Deathbed Confessions and Living Politicians

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

April 03, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON. — Washington.-- They buried Lee Atwater the other day in South Carolina, and all the Republicans who came to the funeral said nice things about him. By the time he died, after apologizing for some of the nasty things he had done to Democrats, even some of them were willing to say nice things about him.

What remains unseen is whether any of the politicians who benefited from Mr. Atwater's campaign tactics intend to change their ways after reading and reflecting on his deathbed regrets. It was much easier for him to recant when he knew he would never campaign again than it is for his colleagues to swear off the future profits of his kind of politics.

Lee Atwater was born in a state where Strom Thurmond rode old-fashioned, redneck racism to the governorship and the U.S. Senate. He grew up a Thurmond protege during a time when Southern blacks started voting, and Mr. Thurmond with most Southern conservatives shifted away from such open demagoguery.

Mr. Atwater perfected Gucci-loafer racism, slicker and more subtle, which worked so well he rose to run George Bush's presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee.

Race was not his whole stock in trade, just his main line of goods. In the same way he insinuated race into elections at every level from county courthouse to White House, he slipped in cracks about an opponent's alleged mental illness. He pleaded ignorance while firing his own protege at the GOP committee for issuing an infamous press release implying that a Democratic leader was homosexual.

He gloried in indignation from the opposition, asserting that their howls just brought in more business from hard-nosed Republican candidates. And then, once Mr. Bush was in the White House, he announced that he was mounting an outreach effort toward minority voters.

This was not a short-term tactic, Mr. Atwater insisted; ''It is a long-term political necessity, and more than that, a moral imperative.''

The skeptics who didn't curse had to laugh. Moral imperatives do not appear overnight; if respect for minorities was a moral issue in 1989, presumably it was one a few weeks earlier, when Mr. Atwater said of Michael Dukakis: ''I'm going to strip the bark off the little bastard,'' and ''make Willie Horton his running mate.''

Dan Quayle said at the funeral in Columbia that ''Lee wasn't a political mercenary, simply serving the highest bidder. Politics wasn't his business, it was his calling in life.''

That may be right, in the sense that Mr. Atwater served Republicans, and probably would turn down a higher bid from a Democrat. And politics was indeed his calling; he would happily have played as an unpaid amateur.

Yet it is likely that if he had seen early in life that racial outreach was the way to win in South Carolina, he would have become Mr. Outreach long before electing a president. If liberalism had been ascendant, he could easily have become a liberal. He was a happy cynic, less immoral than amoral.

Gov. Carroll Campbell, whose rise in South Carolina politics was managed by Mr. Atwater, said that this past year of illness was the most important campaign Lee ever ran, and he won it. ''Lee won peace with himself, peace with his fellow man and peace with his God,'' said the governor.

Harry Dent, another South Carolinian who helped devise Richard Nixon's successful ''Southern strategy,'' has since gone straight and become a preacher. ''Lee Atwater's message to America and the world is that repentance precedes being born again and entering the kingdom of God,'' he said. He referred to the regrets that Mr. Atwater had expressed about what he did to Mr. Dukakis and other unfairly treated opponents in the past.

In life, Mr. Atwater was a high-voltage model for a generation of operatives who specialize in tar-brush politics, using insinuations, false implications, anything it takes to win. On his deathbed, he apologized for some of that in tones that suggested he was sorry for all of it.

In death and repentance, he is still available as a model -- for candidates who pretend they have no control of the tactics used in their campaigns, for consultants who make millions bending the truth, for young people who once were the idealists in America.

But so far, there is no evidence that anyone who praised Mr. Atwater this week has decided, in Harry Dent's terms, to put being born again above being elected again, or put entering heaven above entering the next highest office.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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