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Lee Atwater revolutionized presidential campaigning. He helped to create a solid Republican south. And he became notorious for turning national politics back into a blood sport, not only using nasty attacks but reveling in his image as the bad boy of Washington. Then, at the age of 39, Atwater was struck by a brain tumor. In thirteen months, cancer ended the most controversial career in modern politics—the charismatic, colorful, and contradictory life of Lee Atwater.Even today Atwater is a fallen leader ...
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Lee Atwater revolutionized presidential campaigning. He helped to create a solid Republican south. And he became notorious for turning national politics back into a blood sport, not only using nasty attacks but reveling in his image as the bad boy of Washington. Then, at the age of 39, Atwater was struck by a brain tumor. In thirteen months, cancer ended the most controversial career in modern politics—the charismatic, colorful, and contradictory life of Lee Atwater.Even today Atwater is a fallen leader Republicans love and a rival Democrats love to hate. He was the first political handler as mediagenic as his candidates—certainly the first chairman of the Republican National Committee to record a blues album. His campaigns represent the high-water mark of the GOPs postwar dominance of the presidency, and his techniques set the tone for races across the country. Watching Washington since his death, politicians and pundits still wonder, What if Lee Atwater had lived?Bad Boy reveals how Lee Atwater began his career controlling crowds as jittery class clown, traumatized by the agonizing death of his little brother. In college he discovered the subtle intercourse of policy and public opinion and grew from party animal to party man. Bad Boy details Atwater’s political strategies from the grass roots to the national level. Even more ruthless were the behind-the-scenes power games as he crossed paths, and occasionally crossed swords, with nearly every major Republican of the 1980s: Reagan, Bush, Baker, Ailes, Rollins, and many more.In Bad Boy, we also see the faces Atwater tried to spin away. He was a compulsive womanizer, climbing through windows to avoid reporters. He played radical politics but promoted ”big tent” Republicanism. Even his last public moment is controversial. Did Atwater’s deathbed words really repudiate entire campaigns, or were they twisted by political enemies and second-hand reporting? Was his repentance sincere or simply one last gasp of press manipulation? Was he responsible for the infamous Willie Horton ads, or was he unfairly blamed by 1988s losers, trying for a moral victory? Is Lee Atwater, a master of spin, now being spun in his grave?In its sudden end, Atwater’s remarkable life resembled the rise and fall of a fine political novel. With the probing insights of an expert interviewer and a rare stylistic verve, John Brady tells that whole frantic, fascinating story—the life of the baddest boy in D.C.
Lee Atwater led the way in refining the basic tools of negative campaigning—attack ads, dirty tricks, and manipulation of the press—that dominate contemporary politics. Unconcerned with issues or consequences for the country, this devotee of Machiavelli approached political campaigns as wars to be won at any cost. These activities alone offer sufficient material for a juicy biography, but when you throw in continual womanizing, an addiction to exercise and to such musical genres as rock 'n' roll and the blues, and death from a brain tumor, his story takes on a larger-than-life quality. Wisely, Brady presents his material in a detached manner, letting Atwater's actions speak for themselves. The only significant exception to this approach is his discussion of the infamous Willie Horton television commercials, where Brady bends over backwards to minimize Atwater's responsibility. Nevertheless, by the last chapter we have become so inured to Atwater's antics that a final, potentially appalling incident is unsurprising. Confronted with a serious illness, he declares his love for his secretary/personal assistant, installs her as primary keeper and sometime bedmate in his family home (while living with his wife, children, and mother), then finds the emotional strain too intense and completely withdraws from her. Brady points to the tragic death of his brother when Atwater was five, along with his obvious hyperactivity and a penchant for manipulating people and information, to explain Atwater's behavior and personality. Whatever demons were behind his obsessions and skills, however, the result was a political strategist of the highest caliber. If we also criticize Atwater as amoral, we must ask further: What does this say about the candidates who were eager to hire him, and about the political system in which his tactics were successful?
A combination of cynical political reality and modern tragedy, this volume is well worth reading.
Knowledge of human nature is the beginning and end
of political education.
—Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams
If Lee Atwater learned one thing during his brief but crowded lifetime, it was how to handle the media. He used the same manipulative skills to orchestrate press coverage as he had applied to developing as a musician over the years. The spin doctor was always in. Even when a reporter had done a little homework, which was surprisingly rare, and tried to get "up close and personal," Atwater knew how to change the topic or cut things short. Magazine writers could be a problem, of course. They usually wanted to hang out for a day or two, and it could be tough to avoid the personal stuff. Even then, if his brother Joe ever came up, Lee made light of the accident that had happened when he was a youngster, as though he barely remembered it. Hardly meant a thing at all. Then he'd put on that tough, bad-boy demeanor that the press gobbled up. "I think I learned pretty early that in the end it's only you," he once reflected stoically. "To an extent, you're all alone." But Joe never left Lee alone for long.
Lee liked to say that a winning campaign was marked by a series of defining events along the path to victory. Events that define who we are. If life is like a campaign, the defining event for Lee Atwater occurred in the kitchen of a little house in Aiken, South Carolina, on the Tuesday afternoon of October 5, 1956. Toddy Atwater had been struggling all week with a sinusinfection, and that day she had inhaled a bunch of fumes as she stripped paint from an old iron bed. A splitting headache—and where was Harvey? In eight years of marriage. he had never been late for dinner. Not once. And now the kids were starting to bounce, especially Lee, so wiry and impatient. "Where's Daddy?" he asked.
Harvey Atwater, known for his punctuality, was listening to a late-arriving client drone on. Normally, Harvey left his office at the insurance company by five-thirty, and he'd be walking through the door to Toddy and the boys by now. But he didn't know the man well enough to cut him short, so he decided to wait him out. It was nearly six o'clock. A half hour late.
Toddy thought Harvey might have had trouble with his car, another in a line of junk heaps. "Let's make some donuts while we're waiting for Daddy," she said to the boys. Lee drifted into the living room to watch TV. Joe began to snoop around the stove.
How different the boys were, thought Toddy. Even though she often dressed them alike, they differed both physically and temperamentally. Lee, who would be six in February, was blond with a crewcut, all hard and wiry, tightly wound, impatience on wheels. Joe, at three, was more soft and cuddly, with brown curly hair, rounded cheeks, and a gentle disposition. The only thing the two had in common was striking blue eyes, and a brotherly bond that was starting to surface. "I've got me a playmate for the rest of my life!" Lee had announced to his parents a few weeks earlier. Lee worshipped his little brother. But Joe was star-crossed. Harvey and Toddy had already had a premonition that something was going to happen to the child. In the spring of that year he had nearly died after an awful bout with the measles. Then, during a spring storm, Joe had been sitting in front of a window fan that was struck by lightning. When that occurred, they were relieved.
"If the Lord were going to take him," Toddy told her husband, "he'd have let that lightning strike him today. I don't guess anything's going to happen now."
She found the deep-fat fryer that her father had given her the previous year. She set it atop the stove, filled it with oil, plugged in the cord, and waited for it to reach 340 degrees. Joe climbed up on the trash can to get a closer look. "Joe, get down!" said Toddy. "That grease is hot!"
As Joe started to get down, the trash can toppled. Instinctively, his hand reached out and grasped the cord. The fryer tipped. The boiling oil came down over Joe on the floor. In one horrifying instant, Toddy Atwater knew that her son was going to die. The screaming began.
Harvey Atwater came through the door. In a panic, he reached for a jar of rice and started throwing it wildly in the air. Lee ran into the kitchen and saw Joe lying there, his skin starting to peel. Toddy was hysterical. They wrapped Joe in sheets and got him to the hospital. Joe's burns covered 90 percent of his body, and he had lost his right eye to the scalding liquid. Toddy stayed that night and into the morning. "Mama, please don't cry," Joe kept saying. "Please don't cry."
Three days later, as Joe was being buried, a neighbor went into the house on Wildwood Road and removed his clothing, shifted some furniture around. Toddy wanted to move to another house, but Harvey insisted, "No, we've got to face it." But they didn't.
Silence fell on the family like an admission of careless neglect and complicity. Lee clung to his mother. "Repression is a terrible thing," their minister told Toddy one day. "Remember, you and Harvey can express your grief, but Lee can't." But there was no room for religious consolation now, or for a long time. If there was a God, how could he let that happen to a little kid? That was the reasoning. That was the anger. Neither Toddy nor Harvey could mention Joe without breaking into tears.
Lee would hear Joe's little voice lifted in pain for the rest of his life.
