WHO HEARS A HORTON?
Lee Atwater and the Rise of the Celebrity Consultant;
Feb 24, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 23 • By JESSICA GAVORA
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.
What's newest in Brady's book is a depressingly thorough accounting of Atwater's fight against cancer. Consumed by the need to defeat his disease, Atwater for the first time in his life was distracted from cultivating an image. He tried to cheat death through conventional medicine, acupuncture, massage therapy, dream therapy, and, finally, Catholicism. But he was looking for a loophole, not enlightenment. The picture that emerges from his last months is of a remarkably self-centered man, unhumbled by impending death and unappreciative of those who stayed by him as he faced it. At no time, even after he knew his death to be inevitable, did his thoughts turn to his wife and children. In one chilling vignette, Brady writes that Atwater's 10-year- old daughter Sara Lee had to dress up like a news anchor and pretend to interview him in order to get his attention.
In his last days, Atwater made certain amends. He wrote explanatory letters to old political opponents and to a woman he had set up for a group sexual encounter with his fraternity brothers back in South Carolina -- not to apologize, exactly, but to ask that the incidents be "put behind us." Even his famous mea culpa to Michael Dukakis for having said he "would strip the bark off the little bastard" and "make Willie Horton his running mate" was less an apology than a last effort at damage control. Atwater said he was "sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not."
To this day, Atwater's vanquished adversaries hold up his deathbed contrition as the final proof of his venality. Brady treats this reaction as vindictive and unfair, and there is truth in his defense. After all, what better way for Democrats to explain their loss to George Bush in 1988 than to claim the election had been stolen by a racist, self-confessedly evil man?
But by focusing on the motives of his opponents, Brady lets Atwater off the hook for a lifetime spent cultivating an image as someone fully capable of committing the crimes his critics accused him of, whether he did so or not. When consultants become celebrities, we forget that their job is not to embody anyone's ideals but to win. That was Lee Atwater's obsession. Would a Republican be sitting in the White House today if he had lived? Bad Boy doesn't try to answer this question, which is the only one Lee Atwater would have cared about.
Jessica Gavora is the editor of Philanthropy magazine.