You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation


Can Lee Atwater’s legacy save George W.?

The phone startled Suzette Latsko. She had worked the night shift at the hotel and was at home napping when it rang. The woman on the other end said she was conducting a poll on the upcoming South Carolina primary and wanted to ask a few questions. Latsko, who is working toward a degree in political science at the College of Charleston, perked up. “Go ahead,” she said.

At first, as Latsko tells the story, the questions were generic: How much attention had Latsko been paying to the GOP campaign? Did she agree with the way the country was being run? But then the questions changed. “Do you agree,” the woman asked, her voice rising slightly, “with the part of [John McCain’s] plan that increases taxes on contributions to colleges, charities, and churches by $20 million? Do you know that McCain voted for the largest tax increase ever?”

Latsko, who had been following the campaign closely, said she didn’t think that was true. The woman asked whether that was her answer and then forged on, the questions sounding more and more like statements: McCain’s tax plan does not give significant tax cuts to average working families.... McCain was reprimanded for intervention between the federal government and Charles Keating during the S&L scandals.... McCain uses the planes of corporations that have business before the committee that he chairs.

Latsko started to write the questions down on a piece of paper. I couldn’t believe it,” she says. It was totally dishonest. When she asked the polling group’s name, the woman said it was Voter Consumer Research, which works for Texas Governor George W. Bush.

The Bush campaign denies it is conducting push polling,” a technique designed to spread negative information about an opponent in the guise of voter research, and leveled a similar charge against McCain. But there is mounting evidence that, after Bush’s 18-point defeat in New Hampshire, his campaign, or at least those who support it, are resorting to a scorched-earth policy in South Carolina. In Greenville, near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, several people told me that an endless stream of anonymous callers had phoned the local radio station asking about McCain’s womanizing and questioning his war record. It’s disgusting,” says Terry Haskins, the speaker pro tem of the South Carolina House and a McCain supporter. There were people on the radio saying, ‘How can Terry Haskins support a man who gave secrets to the enemy? I’ve seen dirty politics, but I’ve never seen a rumor campaign like this. It’s a vile attempt to destroy a man’s reputation just to win an election, and I know it’s organized because none of these rumors existed until the day after New Hampshire.

When I visited Greenville’s Bob Jones University, the ultra-fundamentalist college famous for banning interracial dating, I encountered the campaign firsthand. As I sat in the administration office under the mounted head of a deer, Bob Taylor, the school’s dean, who had helped coordinate Bush’s recent visit to the school and had Bush bumper stickers stacked on his desk, told me he was worried about McCain’s second wife’s family values, among other things. What do you mean? I asked. He leaned forward, his voice dropping several notches. She owns, he confided, one of the biggest beer distributors” in the country, and he feared her family might have friendships among organized crime. When I asked him for evidence, he leaned back in his chair and said, I don’t have any firsthand knowledge, but that’s just the kind of thing that’s out there.

SOUTH CAROLINA—where loyalty is an obsession, conservatism a given, and hierarchy a way of life—has long been the place where liberal-minded and anti-establishment candidates die. It started with Lee Atwater, the blues-playing good old boy who liked to quote, in his Southern drawl, the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun-Tzu: Awl wawfare is based on deception.

Atwater invented, for a whole generation of politicians and consultants, the art of modern political warfare. First as an aide to Senator Strom Thurmond and later as a consultant to Governor Carroll Campbell, he identified what he called symbolic platforms”—the flag, family values, taxes—and painted his opponents, regardless of their ideology, as ultraliberals, as outsiders and transgressors of the Southern way of life. He helped label one congressional candidate a foreign-born Jew and said a Democrat who had suffered shock therapy as a 16-year-old had been hooked up to jumper cables.” “I guarantee you I can get the negatives up on anyone,” Atwater boasted.

In 1980, as state chair of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, he set out to make South Carolina, and himself, central to national politics. George Bush had upset Reagan in Iowa, which gave him, famously, the big mo” he thought he could ride to the nomination. But, when Bush hit South Carolina, Atwater was ready. In one of his most infamous ploys, he got South Carolinian Reid Buckley to tape radio ads calling Bush a liberal, which, because Reid sounded so much like his brother, William F., made voters think they were listening to the conservative icon. These attacks, Atwater later gloated, pounded the pro-choice preppie from Connecticut into the dirt. Victory in South Carolina secured Reagan the nomination and Atwater his role as the GOP establishment’s Southern kingmaker, an enfant terrible whom respectable candidates would enlist every few years to do the things that politicians speak of only in back rooms.

As Earl and Merle Black note in The Vital South, Atwater based his strategy on a deep understanding of his native state. He grasped that South Carolina, profoundly traditional and dominated by his well-organized machine, would support whichever conservative the national party establishment wanted. Thus, by strategically scheduling South Carolina’s primary, he could construct a firewall” against any insurgent that independent, reform-minded Iowa and New Hampshire threw up. Lee obviously understood the South better than anybody in this room,” said Jack Kemp’s campaign manager, Ed Rollins, during a postelection meeting of the top advisers to all the 1988 campaigns,and, by moving the South Carolina primary forward, he set a strategy that was almost impossible to beat.

