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BAD BOY: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater
By John Brady
Addison-Wesley. 330 pp. $24

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A Strategist's Final Campaign

By Jonathan Yardley

Sunday, January 19, 1997; Page X03

If you like the way the game of American politics is played these days, you might want to go to Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, and lay a wreath at the grave of Harvey LeRoy Atwater. That native of the Palmetto State, who died in Washington six years ago at the age of 40, probably had more influence on the reshaping of American politics than any other individual. His career, like his life, was brief but, also like his life, it was tumultuous and eventful.

As is the way of Washington and the world, Atwater is now the subject of an extensive biography. But while in the rest of the world the evil that men do lives after them, the good being interred with their bones, Washington puts its own spin on such matters, interring the evil and breathing new life into the good, such as there was of it. The posthumous rehabilitation of shabby reputations is a minor industry hereabouts, one to which John Brady makes, in Bad Boy, a substantial contribution.

It's not so much that Brady whitewashes Atwater as that he seems determined to find at every turn positive, or innocent, motives behind actions that at first glance do a pretty good impression of being merely sordid, or self-interested, or worse. He finds humor in aspects of Atwater's behavior where others find only vulgarity, and he is disinclined to tar Atwater with the various vile hues -- racism, opportunism, cynicism -- with which others are quick to paint him. In the not-unimportant sense that a biographer should try to be sympathetic to his subject, this is all to the good; the question it naturally raises, though, is whether Brady manages to make a persuasive case on his subject's behalf, and that turns out to be another kettle of fish altogether.

Atwater's story is well known to readers of this newspaper and need not be hashed out here at length. He was born in South Carolina in 1951, into a middle-class family. He had a quick mind, a minor gift for music, and a short attention span. He fell in love with politics at an early age, and gravitated to the Republican Party; there is little evidence that this was motivated by ideology or anything else remotely resembling conviction, merely that the GOP seemed fertile ground. He became a protege of various South Carolina politicians, on whose behalf he developed a political style heavy on ad hominem attacks and what came to be known as "wedge issues," i.e., "simple, impressionistic issues that appealed to attitudes, created a reaction, not a thought." He moved to Washington and, with a boost from Strom Thurmond, found his way to the Reagan White House. He helped Reagan win re-election in 1984 and guided the singularly ignoble albeit successful 1988 campaign of George Bush, who rewarded him by making him head of the Republican Party. He died while in the party's service.

Of the other important ingredients of this tale, one is well-known and one is not. The former is that when his brain tumor was discovered and its full import revealed, Atwater underwent a deathbed conversion of epic proportions. A "kinder, gentler version of Lee Atwater" emerged in these final months, at least according to Brady, its highlights being "a series of 'forgiveness letters' and 'forgiveness calls' " to various people -- their numbers were indeed legion -- whom Atwater had managed to insult or offend in the course of hacking his way through the political underbrush.

The latter is that when Atwater was 5 years old, his baby brother Joe was scalded to death in a ghastly kitchen accident to which young Lee was witness. He refused to talk about this awful event throughout his lifetime, but on the basis of various shards of evidence Brady concludes that it haunted and shaped him in essential ways. Precisely what these were he never manages to disclose, but the incident does tap a well of sympathy that the rest of Atwater's life leaves undisturbed.

Yet try though Brady may to imbue Atwater with foibles and vulnerabilities to which the rest of us can respond, the very evidence he presents trips him up over and over again. Granted that Atwater was amusing in an "Animal House" sort of way; granted that he had a keen nose for the yearnings and discontents of ordinary Americans; granted that he was a political strategist and organizer of formidable gifts -- granted all of this, it remains that his life was squalid and his legacy befits it.

That legacy is as familiar to readers hereabouts as the life's story summarized above, indeed far more familiar, since campaign after campaign reiterates and refines the Atwater formula. Like many people who make their livelihoods in politics, Atwater was drawn to it out of a fascination with its sports-page side: the contest, the game, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Doubtless it is not coincidental that the candidates for whom he worked were well to the right of center, apparently because they reflected some muddled excuse for political conviction somewhere in Atwater's muddled psyche, but beliefs had vastly less to do with his alliances than electability (viz., Ronald Reagan) and malleability (viz., George Bush). Atwater sensed a flow to the right in the electorate and went with it; had the flow been to the left, he'd have been the favored grandson of Norman Thomas.

Brady is at pains to acquit Atwater of the sin of racism, most specifically of the exploitation of Willie Horton's race in the most notorious political advertisement in American history. "No one who knew Lee Atwater personally -- either as a pol or as a good ol' boy -- ever felt he was a racist," Brady writes, though a few pages later he quotes a South Carolina journalist, Jan Stucker, who points out that Atwater "learned exquisitely well the South's post-George Wallace lesson about racial politics: Use it to your advantage, but handle it ever so discreetly." Brady claims the Willie Horton ad was nothing more or less than a blatant appeal to racist prejudices and fears. Does that make Atwater a racist for approving it, or merely a cynic, or -- just possibly -- both of the above?

In the end none of it matters. Atwater is gone. It is a pity his life ended in such pain, but this should not blind us to the essential nature of that life. The waters of American politics were unclean long before Atwater came along, but they are far more poisonous now, due to his influence. Thanks a lot, bubba.

Jonathan Yardley can be reached on the Internet at yardleyj@clark.net.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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