When your opponent is shooting himself in the foot, don’t interrupt him.

- Lee Atwater, former RNC director and political strategist *

LEE ATWATER WAS THE WRONG GUY to have working against you in a political campaign. He was brilliant at creating come-from-behind strategies.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush was trailing in the polls by 17 points against Michael Dukakis.

Then everything changed. Remember the Willie Horton TV ad about a furloughed murderer? Or the claim that Dukakis’s wife Kitty burned an American flag in protest of the Vietnam War?

Behind both was Atwater. Soon, Dukakis’ 17-point lead evaporated.

Atwater knew how to use strategy to gain both control and advantage.

 Carl Francis


Lee Atwater

* HARVEY LEROY "LEE" ATWATER (1951 – 1991) was an American political consultant and strategist. He was an adviser to U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and Chairman of the Republican National Committee.

During the 1970s and the 1980 election, Atwater rose to prominence in the South Carolina Republican party and became well known for managing hard-edged campaigns based on emotional wedge issues such as civil rights, forced busing, and abortion rights.  

Born in Atlanta, he played guitar as a teenager and continued performing into the height of his political power, playing concerts in clubs and church basements, solo or with B.B. King. He released an album called Red, Hot And Blue featuring Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore, Chuck Jackson and King.

In 1990, Atwater was diagnosed with brain cancer. In the ensuing months, he announced that he had converted to Catholicism. In an act of repentance, Atwater issued a number of apologies to those he had opposed during his political career, such as this one in Life magazine:

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.

The article included an apology to Michael Dukakis for naked cruelty in the 1988 presidential campaign.