Want to hear a really awkward interview with a politician?

The late Lee Atwater was a force of nature in national politics, a strategist and communicator so talented and feared that he was described as Machiavellian -- in a good way -- at his own funeral. Atwater's widow, Sally, is running for State Superintendent of Education in South Carolina -- and risks earning a different reputation.

President George Bush, left, plays the guitar as Sam Moore sings and National Republican Chairman Lee Atwater, center, accompanies in playing the guitar. (Washington Post / Rick Lipski)

Her campaign had been going well. Sally Atwater has received the endorsement of George H. W. Bush and other members of the Republican establishment. (Her campaign website is bedazzled with photos of Lee and her with various Bushes.) She's campaigning on her background as a special education teacher and time spent in the George W. Bush administration. Last Tuesday, she came in a close second to Molly Mitchell Spearman in the state's primary, leading to a run-off between the two on June 24.

And then she called in to the conservative local radio station News Radio WORD on Wednesday to discuss her candidacy.

Host Russ Cassell wouldn't accept Atwater's elusive response to his questions about sex education. "I am for our health standards right now," she said. "What does that mean?" Cassell responded. "Well, we have certain standards that our schools teach, so that's what I'm going to do right now," she said.

This was similar to her response on evolution. "Again, I'm going to go back to what our science standards are," she said. "What are our science standards?" Cassell asked. Atwater responded: "Our science standards just ... that's what we teach in our schools now."

Perhaps the reason the clip went viral on Monday was Cassell's summary once Atwater hung up. "Folks, I don't want to be brutal, I don't want to be mean," he said. "What you have just heard is an example of a person running for public office on name recognition only, who is clueless."

On Monday, Atwater declined to participate in a debate with Spearman. "[G]iven her debate performance in the primary and her recent radio interview on WORD-FM," her opponent's campaign responded, "we can understand why she has made this political calculation."

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.



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