NY Times: The Political Legacy of Baaad Boy Atwater

NY Times (9/20/08)

The Political Legacy of Baaad Boy Atwater

For all the nastiness of this year’s presidential campaign, the downward spiral into ever-meaner electioneering really started about 20 years ago. The political Magus who ushered in our new muddier era was Lee Atwater, best known for engineering George H.W. Bush’s win in 1988. Mr. Atwater became such a mythic figure in American politics that he was praised at his funeral in 1991 for being Machiavellian “in the very best sense of the word.”

For the 1988 campaign to elect then-Vice President Bush, the indelible image that helped defeat Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts was a black man named Willie Horton. Willie Horton committed rape while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison under a program that was actually started by another governor, a Republican.

Despite his public denials that he had anything to do with an anti-Dukakis commercial featuring Mr. Horton, this film has Mr. Atwater encouraging an outside group to spread the word. The tactic worked. Mr. Atwater and friends managed to turn Willie Horton’s face into the only thing some voters could remember about the Democratic nominee.

Struck with brain cancer in 1990, Mr. Atwater began to repent. He apologized to Mr. Dukakis and Mr. Turnipseed, among others. He tried to get his former acolytes, like Karl Rove, to back off. But, by then, it was too late.

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