* * *
Toddy had wanted a baby, but Harvey was in no rush. In fact, even the notion of marriage caught him by surprise. After serving in World War II he went to see his best friend, Cliff Page, and here was this kid sister, six years younger, now all grown up. And quite lovely. He and Toddy went out on New Year's Eve, kissed at midnight in Spartanburg, and were married on Thanksgiving day, 1947. The next year they moved to Atlanta, where Harvey attended Emory Law School for two years—a false start—and Toddy taught high school Spanish. They were living in university apartments when Toddy became pregnant with their first child. Harvey was so absorbed across town in the business of selling his car—he was almost always selling a car—that when Lee was born, on Tuesday, February 27, 1951, neighbors had to take Toddy to Emory Hospital. Of course, Lee was three weeks early—a lifetime trait, his parents would later conclude. He weighed in at seven pounds, three ounces, at 1:05 in the morning, and Harvey was enormously proud. "Ain't he the prettiest thing?" he said.
They named him Harvey LeRoy Atwater after his dad and his mother's father, LeRoy Randolph Page. To trace the Page family tree, which several of Toddy's forebears have done, is to go back to the Presbyterian minister Alexander Craighead, a Revolutionary War patriot who lived in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The Craigheads married into the Carruths of North Carolina, who migrated to the town of Landrum, South Carolina, in the early nineteenth century, where the Pages of Charlotte County, Virginia, had also established residence. On November 2, 1882, Nannie Elizabeth Carruth married Gabriel Cannon Page, postmaster and prominent area Republican, and LeRoy Randolph Page was born on January 1, 1891.
In his early teens, Lee Page fell beneath a horse-drawn wagon, which broke his left leg. When a country doctor set the leg improperly, Lee was left with a severe limp that made farming an ordeal, but he refused to let the disability get in his way. During this period, he met Alma Irene Foster, whose family had just moved to Landrum from Polk County, North Carolina. Lee enrolled in Wofford College, and Irene attended high school in Landrum, but not for long, for they soon eloped and were married on February 23, 1911, in Campobello, South Carolina. Lee was twenty, Irene sixteen. Using family and political connections, Lee applied for a rural mail route and began delivering mail via horse and buggy in Landrum, later becoming a railroad mail clerk on train runs from Asheville in the mountains to Columbia, South Carolina. Eventually, he took the post as transfer clerk in the Spartanburg office so that his family could get better education at city schools.
They lived on Dallas Place in a working-class Spartanburg neighborhood, raising five children during the dark days of the Depression and the anxious World War II years. Sarah Alma Page—called Toddy because as a baby she toddled around—was born on July 20, 1924. The Pages considered themselves lucky because Lee had a job. Others in the family did not (one of his brothers, two of Irene's), so Lee's salary had to go a long way. "If we ever did ask for anything, we knew the answer was `No!' immediately," recalled Toddy's sister Mickey. One of their father's favorite expressions was, "We will have to eat dirt and go naked!" Their mother sewed dresses for the girls (Irene could even make skirts out of men's worn-out pants), kept a garden, baked bread, and prepared three hot meals daily. She also struggled with bouts of depression, since life for Lee Page "was serious business, a work or die affair." After all, Lee was accustomed to being the wage earner, the leader of the flock.
His crippled condition had two noticeable side effects. On the up side, it encouraged the development of his engaging storytelling skills—Lee could swap stories with anyone, recapturing his youth with tales that he eventually published in a slender volume called Memories of My Childhood. On the down side, it also left him with a crusty demeanor and impatience with anyone who didn't share his view of the world. That included his politics, of course. The Pages were Republicans in an era when there was no Republican Party in South Carolina. In 1932, when the framed portrait of FDR replaced the picture of Herbert Hoover in the classrooms of Spartanburg, there was enthusiastic applause from all but the Page children, who sat on their hands.
Both parents were avid readers, insisting that the children have library cards. The library was on the other side of town—a long walk that the Page children made regularly. They also visited a music teacher for piano lessons. At night the children studied at the dining table under the overhead light while Lee and Irene sat by the coal heater reading, always ready to check homework, call out multiplication tables, or coach with spelling. The radio was not turned on until all homework was completed.
On August 17, 1947, shortly after her fifty-third birthday, Irene Foster Page died of cancer. After working forty-one years for the mail service, Lee Page died on August 7, 1982, at the age of ninety-two. Because her grandmother had lived until the age of ninety-three, and her aunt had lived to the age of ninety-four, Toddy would later recall thinking that the Page progeny had two things in common: longevity and the Republican Party.
