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Good Riddance

By Mark N. Templeton

EVER SINCE Lee Atwater died last week after a yearlong battle with a brain tumor, politicians have lined up to praise his achievements and lament his passing.

Clayton Yeutter, Atwater's successor as chair of the Republican National Committee, recalled Atwater as "one of the nation's most outstanding political minds."

Former president Ronald W. Reagan said that Atwater "was a true patriot and public servant who believed in free elections and the democratic process. He never lost the will to fight."

Kind words also came from Democrats, Atwater's lifelong opponents. "We should all remember the picture of bravery and regained perspective Lee brought us over these past months. We can never let political battles or fights cause us to lose sight of the fullness of our own lives," said Ron Brown, chair of the Democratic National Committee.

LET'S LOOK at some of Atwater's finer moments to see if President Bush's pit bull deserved such lavish praise.

In 1978, three candidates sought the First U.S. Congressional District seat from South Carolina, right in the heart of the Protestant South. Atwater apparently asked the third-party candidate to advertise the fact that the Democratic candidate, Max Heller, was Jewish. The independent proceeded to proclaim that Heller did not believe that "Jesus Christ has come yet."

In 1980, Atwater discovered that Tom Turnipseed, a Democratic candidate for Congress, had received electric shock therapy while in college. Atwater allegedly planted a reporter to raise the issue at a press conference. Atwater told reporters that he would not talk to someone who had been "hooked up to jumper cables."

Atwater's right-hand man at the RNC wrote a memorandum titled "Tom Foley Out of the Liberal Closet," likening the politics of the house speaker to Rep. Barney Frank '61-'62 (D-Mass.), who is openly gay. Atwater's aide strongly implied in the memo that Foley is gay, hoping to smear Foley because of his alleged sexual orientation. It's hard to believe that Atwater would not have known about the memo. He probably had a hand in creating it.

And as Bush's campaign manager in the 1988 presidential election, Atwater carefully steered debate toward insubstantial issues like the pledge of alliegance, ACLU membership and former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' mental health.

Most cynical of all was Atwater's constant harping on Willie Horton, a Black convict who raped a woman while on a furlough from prison. Referring to Dukakis, Atwater said he would "strip the bark off the little bastard" and "make Willie Horton his running mate."

Horton fit Atwater's unstated but obvious aim of playing to the basest instincts of the electorate. This was the trademark of his savvy political career.

AFTER BEING DIAGNOSED with cancer, Atwater, ever the opportunist, decided to curry political favor with the most powerful backer of all: God. He became a born-again Christian.

"It's just no point in fighting and feuding," Atwater said last November. "I have found Jesus Christ. It's that simple."

Contrast that with what he told Rolling Stone in 1989: "I do have an ethical compass that I follow very strictly. For one reason or another, I seem to get under the other side's skin, but that doesn't bother me."

Apparently, the compass couldn't help him find peace of mind. He apologized to many of his former enemies. He wrote to Turnipseed, seeking the Democrat's forgiveness. In a Life article, he apologized for his nasty jibes at Dukakis: "I am sorry for both statements, the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not."

Most of his former opponents have forgiven him. Now it's up to God.

"THE EVIL that men do lives after them," said Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.

Though Atwater was not the first to use negative campaigning, he certainly took it to a new low. He raised irrelevant issues about candidates' personal lives. He played to the homophobic, racist and religious bigots that make up far too much of the populace.

It would be naive to think that others will not follow his lead in future elections. He certainly knew how to exploit the democratic process to the advantage of his candidates.

But in the end, Atwater failed the standard of character that he and Bush proposed in the 1988 campaign. I'm not shedding any tears about his demise.

I come to bury Atwater, not to praise him.

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