IN 1988, GEORGE BUSH’S third-place finish in Iowa put Atwater’s firewall strategy to the test. Using a combination of patronage and arm-twisting, he lined up nearly the entire state leadership for the vice president, parading out one endorsement after another. The national press thought the endless show of endorsements a tedious waste of time, but Atwater knew that, in a place as hierarchical as South Carolina, gaudy demonstrations of power still resonated. At the same time, Atwater repackaged Bush to appeal to Southern pieties. “I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal savior,” Bush, a reserved Episcopalian, told fundamentalists in Greenville.

Atwater also argued, over and over, that the campaign must go negative. Finally, still trailing in the polls, Bush relented, branding Bob Dole—first in New Hampshire and then in South Carolina—as an out-of-touch senator who straddled on taxes. Bush won easily in South Carolina and three days later rode the momentum to a crushing Super Tuesday triumph. The Palmetto State had become what the establishment so desperately needed: a death trap for outsiders.

In the general election, Atwater took his South Carolina strategy national. The strategic concept was developed way before we knew who the Democratic nominee was,” he said later. After Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis won the nomination, Atwater’s team combed his record and came up with a litany of code words—ACLU, furlough, liberal—that it repeated over and over. Atwater vowed to strip the bark off the little bastard” and make Willie Horton his running mate. Polls that in May had shown Bush trailing by as much as 22 points suddenly showed him streaking ahead.

After Bush won, the Atwater formula became GOP gospel. Exploiting white Southerners’ resentment of Northern liberals and intrusive federal regulations, Atwater finished what Richard Nixon began: the South’s wholesale shift into a Republican stronghold. Even after he died suddenly of a brain tumor in 1991, Atwater’s firewall remained intact. In 1996, when Pat Buchanan’s peasant army rose up and defeated Dole in New Hampshire, South Carolina quickly routed them, rescuing the establishment’s teetering choice. Afterward Buchanan snapped that Dole had been “basically hauled up to the finish line and tossed over” by Atwater’s legendary machine.

NOW IT IS George W. Bush’s turn. He has surrounded himself with Atwater proteges and cohorts, among them campaign manager Karl Rove, former Governor Campbell, regional director Warren Tompkins, and spokesman Tucker Eskew. As if on cue, the campaign has lined up scores of endorsements throughout the state, from the lieutenant governor all the way down to the county sheriffs.

Many came willingly, but, according to Haskins, Bush’s surrogates occasionally strong-armed fence-sitters. Haskins says Bush supporters asked South Carolina politicians to sign a letter asking the Texas governor to run, telling them they were not committing themselves to an endorsement. But, when some of the signers later tried to endorse McCain, Bush supporters told them they couldn’t renege. (Eskew replies that McCain’s people are always looking for excuses for why the governor is more popular.) Other allies have gone further. Last Saturday members of the National Right to Life Committee flew into South Carolina and pressured a local anti-abortion group not only to endorse Bush but to run radio ads attacking McCain, according to one member who resigned in protest.

Bush is following the traditional Atwater script. After losing in New Hampshire, he moved right. He rushed to Bob Jones University, the same place his father proclaimed his faith in Christ, and was introduced as someone who deeply loves the Lord. He repeated the word conservative” six times in a single minute. He has repeatedly called the Confederate flag a local” issue and last month held an oyster roast at Boone Hall, a former slave plantation near Charleston. And he has started to saturate the state with ads portraying McCain as just another liberal. On taxes,” one intones, McCain echoes Washington Democrats.

“You can cut it anyway you want,” Bush explained at a recent news conference, [but] I’m going to take it to him. On the stump he now compares McCain to Clinton and claims that in New Hampshire he came at me from the left. “[Bush] is running a classic 1988 Atwater campaign in 2000,” says Trey Walker, the former executive director of the state Republican Party and McCain’s field director.

But, for the first time in nearly two decades, Atwater’s formula may no longer apply. In the post-Clinton moment, when candor is the only acceptable guile, Bush’s attacks play to type. His heavy-handed assault creates just the story line McCain wants: the establishment villain versus the courageous upstart. “I feel like Luke Skywalker trying to get out of the Death Star,” McCain told roaring crowds in Florence.

After Bush dispatched a surrogate to attack McCain’s record on veterans’ issues, a half-dozen war heroes, including several who had been in the so-called Hanoi Hilton with McCain, gathered outside Bush’s Columbia headquarters in front of local-news cameras, calling for the governor to apologize for the smear. Uncertain what to do, a woman came out and offered them coffee. But as Orson Swindle, who had shared a cell with McCain, tried to hand-deliver a letter, someone apparently locked the door. Then, as he walked away, a dozen or so boyish Bush staffers and volunteers poured out onto the street, surrounding the veterans. When Swindle demanded that Bush apologize, Eskew stepped in, confronting a man who holds 20 military awards for valor in combat, including two Purple Hearts. I didn’t interrupt you! Eskew said. I ask you not to interrupt me! Later, as they watched the footage on the evening news, the McCain team celebrated. If they want to attack us on veteran issues,” one aide told me, that’s fine by us.