Harvey Dillard Atwater was born on June 18, 1919, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was one of three boys born to Charles Bynum Atwater and his wife Sally Belle Dillard. When Harvey was four, his parents separated. Sally Belle came home to Spartanburg with the boys, where she worked for the telephone company and lived with her sister Bessie Dillard, who worked for the Southern Railway and never married. All the boys went on to graduate college, a testament to their mother's hard work and belief in the importance of education. Harvey weighed 210 in high school and played football. In 1938 he started at Wofford College in Spartanburg on a football scholarship. His schooling was interrupted in 1941 when he went into the service, but he later graduated college in '48.
Like all Atwaters in this country, Harvey could trace his lineage to David Atwater of Royton in Lenham in Kent, England, who, according to a family historian, "came across in the good ship Hector [to New Haven] in 1637. He and his good wife Demaris, and their six sons and four daughters and their children and grandchildren endured as many hardships, felled as many trees, fought as many Indians, burned as many witches and tossed over as much tea, and were as good all 'round pilgrim fathers and mothers as if Grandfather David had arrived in the Mayflower in 1620." David Atwater was characterized as a tough-minded soul. He later became one of the founding fathers of Yale.
By the time of the Revolution, David's great-grandson Enos Atwater was continuing the hard-charging family tradition. During the plundering of New Haven by the British in 1779, he held his daughter Mary up inside one of the open chimneys to hide the silver communion service of the First Church of New Haven, according to family lore. During the same invasion, brother Russell Atwater was wounded and left for dead, but he recovered and was later employed by the Emperor Napoleon after the battle of Waterloo to purchase a tract of land in New York State as a refuge, should he escape his imprisonment on the isle of Elba. And William Cutler Atwater, another brother, carried dispatches from New Haven to the army at New London and back on horseback.
According to Francis Atwater's Atwater History & Genealogy, from Enos Atwater, apparently the first North Carolinian Atwater, born in 1748, there sprang subsequent generations: Titus, his son, born in 1775; and Jehiel, his son, born in 1817. "His prominent trait was devotion to principle, judicial trend of mind, and fearlessness in doing what he considered to be right," observed Jehiel's son Edmund Warren Atwater, born in 1842. The descendants of the original North Carolina Atwater settlers, he added, "carry the same characteristics. They occupy socially the very best places, not society people, but for pure thoughts and character, and safe morals, none excel them.... They have been and will continue to be Puritans; free from intolerance, indeed I might say the spirit of intolerance has no foothold in them."
Edmund Warren Atwater was a brother of John N. Atwater (1858-1930), of Chapel Hill, the progenitor of Lee's line. And then there was Francis Atwater, a cousin whose chief characteristic seemed to be a faculty for starting things. "Indeed, his capacity for nosing around, prying into, putting out, stirring up family affairs, tampering with county and state records, scraping up old wills and mortgages, disclosing graveyard secrets, and making the other fellow do is unparalleled in the annals of Atwater history," reported family historian Lillie Gannon Atwater Parker at the annual family picnic in Chapel Hill in 1919. "I doubt if there is a state in the Union, or an Atwater in the state who has escaped this man. When he makes up his mind to do a thing, it is done. He suggested a reunion.... He told all of you to come to Chapel Hill and I see you are all here. If this man should ask any of you confidentially to take a trip to the moon to see if any of the Atwaters have escaped up there, my advice to you is to start."
Harvey LeRoy Atwater seems to have sprung from this mold—the pusher, the delegator, the manipulator, the doer.
* * *
Lee was a difficult child. Toddy couldn't get a baby-sitter. No one wanted to deal with the crying. His legs jerked, his chin quivered, his arms shook. Doctors said his nervous system was not entirely developed owing to the premature birth. "It'll go away," they said. But it never did. Toddy tried to nurse him. He cried. She put him on a bottle. He cried. He didn't like being alone. She held him, rocked him. He cried, hardly slept at all. When he did fall asleep, it was almost by default, only after rocking himself to sleep by knocking his head repeatedly against the headboard of the crib, creating a bald spot with a callus on his head. One evening Toddy heard a crash. Lee had rocked some screws loose, and the crib had fallen apart. He cried.
For two and a half years Lee was Toddy's entire life. She idolized him. Lee walked at one year ... but then he ran. He talked early—and often. By two, onlookers thought he could read, but he had memorized books his mother read to him in her lap. At age two and a half he could recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the Charleston commencement program in nursery school. Proud Toddy made him say it for company.
