The Magazine

WHO HEARS A HORTON?

Lee Atwater and the Rise of the Celebrity Consultant;

Feb 24, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 23 • By JESSICA GAVORA
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With the fall of Richard Nixon, the American media discovered that only suckers and fellow travelers took politicians at face value. The real agendas were the hidden agendas, and these were the product of the men behind the public faces: the consultants. The press soon began to seek out consultants -- not politicians -- as the ultimate sources. Thus, the sleazier and more devious consultants got, the more their perceived power increased.


Lee Atwater was the first consultant to understand this. By giving the media a caricature of what it expected in a consultant -- the red-neck con man; the good ol' boy who read Sun-tzu -- he passed from sourcehood to a half- decade of national celebrity, which was cut off by his death of brain cancer in March 1991 at age 40. What Atwater created was less a new style of politics than a new style of consultant: James Carville soon mastered the same tricks, before becoming, in effect, a full-time entertainer. By now, when Dick Morris's sex life can enthrall the country for weeks at the height of a political campaign, the cult of the celebrity political consultant has sunk deep roots into the popular culture.


In Bad Boy, John Brady gives us front-row seats for the ongoing performance-art exhibition that was Lee Atwater's life. In so doing, he makes another breach in the crumbling wall between politics and entertainment. While he does a commendable job of tracing Atwater's career, Brady has written not a political biography but the first psychobiography of a political consultant. Always Brady's eye is less on what Atwater did than on what drove him to do it.


In Brady's reading, the formative event of Atwater's life came when he was five years old. Waiting for their father to come home one night, Lee and his younger brother Joe set about helping their mother fry doughnuts. Joe climbed up to view the oil bubbling in an electric deep-fat fryer perched on the kitchen counter. He stumbled and fell, pulling the 340-degree oil down on top of himself. Burned over 90 percent of his body, Joe Atwater died soon after. The death of his little brother, Brady speculates, left Atwater unable to form genuine, lasting bonds.


Atwater was bright, but a poor student. He started playing rock guitar to impress girls when barely an adolescent, spent time in military school, indulged his penchants for drink and pro wrestling, and was a general, all- around hell-raiser. He rose from South Carolina politics to the White House on the strength of an oversized ego and a commitment to winning at any cost.


Nowhere was this energetic obsession better illustrated than in the 1988 presidential campaign. Brady devotes page after page to Atwater's role in developing the "Willie Horton issue" in the 1988 race. Brady is inclined to see the issue as a legitimate one, given the horrific violence of Horton's initial crime and then-Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis's efforts to save the program that allowed Horton to commit an even more grisly crime in Maryland while on furlough. But once he has made the case for Horton as a campaign issue, Brady retreats again into psychobiography. He labors mightily to disprove allegations that Atwater was a racist for exploiting Horton (who is black) in the first place. "No one who knew Lee Atwater personally -- either as a pol or a good ol' boy -- ever felt he was a racist," Brady writes. This is an issue, one suspects, that Atwater would have dismissed as irrelevant. For him, the only important thing in the summer of 1988 was whether Willie Horton could help make George Bush president.


Atwater's womanizing was notorious, and without naming names, Brady recounts it in lurid detail. As chairman of the Republican National Committee, Atwater would occasionally pretend to be out of town on a business trip when he was in fact holed up in a hotel with a companion. These trysts were paid for with an RNC credit card that earned points toward free airline tickets; RNC staffers called these Atwater's "frequent f -- r miles."


Brady's treatment of Atwater the husband, like his depiction of Atwater the consultant, is a curious mixture of unflattering fact and tortured rationale. It is the specter of his dead brother Joe, Brady thinks, that drove Atwater from the marital bed into the willing arms of a multitude of young Republican staffers, trust-fund princesses, and political wannabes. Nor does Brady hold Lee's widow Sally Atwater wholly blameless. She is often portrayed as a small- town girl who fell victim to Lee's appetites, and Brady accepts that view. But he also describes the Atwater marriage as "a working partnership," in which Sally turned a blind eye to Lee's affairs because she enjoyed the glamorous life their marriage brought her.