'Bad Boy' Atwater -- no cardboard villain

February 02, 1997|By Lars-Erik Nelson | Lars-Erik Nelson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater," by John Brady. Addison-Wesley, 320 pages. $23.

Lee Atwater is remembered these days as a ruthless, cynical Republican political operative who invented much of what is bad in American politics: negative campaigning, the hunt for trivial but divisive "wedge issues," like flag-burning, and racist tactics, like the notorious Willie Horton commercial of 1988. He was a man who believed in nothing - neither religion nor the conservative political ideology he served. He simply wanted to win.

John Brady's fascinating, full-blooded biography revives those memories - and some even worse. But he also resurrects Atwater in all his complexity as irresistibly engaging and intelligent, the delight and despair of his friends and enemies, and a supremely tragic figure for reasons beyond his cruel death from a brain tumor at the age of 40.

Atwater's flaw was that he had a first-class intellect trapped in the heart and soul of a frat boy date-rapist. He was a genuinely creative political thinker who couldn't resist the cheapest appeals to base instincts.

Running a campaign against a South Carolina candidate who had been treated for depression at the age of 16, Atwater famously sneered that the child had been "hooked up to jumper cables." The Willie Horton commercial - which blamed Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis for releasing a convicted murderer on furlough - was not originally his doing, but he was more than willing to profit from it.

But Atwater was not a racist. He believed the black middle class had the same fears and ambitions as the white middle class and pioneered a strategy of reaching out to young black voters by offering them opportunities in the Republican Party. Nor was he a right-wing ideologue. Atwater described Republican conservatives as the "extra-chromosome crowd," and formulated the phrase that the Republican party is a "big tent" in which all are welcome.

What were Atwater's secrets? He had an irreverent sense of humor. He once walked up to the somewhat stuffy Charles Z. Wick, head of the U.S. Information Agency, gushing admiration. As Wick preened, Atwater revealed the reason for his enthusiasm: Wick had once produced the film, "Snow White and the Three Stooges."

He was also a master manipulator of the press, always filled with behind-the-scenes gossip and astute analyses of his political strategy. He was disarmingly frank. It is not in the book, but I recall his wide-eyed, unconcealed bafflement the morning after George Bush selected Dan Quayle as his running mate for the 1988 presidential election. He could not imagine what Bush had been thinking.

Brady is riveting in writing about Atwater's dreadful struggle against brain cancer and the weird, predatory relationships he had with women. It is hard to say this about biography, but at some point there is such a thing as invasion of privacy. Brady strips off some bedroom sheets that might better have been left undisturbed.

Whether, in the end, Atwater's good qualities offset the poison he strewed through the American political process will be a matter of personal judgment for each reader. Brady lays out the evidence amply and unsparingly but also charitably. He does Lee this service: At least now he can be judged as a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood person rather than as a cardboard villain.

Lars-Erik Nelson, Washington columnist for the New York Daily nTC News, has covered politics there since 1981. He was diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, based in Moscow, Prague and London.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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