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Atwater's Star Still Shines Brightly

September 29, 2008

For those who were in Washington during the 1980's it was an experience of a lifetime to be part of the Reagan Revolution, and no one exemplified the excitement and promise of that generation more than my good friend Lee Atwater.

He arrived in Washington from South Carolina and was appointed by Reagan to the Office of Political Affairs. In a few short years he rose to the top of his profession by electing a President of the United States. This week a documentary film was released: "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story."

Lee was a star, and he died an untimely death as a result of a brain tumor in March of 1991 at the age of 40. He was to political consulting what Arnold Palmer was to golf – he literally paved the way for others to financially prosper in the world of politics and more than anyone else was responsible for the development of political consulting as a cottage industry.

Today’s consultants are getting rich on book deals, lecture fees, monthly television contracts, year-round campaign fees, the crossover from advising campaigns to advising corporations, and the continuous revolving door practiced by operatives who move easily in and out of high level government positions.

But it was Atwater who gave a face to a fledgling industry, and Washington has never looked back. He was a student of Machiavellianism and boasted of reading Machiavelli’s book The Prince – the art of obtaining and controlling power - over 30 times. He carried a paperback version with him at all times and referenced it often. He completely devoted himself to the study and consequences of politics as an art form.

From an early age he was singularly motivated to getting people elected and set his sights on one day electing a President - a goal he achieved in 1988 with the election of President George H.W. Bush. Truth is he was bored with day-to-day issues and had very little patience for the mundane business of running government. He saw the excitement - and the power - in getting people elected and influencing the process from the outside.

He respected individuals who, like him, ran political campaigns, and he was quick to ask how many campaigns you had managed - and more importantly how many did you win. He wasn’t impressionable - especially with those who held high-level political appointments in the administration. His idea of a successful life was not being beholden or controlled by others. He viewed personal freedom as the most important life objective and saw politics as his way of achieving it.

Lee was indifferent to making money and maintained an ordinary lifestyle. In the early years he kept a dingy apartment near Capitol Hill which he shared with a college buddy, and he didn’t own a car. He held a quiet disdain for the money trappings of Washington and while he knew the importance of raising money -- he tolerated – rather than embraced -- the money men of the day.

But in the White House – and later as Chairman of the Republican National Committee -- he placed hundreds of people throughout various agencies in the Reagan/Bush administrations and achieved cult following status among the young professionals in Washington. His appointees were fiercely loyal and provided him with a back channel of influence in virtually every agency and department within the federal government.

He was the person to see in the White House. His office often resembled a scene from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as political aspirants lined up to request a favor from him. After agreeing to help he would dispatch his deputies to work out the details of the request. Congressmen as well as journalists were also constantly lobbying for his time.

People were enamored by his personality and his natural southern charm – but he could also play political hardball. President Nixon once said that in politics an individual is only relevant if "you could do something for someone or to someone." Atwater could do both – and while many Republican operatives were jealous of him, he forged ahead and his popularity among Reagan lieutenants swelled.

Lee had a youthful spirit that some did not understand and despite the "bad boy" image, he was actually sensitive to a fault and it was important to him that he was liked. He became giddy with disbelief when Hollywood sex symbol Raquel Welch (with whom he sat at a Republican dinner) confided to him that he was one of the most intelligent men she had ever met.

He worked 24/7 in the Old Executive Office Building – his White House office was the one- time hideaway for President Nixon who used it to escape the pressures of the Oval Office. From the office balcony which overlooked the West Wing – Secret Service Swat Teams could be seen on the rooftop, bringing Lee to joke, "Every so often we throw them some red meat."

The testimony to his dominating political influence throughout the 80's is now seen in the scores of high-profile and well-known Washington lobbyists, network television commentators, elected office holders, high-level appointees, and well-known political consultants who are now regular fixtures in the Washington political scene. They all worked for Lee at one time.

When he left the White House to help run the day-to-day operations of the Reagan ‘84 re-election campaign he started to make real money for the first time in his life. But he didn’t change -- he remained fixated on politics and running campaigns culminating with the election of President Bush in 1988.

His true political promise was never fully realized and it’s hard to say what his impact might have ultimately been. This we do know – the political landscape of the 1990's would have been very, very different had Lee lived.

The irony is in a remark he made to me one balmy evening while we sat on his office balcony talking about his favorite subject – the future of politics and how to change the status quo. "We got one thing going for us, Robb, we’ll outlive them."

Many would have liked that.