WASHINGTON — PERHAPS THE best tribute to former Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater has been the fact that most stories about him following his tragic death at 40 did not pull punches. They noted, accurately, that he was one of the most intense, and effective, gut fighters in American politics and a devoted disciple to the art of negative campaigning.
Having said that, it should be noted at the same time that Lee Atwater was not a hater, not in the sense that he was driven by an excess of bile toward the individuals he targeted for defeat. The engine that drove him, rather, was a zest for winning in the game that was his paramount interest in life.
He said once that he almost became physically ill if one of his candidates lost an election, and that was never hard to believe. He threw himself into political battle with the nervous energy of an overtrained fighter. He literally could not sit still for more than a few minutes. Having lunch with him was an exercise in keeping your silverware in place as he incessantly jiggled his legs as he related his latest political coup or scheme.
His intense focus on winning often blinded him to the fact that some of his actions and plans might backfire on him for their sheer crassness. After the 1984 presidential re-election of Ronald Reagan of which he was a chief tactician, he told us with unvarnished glee of a strategy he had worked out with wily campaign consultant Stuart Spencer in the event the Reagan campaign ran into 11th-hour difficulty.
Reagan had not fared well in his first televised debate with Walter Mondale, raising speculation that senility was creeping in on him. As their second and final debate approached, Mondale hoped to capitalize on that speculation and Atwater well understood the potential for trouble.
He and Spencer drafted an internal memo dubbed "The Great American Fog Machine," laying out what the campaign would do in the event Reagan repeated his erratic performance in the first debate. First, it would send a political SWAT team into the fray, using everybody in the administration with credibility including Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, in spite of the long-standing tradition that they should be above domestic politics. The memo added: "We should not hesitate to violate protocols by enlisting top Pentagon brass to help."
Also, it said: "If it's clear that the president did badly, then it's our job to obscure the result. The single most important mission of the fog machine will be to shift the emphasis to Mondale, and to drive up his negative rating." Four years later, when he ran George Bush's presidential campaign, Atwater used this same basic strategy effectively against Michael Dukakis.
The Atwater-Spencer memo also planned to deride debates as "fundamentally degrading" if Reagan lost the second one, to plead that "there was a lot the president could not talk about" on foreign policy and, finally, suggested sending Reagan to Grenada on the first anniversary of his invasion there. The memo observed specifically that "we shouldn't hesitate to polarize, play the South against the North, the West against the East, and so on."
The "Great American Fog Machine" was an astonishing document, but even more astonishing to us was that Atwater would give it to a couple of reporters writing a book on the campaign. Yet he did so without the slightest qualm. Only later, when the book came out, did Atwater wryly observe with a smile that it came across much stronger in cold print than he had imagined. But he never expressed regret in having provided it.
For all the emphasis on Atwater's negative campaigning, however, his outstanding political talent probably was in spotting a campaign's turning point and capitalizing on it -- or even, as many suspected, orchestrating it.
He called such things as Bush's 1988 televised "debate" with CBS anchorman Dan Rather a "defining moment" that changed viewers' perception of Bush as a wimp -- after having warned Bush, along with media expert Roger Ailes, to be on his toes against a possible verbal ambush.
Much has been made now of Atwater's softening of heart in his last months and his regrets over hurting others, and they certainly can't be dismissed.
But what will be remembered about him will be his uncommon energy in leading a full life, however short, in the political wars he loved, and that's as it should be.