August 8, 2013
President George H.W. Bush, left, plays the guitar as Sam Moore sings and National Republican Chairman Lee Atwater, center, joins in the jam.(Rick Lipski/Washington Post)
President George H.W. Bush, left, plays the guitar as Sam Moore sings and National Republican Chairman Lee Atwater, center, joins in the jam.(Rick Lipski/Washington Post)

Yesterday, Reid Wilson at the National Journal wrote an earnest, helpful piece outlining his “five rules of politics.”  I thought it was useful, and I will keep it as something I may pass along to others who are trying to understand the basics of American politics. Reading Wilson’s rules reminded me about Lee Atwater’s five rules of politics.  I’ve written about Atwater’s five rules individually at different times, but I don’t think I have ever put them down collectively in one place.  Wilson’s thoughtful piece prompted me to do so.

A lot of people under a certain age don’t remember who Atwater was, or maybe some readers weren’t even born when Atwater roamed the American political landscape. Atwater was serving as RNC Chairman — and was only 40 years old — when he died in 1991. I worked for Atwater, and we were close back in the day.

Anyway, Atwater was the first of an era of young, driven campaign pros who saw no end and no limits to the permanent campaign.  He had five rules of politics that he would playfully (or not) repeat to those around him.  Even though they are a little coarse and not particularly idealistic, in the real world — or at least in the real Washington — there might still be some applicability to the rules.

They are:

Rule #1.  Be for what is going to happen.  Simply put, always try to pick the winner. If you’re a selfishly motivated, hyper-ambitious career-manager, it helps a lot to work on the campaign of the winning candidate. Enough said.

Rule #2.  Never kick a man when he is up.  Atwater always thought to do so would be stupid.  When somebody is riding high in Washington, leave them alone.  And anyway, if someone is on a roll, rule #3 is probably applicable.

Rule #3.  Suck up to big shots.  Atwater never quite said it the way Benjamin Disraeli did, but I’m sure he would agree with the former British prime minister’s quip, “Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.”  Atwater would just substitute “Washington big shots” for “royalty.”  Mark Leibovich’s recent revelations in “This Town” about the propensity of people in Washington to suck up to big shots seems to confirm that Atwater’s observations are timeless.

Rule #4.  Take total credit.  Atwater used to say this all the time.  He wouldn’t be bashful or even artful about taking credit for the good things that happened around him.  And he would be silent — or “play dumb and keep moving,” as he would say — when things did not go according to plan.  Generally speaking, Atwater was of the impression that in Washington, gall pays off.

Rule #5.  At last resort, deny the obvious. It may produce a moment of confusion where you catch a break.  This rule is consistent with two more of Atwater’s corollaries: “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, no matter what” and, as I remember him saying, “Every now and then, Ed, they’re on to me.” Atwater would always fight to the bitter end.  If his words ever came back to haunt him, he would put up a brave front, stick to his guns and his story, and hope for the best.  Today’s formulaic revelation, denial, confession and comeback cycle would have thrilled Atwater.

Atwater was colorful and a lot of fun, even if he did have a dark side. But he won a lot of campaigns. Maybe we don’t like to admit it and maybe no one will embroider his rules for display on their office walls, but Atwater would recognize all too well a lot of what is standard operating procedure in American politics today.

Follow Ed on Twitter at @edrogersdc.