Political adviser. Lee Atwater was born on February 27, 1951, in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Harvey Dillard Atwater, an insurance agent, and Sarah Alma Page. The Atwaters eventually settled in Columbia. A 1969 graduate of A. C. Flora High School in Columbia, Atwater earned his bachelor of arts degree in history four years later from Newberry College. Atwater received a master’s degree in mass communications from the University of South Carolina in 1977. In 1978 he married Sally Dunbar of Union. They had three children.
Atwater spent much of his early political career managing campaigns for prominent South Carolinians, including Carroll Campbell in 1974 and 1976, Strom Thurmond in 1978, and Floyd Spence in 1980. In these elections Atwater gained his reputation as a shrewd yet negative campaigner willing to use almost any tactic to get his candidate elected. According to Atwater, “Republicans in the South could not win elections by talking about issues. . . . You had to make the case that the other candidate was a bad guy.”
In 1980 Atwater helped manage Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in South Carolina. After Reagan’s victory, Atwater was rewarded with a position in the Reagan administration in the Office of Political Affairs. In 1988 Atwater became a chief political strategist for Vice President George Bush’s campaign for president against Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Atwater solidified his controversial reputation by using a racially charged campaign advertisement featuring Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer who escaped from a Massachusetts penitentiary while on a weekend furlough and who subsequently attacked a white couple in their Maryland home. The advertisement linked Horton with Dukakis in the minds of voters, branding him with the negative image of being a Massachusetts liberal who was soft on crime and too indulgent of minorities. The Horton advertisement became a defining moment in the conservative reemergence in American politics. Bush overcame an early deficit in the polls to win the 1988 election by a solid margin, and Atwater became the chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC).
In 1990 Atwater developed an inoperable brain tumor, forcing him to resign his chairmanship at the RNC. He died on March 29, 1991, in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, Columbia.
Atwater, Lee, with Todd Brewster. “Lee Atwater’s Last Campaign.” Life 14 (February 1991): 58–67.
Brady, John. Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1997.
Carter, Dan T. From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race and the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963–1994. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.