Lee Atwater

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Lee Atwater
God, guns, and freedom
U.S. Politics
Icon politics USA.svg
Starting arguments over Thanksgiving dinner
Persons of interest

Lee Atwater (1951–1991) was a Republican political strategist most known for inventing a number of the dirty tactics that Republicans still use to this day while working for both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Although he by no means invented the idea of "dog-whistle politics", he did largely revolutionize it and turn it into something the American people had never seen before.

Push polling[edit]

Atwater was the first to come up with push polling, or asking citizens if they would be more or less likely to support somebody on the condition that they were something inflammatory, therefore causing a mental association with the negative quality and the candidate.[1] It was infamously used against John McCain in 2000, where citizens in South Carolina were asked if they would be more or less likely to vote for McCain if he had fathered a black child out of wedlock.[2]

In 1978, Atwater used this method to ruin the congressional campaign of Max Heller through asking voters how they felt about "a foreign-born Jew who did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior" being in Congress.[3]:153 In 1980, Atwater did the same with Tom Turnipseed, who he used this method to suggest was a member of the NAACP.[4]:52


If the above didn't give it away, many of the tactics Atwater engaged in were racist in nature. During the 1988 Presidential Election, for example, Atwater noted how he and Bush attempted to paint Republican Bob Dole as a candidate white racists would dislike because he "had gone to bat for John Palmer, a black man." That was not all, "Dole's support for the 1982 Voting Rights Act, which had angered many Southern whites, was also dredged up by Atwater."[5]:115

William Horton[edit]

Horton's mug shot from "Weekend Passes" ad

During the 1988 U.S. presidential election, one of Atwater's most famous contributions is the choice to bring the Willie Horton scandal into the race. ("By the time we're finished, they're going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis's running mate," said Atwater.)[6]

Horton "was an African-American prisoner in Massachusetts who, while released on a furlough program, raped a white Maryland woman and bound and stabbed her boyfriend."[7] During the campaign, Dukakis was constantly criticized for being overly soft on crime, and Horton's status as a big scary black man very much helped. Horton himself realized this, saying on the image Atwater and Bush projected of him during the campaign "It's part of the myth of the case. The name irks me. It was created to play on racial stereotypes: big, ugly, violent, black 'Willie.' I resent that."[8]

How politics changed[edit]

Quite possibly the most famous quote ever uttered by Atwater is his statement that times have changed in politics, and his evidence of this is that you can't be openly racist:

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."[9]


  1. Push polling
  2. A History of Political Dirty Tricks in South Carolina
  3. Lies (and the Lying Liars That Tell Them): A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right-Wing by Al Franken (2003) Dutton. ISBN 0525947647.
  4. The Color of Politics: Racism in the American Political Arena Today By Chris Danielson
  5. Senator for Sale by Stanley G. Hilton
  7. Bush Made Willie Horton an Issue, and for African-Americans, the Scars Are Still Fresh
  8. Trying to find the real Willie Horton
  9. Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant