Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Atwater was a trusted advisor of U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Atwater's skills at attack politics brought him and his candidates success. His opponents characterized him as "the Darth Vader of the Republican party", "the happy hatchet man", and "the guy who went negative for the sheer joy of it."
Atwater's aggressive tactics were evident in 1980, when he was a consultant for Republican candidate Floyd Spence in his campaign for Congress against Democratic nominee Tom Turnipseed . Atwater's tactics in that campaign included push polling in the form of fake surveys by "independent pollsters" to "inform" white suburbanites that Turnipseed was a member of the NAACP. He also sent out last-minute letters from Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) telling voters that Turnipseed would disarm America and turn it over to liberals and Communists. At a press briefing, Atwater planted a "reporter" who rose and said, "We understand Turnipseed has had psychotic treatment." Atwater later told the reporters off the record that Turnipseed "got hooked up to jumper cables" - a reference to electroconvulsive therapy that Turnipseed underwent as a teenager.
"Lee seemed to delight in making fun of a suicidal 16-year-old who was treated for depression with electroshock treatments," Turnipseed recalled. "In fact, my struggle with depression as a student was no secret. I had talked about it in a widely covered news conference as early as 1977, when I was in the South Carolina State Senate. Since then I have often shared with appropriate groups the full story of my recovery to responsible adulthood as a professional, political and civic leader, husband and father. Teenage depression and suicide are major problems in America, and I believe my life offers hope to young people who are suffering with a constant fear of the future." 
Atwater's greatest success came in the 1988 presidential election. A particularly aggressive media program, including a television advertisement related to the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who subsequently committed a rape while on a furlough from a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison, allowed George H.W. Bush to overcome Michael Dukakis's 17% lead in early public opinion polls and win both the electoral and popular vote.
During the election, a number of false rumors were reported in the media about Dukakis, including the claim by Idaho Republican Senator Steve Symms that Dukakis's wife Kitty had burned an American flag to protest the Vietnam War, as well as the claim that Dukakis himself had been treated for a mental illness. Atwater is frequently accused of having initiated these rumors, although there is no proof that he did so.
During that election, Atwater was assigned a "minder" by the Bush campaign, George W. Bush. The younger Bush's political strategist, Karl Rove, would later employ Atwater's tactics against John McCain in the 2000 Republican primary. After the election, Atwater was named chairman of the Republican National Committee.
In 1991, Atwater was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Shortly before his death he said he had converted to Catholicism and, in an act of repentance, issued a number of public and written apologies to individuals he had attacked during his political career, including Dukakis. In a letter to Tom Turnipseed dated June 28, 1990, he stated, "It is very important to me that I let you know that out of everything that has happened in my career, one of the low points remains the so called 'jumper cable' episode," adding, "my illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood and relationships that I never understood, and probably never would have. So, from that standpoint, there is some truth and good in everything." 
In a February 1991 article for Life Magazine, Atwater wrote:
- My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The '80s were about acquiring -- acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay , can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.
Critics charge that it is debatable if this act of repentance made any impression on Karl Rove or other Republican strategist responsible for the 2004 election campaign.
- Lee Atwater and T. Brewster, "Lee Atwater's Last Campaign," Life Magazine, February 1991, p. 67.
- Tom Turnipseed, "What Lee Atwater Learned and the Lesson for His Protégés," Washington Post, April 16, 1991, p. A19.
- John Joseph Brady, Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater (1997), ISBN 0201627337.
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