Lee Atwater's Legacy in South Carolina and Republican Politics: "COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—Bold and fiercely territorial, the geese in the small pond shatter the peace...:
...of the Greenlawn Memorial Park on a bright winter's afternoon. They squawk and honk, disrespecting the dead resting there and unnerving the living who come to pray and to contemplate the lives now gone.
Most of the graves at Greenlawn are marked by metal slabs laid flat into the ground that are deep in the ongoing process of oxidation. Set into the brown February grass, the copper slabs are going green and the iron slabs are going orange. There are a few aboveground monuments.
There is one north of the form, a handsome marble arch with a small bench beneath it. Here lies in eternal slumber one Mary Lillian Ellison, who was born in Tookiedoo back in 1923, was raised by her daddy and her 12 brothers after her mother passed when she was 12, and who grew up to be the most famous female wrestler of all time. She was 'the Goddess of the Squared Circle,' they said back in the 1950's, when she was as big a television star as Milton Berle or Lucille Ball. Her immortal name is carved into the marble at the top of the arch.
'Moolah,' it says.
The Fabulous Moolah, a Carolina girl by birth, lieth here, next to her tag-team partner, Johnnie Mae Young, 'The Great Mae,' who, over 90 minutes in 1945, became the only woman ever to wrestle world champion Mildred Burke to a draw.
Walk down the path around the lake, all the way to where the asphalt turns to dirt, but not far from where the lady wrestlers lay buried, and you come to one of those slabs in the ground. This one is going green around its edges.
'ATWATER,' the plaque reads:
H. Lee. 1951-1991. Father, Leader, Husband, Son. I do not choose to be a common man. It is my right to be uncommon. I prefer the challenges of life to guaranteed security, the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia. I will never cower before any master, save my God.
This, it says, is the Republican creed. This is not the most famous quote attributed to the late Lee Atwater, however. That would be his covertly recorded explanation of how the Republican Party rebuilt itself on the ruins of the white-supremacist South in places like South Carolina. It is the primary samizdat document on the Southern Strategy.
You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger'—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.... 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Nigger, nigger.'
It was the father of the Southern Strategy, longtime South Carolinian political boss Harry Dent, along with Atwater, who invented the South Carolina Republican presidential primary in 1980. Shrewdly, they both saw the centers of conservative power moving south and west, away from establishment WASP-ish Republicans like George H.W. Bush. At the same time, they'd noticed how blue-collar white Democrats in the industrial north had flocked to the campaigns of segregationist idol George Wallace, first in 1968 and then again in 1972, until Wallace was shot and nearly killed in a Maryland shopping center.
They both felt demographic and political tides that were gathering themselves behind a new vision for the Party of Lincoln.
At the time, Dent was working for the Bush campaign and, in South Carolina, Atwater had signed on with Reagan. At this point, the Republican race was still up for grabs. Reagan had lost in Iowa to Bush, and his win in New Hampshire was not a significant enough victory in the rapidly transforming Republican party. So Dent set up the South Carolina primary both as a breakthrough and a firewall for the Bush campaign. Meanwhile, Atwater was honing his chops that year by leaking a rumor that former Texas Governor John Connally was trying to buy black votes. And that was how the South Carolina Republican primary was born—in carefully calculating realpolitik and in dirty tricks.
(Poor Connally got caught in a buzzsaw of South Carolina ratfcking. While Atwater was leaking those rumors about bribing the black folks, the Bush campaign, at Dent's encouragement, was whispering that Connally was a supporter of gay rights. Connally must have felt like he was back in Dealey Plaza again.)
By 1988, of course, Atwater was the acknowledged master of the political knife-fight. George Bush was running for president after eight years in Reagan's shadow and, like the true patrician that he was born to be, Bush needed to hire out the dirty work of politics. (Among other things, Bush was still dogged by 'the wimp factor' which the Reagan people had used to great advantage on him in 1980.) Atwater was more than happy to oblige. He promised to 'take the bark' off Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, and Atwater was as good as his word. The campaign degenerated into nasty squabbles about black criminality and the Pledge of Allegiance. (Later, as Sidney Blumenthal noted in his fine book, Pledging Allegiance, on how rotten that campaign really was, we learned that, while these two were fighting over whose kabuki patriotism was the most genuine, the freaking Soviet Union was falling apart. This never came up in the campaign.) Bush declined to get his hands dirty in the project—My dear young man, it simply is not done—but Lee Atwater demolished Dukakis as a candidate and as a public figure.
Not long after that campaign, of course, Atwater was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He spent his last days in public atonement for all the damage he had done to our politics. (He offered a public apology to Dukakis, which Dukakis graciously accepted.) In 1991, they brought Lee Atwater out to Greenlawn for the last time. He was barely 40 years old.
What Atwater did was more than inject into Republican politics a modern form of strategic viciousness. With it, he injected an entirely new form of strategic unreality. From that has come the party's inability to recognize or acknowledge the empirical. By creating an entirely new Dukakis in which his voters could believe, Atwater showed them how to build the bubble and to armor it against reality.
The combination of strategic viciousness and strategic unreality has come full flower this year.
We have Donald Trump, who is one ring of the circus all to himself, calling his opponents liars and Mexicans rapists, and threatening to sue Ted Cruz, who responds by telling Trump to bring it on, and that he, Cruz, would be happy to depose Trump in discovery personally. And Marco Rubio is telling people that the United States is at the edge of the abyss and that only he can restore it to its former glory. What seemed crude and nasty in 1980 has become sleek and edgeless and as common as milk now.
When I got to his grave on this bright morning, the vase of plastic flowers atop it had fallen over from its niche in the metal plaque. I placed it back upright and crossed myself and looked again across the pond and decided that here, right here, was the essential explanation for how Donald Trump had come to be and here, right here, was the explanation for how he, a New York real-estate tycoon, probably will win the votes of enough rednecks and gentlemen and good ladies to win the 2016 South Carolina Republican presidential primary.
Here, right here, I thought, was the place and the man that the Republican party had been moving toward since Harry Dent and Lee Atwater saw American politics turning itself on its head.
Here, right here, as the place where the soul of the South Carolina Republican Primary forever would abide—by a gentle pond raucous with honking geese, fierce and territorial over the smallest things, halfway between the grave of Lee Atwater and the tomb of the Fabulous Moolah.