But Lee seemed to be lacking in coordination. He had the worst handwriting his mother had ever seen in a youngster, and it never got much better. Even as an adult, he held a pen as you would hold a piece of chalk. Toddy was worried about Lee's nervousness, his quivering mouth, his legs that shook all the time. She asked a doctor whether it was something to worry about and was told that it was just high energy. It never changed. Lee just discovered outlets. At three Lee took an interest in Indian lore. He carried a tomahawk and wore a feather hat and blanket that hot summer. Toddy always read to him, always nourished his sense of curiosity, taking him to museums. By the time he went to school, he had developed a remarkable memory (he knew all the presidents) and a fondness for history.
Toddy worshipped Lee, but he was exasperating. After Joe was born on November 18,1953, Lee wanted even more attention. When Toddy fed or bathed foe, Lee would jerk down curtains, pull off bedspreads, do anything to get his mother's attention. Only when Joe could play and interact with Lee was there any time for Toddy to fuss over Harvey.
After quitting law school, Harvey had joined an insurance company, and the family had moved to Charleston in April 1951 when Lee was six weeks old. For six months they rented an unheated house with no closets on Lightwood Lane from the Porcher (pronounced por-chay) family for $55 a month. Locals referred to them as "the Porcher tenants," never the Atwaters, there being a line between bluebloods and commoners in Charleston. In 1956 Harvey was transferred, and the family moved to the rental home on Wildwood Road in Aiken, where Joe's death would bring such pain to their lives.
The trauma occurred precisely when Lee should have become an independent little boy. "Get me another baby!" he moaned. It was the last thing Toddy wanted, but "guilt is a great motivator," she said, so Anne was born August 19,1957. Lee didn't really want another baby, either, but she was so adorable—now he found himself competing with her as well as with his dead brother for the attention that he craved.
The move would have other implications as well: Strom Thurmond, who was born near Aiken, lived but a few doors from the house on Wildwood Road. Young Lee's first encounter with the senator occurred during a trick-or-treat stop at the Thurmond home that first Halloween in Aiken. "He came out and gave me a Snickers candy bar," Lee would later recall. "That was the best thing I got that year. So I liked Senator Thurmond, but I didn't know anything about politics."
Aiken is a small city in the third congressional district, which runs along the Georgia border and up to North Carolina. In 1948, nearly four years before Lee Atwater was born, Thurmond—then South Carolina's Democratic governor—ran as a Dixiecrat for president. In 1952 Aiken supported Eisenhower in the presidential election. It was the beginning of a rising Republican tide in the South. By 1964, Thurmond, by then a senator, would become a Republican as South Carolina supported Goldwater.
In 1957, at the age of six, Lee started school and appeared in his first stage production, called "Wedding of the Flowers." He was a dandelion. The Atwaters had eventually bought a home at 1428 Parsons Lane, but in 1961, when Harvey was promoted to manager, the family moved to Columbia. The move disturbed Lee. At nine, he was starting to feel he wanted to be from somewhere. "Will y'all promise me one thing?" he inquired when they arrived in Columbia. "Never to move again. I don't want to change schools anymore." They didn't. Harvey and Toddy bought a ranch-style house at 4720 Norwood Road (for $18,300) that would be their home for the next twenty-nine years. With three bedrooms, plus a garage for Harvey's auto workshop and boat (another major vice was fishing), the Atwaters lived in what Lee would refer to as "the middle of the middle class."
Politics, like real estate, is often a matter of location. In Columbia, the state capital and hotbed of political activity, Lee would later find his niche. "It was very good for me politically," he explained. "We moved to the key, critical political points of the state: Charleston, Aiken, Columbia, and Spartanburg. So I had a good understanding of the state because of the places I'd lived."
Although never diagnosed as being hyperactive, Lee had nearly all of the classic symptoms. In grammar school he couldn't sit still, had a short attention span, was impulsive, and had an insatiable need for attention. "Lee was a poor student," recalled classmate and lifelong pal David Yon. "Bright, but unable to stay focused; he was always switching channels." Lee learned early how to have his way with other kids—not physically, but through other means of manipulation and control that left him clearly in charge of relationships. Lee became a prankster, sending birthday invitations to all of the girls in class from David Yon, who was too shy to throw a party, even if it was his birthday. (It wasn't.)
