Ex-GOP chief Atwater dies at 40 of brain tumor By Susan Baer

March 30, 1991|By and Paul West | and Paul West,Washington bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Lee Atwater, the brazen, hardball political fighter who managed President Bush's 1988 campaign and went on to chair the Republican National Committee, died early yesterday morning after a yearlong battle with an inoperable brain tumor.

The 40-year-old South Carolinian died at George Washington University Hospital at 6:24 a.m., just over a year after he collapsed while delivering a speech in Washington and was diagnosed with an aggressive, cancerous tumor.

President Bush, in a statement released yesterday, said he and Barbara Bush "lost a great friend in Lee Atwater. I valued Lee's counsel and abilities. The Republican Party will miss his energy, vision, and leadership. . . . He will always be in our memories."

Although in and out of hospitals since last spring, Mr. Atwater retained his position as chairman of the Republican Party until January, when he became "general chairman" and was succeeded in the top post by former Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter.

"Lee Atwater's death takes from us one of the nation's most outstanding minds," Mr. Yeutter said yesterday, "and a man who was a loyal friend to legions of people across the country."

A baby-faced Republican strategist, Mr. Atwater was often called the "pit bull" of American politics because of his aggressive tactics and earned a reputation for negative campaigning -- especially after the fierce battle he waged against 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis.

He was the first modern campaign consultant to serve as a national party chairman and was also one of the first members of the generation born after World War II to take a highly visible role in national politics.

A highly ambitious, energetic booster of his clients and himself, Mr. Atwater succeeded in attaining a degree of national fame, if not notoriety, normally reserved in politics for those who seek and win elective office.

When informed a few months before he was stricken that a regional magazine had selected Representative Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., as the Southern politician to watch in the 1990s, Mr. Atwater wanted to know why he had not been picked.

Nearly as passionate about rhythm-and-blues music as he was about politics, Mr. Atwater landed in the spotlight, too, with his guitar-playing and singing, showing up at nightclubs, galas, even on late-night TV. Shortly before his illness, he achieved a lifelong dream by recording an album, "Red, Hot and Blue" with blues greats such as B. B. King. He owned a small interest in a Northern Virginia barbecue restaurant by the same name.

His brief tenure as party chairman, like much of his career as a political operative in his home state in the 1970s and early 1980s, was marked by controversy.

In June 1989, a memorandum issued from RNC headquarters entitled "Out of the Liberal Closet" attacked the new House speaker, Thomas S. Foley, and was regarded as a smear on the Democratic leader. Mr. Atwater denied advance knowledge of the document and initially defended a protege who wrote it; he later apologized and fired the man.

In March of the same year, student protests led Mr. Atwater to resign as a trustee of predominantly black Howard University in Washington after less than two months on the board. The protesters sought Mr. Atwater's dismissal for what they saw as the racist tone of the 1988 Bush campaign, which made a major issue of Mr. Dukakis' granting a furlough to Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer who terrorized a white Maryland couple while on a weekend pass.

In the latter months of his illness, Mr. Atwater, a father of three, tried to make amends with some of those he had battled in campaigns. In an article he wrote for Life magazine last February, he apologized to former Governor Dukakis, saying, "In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his running mate.' I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makesme sound racist, which I am not."

A native of Atlanta, Harvey LeRoy Atwater grew up in South Carolina and attended Newberry College. As a graduate student, he wrote a doctoral thesis, never completed, on negative campaigning.

In 1973, he became executive director of the College Republicans and first met Mr. Bush, then the party chairman.

He was a consultant to Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1978 re-election campaign and helped Ronald Reagan defeat George Bush in the 1980 presidential primary in South Carolina. That fall he was named Southeast political director of the Reagan-Bush general election drive.

After the 1980 election, he became a partner in one of Washington's leading Republican consulting firms, which changed its name to Black, Manafort, Stone & Atwater. In 1986 he took over as head of the political action committee that was the forerunner of Mr. Bush's 1988 presidential organization.

He collapsed March 5, 1990, while speaking at a breakfast meeting in Washington to supporters of Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. After learning that his tumor was the most fatal, aggressive type, he opted for a radical and risky treatment in which radioactive "seeds" were deposited through tubes into the tumor.

Most recently, he'd been hospitalized this past March 5 after further deterioration.

He is survived by his wife, Sally; three daughters, Sara Lee, 10, Ashley Page, 5, and Sally Theodosia, 11 months; and his parents, Harvey and Toddy Atwater.

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