will benefit more from leaving their 1968-2008 era behind than the Democratic party will.

  14. Lee Muller

    Atwater got his start by running Al Gore’s ads using Willie Horton.
    Atwater was reviled by the Democrat media, who choose to ignore that it was Al Gore who created that ad campaign against Dukakis, and that it worked because it was true.
    The truth in Atwater’s ads is what made the most effective.

  15. Phillip

    Actually, Brad, the most interesting part of your comment just above was “when the parties chose up sides back in the 60’s.” Well the two parties have existed in opposition going back a century before that. On most issues they would naturally tend to disagree of course but there was no reason why civil rights (or the more insidious aspects of exploiting race relations) had to be an area where they would inevitably have to “choose up sides.” That was a deliberate political calculation. Sure, both parties make deliberate political calculations but also governments, whether GOP or Dem, have also made the right moral choice. When you hitch your political calculations to the exacerbation of racial division, that’s a special category, because of the special history of race relations this country owns.

  16. Steve Gordy

    It’s disconcerting to be reminded of the fact that, even in this great country, politics runs along at multiple levels. The “conservative era” in American politics got underway around 1964; while Barry Goldwater, Bush 41 and Bush 43 were not racists (in my view), they always had people working for them who were willing to demagogue the racial issue (Atwater being the most recent example on a nationwide basis). Rove supplanted this with appeals to conservative cultural resentment (as well as the Democrats’ unique ability to pick weak standard-bearers), but the racial undertone has never gone away; it’s been buried under other layers of resentment, and may still be useful, not only in the old Confederacy.

  17. Lee Muller

    Obama just got through running a racial campaign, pandering to blacks as victims of white villains, where he avoided discussing the issues, hid his agenda, lied about his political record and affiliations, and the medial swooned over having “the first black president”, especially a Democrat like themselves.

  18. Don H. Doyle

    James Carville may be a tough political operative, but the reference to his slogan “it’s the economy stupid” represents exactly the opposite strategy from that of Lee Atwater. Carville did not focus on GH Bush’s personal life, including his alleged extra marital affairs. He focused instead on the economy, and that is what people responded to in 1992.
    Regarding Mary Matlin, in Boogie Man she was denying that Atwater felt remorse on his deathbed and asked forgiveness for the vicious political and personal race-baiting attacks he had made against others. She was still celebrating his achievements and his anything to win philosophy. Atwater did express remorse, in writing, but his spirit lives on in people like Matlin. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign demonstrated you can win by appealing to the American people’s better angels. Let’s hope that spirit prevails.

  19. Lee Muller

    I get tired of hearing blanket accusations against Republicans for ‘race-baiting attacks’ which never name these supposed episodes.
    When they do, it usually has nothing to do with race. The Obama campaign tried to spin every criticism of Obama’s platform and beliefs into a “racial smear”, even the Bill Ayers scandal.
    I see far more racist tactics coming out of the Democratic Party.

  20. Brad Warthen

    Yes, his spirit lives on in her — and in her husband. Once I can get people to recognize that, I’ll be ready to have our first UnParty convention…
    And “It’s the economy, stupid,” is basically the same thing as Reagan’s “Are you better off than you were four years ago.” It’s cynical as hell, an appeal to voters’ cupidity, and therefore right up Atwater’s alley.

  21. Lee Muller

    President Bush made the surge in Iraq a success and took away Obama’s main populist plank of surrender.
    Democrats knew that very they had to reveal the powder keg of mortgage fraud which they had created with mandates for banks to make bad loans to blacks and illegal Mexicans, so they quickly ginned up a financial crisis, then pretended to solve it with $700 Billion in extra deficit spending, and blamed it on the GOP.

  22. Phillip

    Though it sort of leaked out to become part of the election phraseology of 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid” was only an internal message from Carville to the Clinton campaign. It was on a sign displayed in the Clinton campaign headquarters in Little Rock and was not intended as a slogan for public consumption. Simply a reminder to stay focused on what was for Clinton his strongest argument against Bush in that year. It was no more cynical than had McCain had a similar sign at his campaign headquarters saying “it’s experience, stupid.” Any campaign, from any point on the political spectrum, wants to emphasize its strongest arguments and de-emphasize its weaker ones.

  23. Don H. Doyle

    Re Carville’s reminder to focus on the economy, that is exactly my point: they wanted to make the campaign about important issues, not Bill Clinton’s or George Bush’s personal life.
    McCain may have wanted to focus his campaign on experience, but the Rove-Atwater operatives who ran his campaign wanted to take the low road, and they did. I was in Virginia for the election and nearly every McCain ad dealt with Ayers or Wright or socialism. None were very effective it seems, nor was Libby Dole’s Atwater like attack on her opponent as “godless” in NC. Maybe a new Democratic Southern Strategy will be to get voters to think about real issues, instead of racial fears, guns, God, gays. It may elevate all of us and restore some integrity to the political process. Wouldn’t that be a change in the right direction?

  24. Lee Muller

    Since the media was covering up the Marxism of Barack Obama, it fell upon the GOP to educate the voters.
    It is not negative campaigning to inform the voters that Obama’s posing as a moderate, and promising conservative tax breaks, does not square with his 20 years of Marxist activities and communist advisors like Ayers, Klonsky, Dorn, Ickes, and others.
    Obama lied, just as Bill Clinton lied.
    Obama is already breaking his promises, by appointing 31 Clinton staffers, and inviting lobbyists to join him.


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