Of all of the corpses that make up the pantheon of dead conservative assholes, few did more to enshrine ugly political tactics, racism, and race-baiting in Republican politics than Lee Atwater. And we now have a revealing glimpse of the young Atwater in his own words, thanks to his daughter, a Democrat if it must be said, who recently gave New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer access to his private papers, including his unpublished, unfinished memoir.
Naturally, Mayer wrote about what she found. And surprise, surprise, Atwater was reportedly a total asshole in high school, spreading lies and misinformation and gleefully inciting physical violence. Sure sounds like today’s Republican Party, one that he helped create!
As Mayer wrote of Atwater’s memoir, it “makes clear that he had already mastered the dark political arts as a teen-ager.” Mayer added, “In fact, it seems that practically everything Atwater learned about politics he learned in high school.”
This includes spreading lies and encouraging violence towards women and his fellow students. Via the New Yorker:
In his memoir, Atwater describes, without remorse, falsely accusing another student of instigating a fight that he had started, and remaining silent after the student was paddled twenty-five times. “I didn’t tell the truth worth a shit,” he admits. He describes organizing six hundred and fifty students to spew spit wads at a female official who, he writes, hadn’t “been screwed in 20 years.” The best moment, in his view, was when a fellow-student threw a glass of ice at her, “and it really hurt her which was the funny part.”
And it seems his time in high school also taught Atwater how to fuck around in politics, most notably in a campaign he mounted to elect a friend as class president. Again, via the New Yorker, emphasis my own:
The first presidential campaign that Atwater managed was a bid to get a friend of his elected as student-body president—against the friend’s wishes. He created a list of false accomplishments and devised a fake rating system that ranked his friend first. He plastered the school with posters declaring his friend’s platform of false promises of “Free Beer on Tap in the Cafeteria—Free Dates—Free Girls.” The campaign took a darker turn when Atwater’s sidekicks stomped on the bare feet of a hippie-like student until his feet bled profusely. Afterward, the group threatened to do the same to younger students unless they voted for Atwater’s candidate. Atwater recalls that he privately revelled in the tactics, and was proud that he could participate in “intimidating” his fellow-students. But publicly he feigned concern, or, as he writes, “I was acting like Eddie Haskell saying, ‘My gosh young people, you could be next.’ ” His candidate won an upset victory, but the school declared it void owing to a technicality. “I learned a lot,” he writes. “I learned how to organize . . . and I learned how to polarize.”
According to his memoir, Atwater saw himself as a bit of a trickster. “Every damn day, I’d screw people up. And that’s fun and funny. And I pulled a lot of shit,” he wrote of his time in high school. His main takeaway? To be “so subtle that they can’t nab you for anything.”