The Magazine


Lee Atwater and the Rise of the Celebrity Consultant;

Feb 24, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 23 • By JESSICA GAVORA
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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.