It’s not just that McCain isn’t Dukakis. The Atwater machine of 2000 isn’t the Atwater machine of 1988. In 1998, for the first time in 16 years, the GOP lost the South Carolina governorship. Without its perks and power, roughly a third of the legislature and two popular congressmen broke ranks and endorsed McCain. There was a time when many of us fought together,” says longtime GOP official George Shissias of the state party Atwater helped build. [But] now the fighting between us is constant. I’m a Bush supporter, but there’s a lot of us who wouldn’t even walk into Bush headquarters because we hate the people working there so much.

AND IT’S NOT just the party leadership that’s changing; South Carolina voters are as well. Once a backwater, the state is now filled with foreign businesses, high-tech companies, and plush retirement communities. Bob Jones’s Taylor told me that, with more outsiders coming into the state, the old coalition” may be eroding. And the newcomers seem less sympathetic to Atwater’s favorite wedge issues: according to a recent poll, for instance, 39 percent of white South Carolinians want the Confederate flag that flies above the state house to be taken down. Many of the people leading the anti-flag effort are Republicans who’ve decided a good business climate trumps a symbol of heritage. Moreover, as in New Hampshire, Democrats and independents can cross over and vote in South Carolina’s GOP primary. At one McCain rally last week, several Democrats, including the party’s county chairwoman and a former state representative, turned up unexpectedly. Polls now show McCain and Bush in a statistical tie. “Something is happening out there,” says Lee Bandy, who has covered state politics for decades.

As the tensions mount, the Bush campaign has become more and more like its candidate: hierarchical, fearful of a false move, almost paranoid. When I first called Bush headquarters last week, the spokesman said there wouldn’t be any public events I could attend that weekend. Won’t you be doing anything I can see? I asked incredulously. We’ll be doing things in the office, Eskew said, but we’re not going to let you just walk in and watch, though I know you’d like that. Later, when I got permission to watch phone banking at the Greenville office, two aides told me, Don’t quote me. Only the spokesman can be quoted. I asked for a copy of the script the volunteers were reading to strangers over the phone, but they said I needed to get it from the Columbia office. “That’s just the way we operate,” one of the aides explained.

By contrast, when I dropped in uninvited on McCain headquarters, staff members were almost comically nonchalant, encouraging me to wander the room with my tape recorder. What are you, fuckin’ high? Walker said into the phone as I stood beside him. At one point a TV cameraman showed up and started panning the room, where internal documents were scattered on the desks and unshaven volunteers sipped beers. That night the volunteers—two Republicans, two Democrats, and an independent—invited me to dinner. You can quote us,” they told me, but remember we’re all just grunts.

I COULD SEE the firewall from the road: an endless stretch of redbrick houses on the edge of a man-made lake. Each house had almost the same black shutters and door.They were set on a hill, so you had to crane your neck to see the people trimming their hedges in the afternoon sun. My taxi driver, who appeared to be the only black man in the neighborhood, finally pulled up at our destination: a two-story house with a pile of signs that read bush country.

After several requests, the campaign had finally agreed to let me watch it canvass a stronghold. Several Bush volunteers were already standing outside, holding placards and signs. A few of them peeled off Bush 2000 bumper stickers and put them on the backs of their children’s jackets. “We’re gonna prove to you this is still Bush country,” one of the campaign workers told me.

After a while, we broke into small groups, and I headed down the street with a 35-year-old salesman named Ben Gause, his wife, and two of their children, who trailed behind in a wheelbarrow covered with Bush stickers. I hope we don’t look like Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Gause joked as we approached the first house. A man was standing in his garage, fixing a custom-built motorcycle. As Gause began to speak, the man cut him off. You can save it,” he said, staring at our paraphernalia. I’m already a Bush man. I’d vote for Nixon before I’d vote for that fella McCain. When I asked why, he said a friend, who was a state representative, had raised several concerns about McCain. “His temperament scares the daylights out of me,” he said.

Gause seemed pleased as we bounded across the street. But by the second house it was clear something was wrong. A man working on his bushes said he was undecided. I want to see Bush pull out a little more,” he said obliquely. At the next house a middle-aged man said, I’m leaning toward McCain. I’d been 100 percent for Bush, but he’s stumbling. Finally we hit two Bush houses in a row—That’s better,” said Gause—but then we encountered a deluge of undecideds and McCain supporters. Growing agitated, Gause tried to edge one woman over. I’m a little worried about McCain’s temperament,” Gause said. She looked at him coolly. Sometimes, she said, you need someone who will “give the establishment hell.

“I can’t believe this, said Gause as he headed home. This is totally crazy. This is Bush country.” 

This article appeared in the February 21, 2000, issue of the magazine.