Another classmate was Warren Tompkins, who would go on to achieve fame as a political consultant and chief of staff to South Carolina governor Carroll A. Campbell Jr. "The rest of us would all sit around and talk about baseball, football, hunting, and fishing. With Lee, it was always oddball things: music, books," he recalled. "He was always sort of a leader, always the person who could organize people. He would get people to go to all-star pro wrestling—in the sixth grade."
Lee's home life was a mystery to his school pals. Lee's need for attention was compounded by his parents' devastation after the death of Joe. Hearing his father cry cut deeply into Lee. He could never think of his dad as a rock, and he leaned increasingly on his mother, the nurturer. Indeed, if Lee's life was defined by any one person, it was Toddy. At some point she had decided she just had to go on and be there for her children, and that she was just going to enjoy Lee. If laughter is the stepchild of tears, it became an unspoken bond between mother and surviving son. Not only were the kids at school laughing, but there was laughter at home again. "They were always yucking it up," recalled a visitor. "You never got a sense of what the real mother-child relationship was."
David Yon once commented on a tender yet haunting portrait of Lee and Joe, hung over the living-room sofa, done by Toddy's artist sister Mickey just before Joe's death. "Oh, that's my little brother," said Lee. "He died."
Money was tight. When Lee and Anne were old enough, Toddy went back to teaching. With Harvey on a salary (no commission or bonus), they needed her income to save for education a priority they both shared—along with a sense of thrift—having grown up during the Depression. Toddy clipped grocery store coupons, budgeted one dollar a day for meat at supper, and reared her family on southern fried chicken, pork chops, biscuits, rice and beans. No liver, no squash, and no leftovers. In fifth grade Lee became a Laddy Boy, wearing a plaid tie and selling eggs door to door for sixty cents a dozen. He made a nickel on each sale and was soon appointed sales manager in charge of getting "starts." Although Lee loved to sell, he was indifferent to money, or to the lack of it. Once he lost a dollar in the family yard and quickly gave up the search. Toddy looked and looked. "That's your profit for a week!" she said. Toddy found the dollar, of course, just as Lee knew she would.
In eighth grade, Lee's class went to Washington, D.C., where he saw politics in action for the first time. Most of his classmates had $10 to spend, but Toddy had given Lee $5 as an exercise in resourcefulness. Miss Speigner, the teacher/chaperone, had feared that Lee would be trouble. His reputation in the classroom preceded him. But on this trip Lee seemed to blossom. He thrived on the excitement of politics in action. Miss Speigner told Toddy that Lee asked the most intelligent questions, and when the class posed for a photo in front of the Capitol after a visit to Strom Thurmond, there was Lee, sitting right in front of the senator. He spent most of the $5 on a little black bear souvenir for his sister Anne.
One afternoon, as Harvey was test-driving one of his cars, Lee sat on the automobile's floor fiddling with the radio dial. A song came on with a cadence, a beat, a spirit that seemed to transfix the youngster. It was James Brown singing "Please, Please, Please." Harvey turned the dial, but that night Lee found the same station on the radio in his room—WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee—and he was hooked on rhythm and blues. At five he had seen Elvis Presley on TV, after which he began to do gyrations in the living room, pleading for a guitar for his birthday. But his parents wanted him to learn the piano. Soon lames Brown pirouettes were part of Lee's repertoire.
OK, here's the deal with the music, Toddy told him. If you will take piano lessons for three years, we will get you a guitar for your eleventh birthday. Agreed. Lee never missed a piano lesson, but when Toddy purchased a guitar for $14 on February 27, 1962, they never heard the piano again. Though its wire strings made Lee's fingers bleed, he was consumed by the instrument. On weekends he rose early and practiced until seven in the evening. The first song he learned was a piano tune, Ray Charles's "What'd I Say?" (To appease his father, he also learned the theme from Bonanza.) Once, when he wanted to practice but had to entertain sleepover guests Charles Strickland and David Yon, Lee made a fifty-cent wager that he could make them say uncle by playing the same five notes over and over. For six hours he played those notes, until, at three o'clock in the morning, they didn't say uncle; they moaned it. In June 1963, Lee sang heartfelt renditions of "This Land Is Your Land" and "If I Had a Hammer" at his grammar school graduation. His voice already had a bit of gravel in it, and teachers who were there still recall how Lee sang with a wrinkled boyish nose, a touch of impishness at the attention he was receiving, and penetrating beautiful blue eyes that were impossible to forget.
* * *
At W. J. Keenan Junior High School, Lee quickly developed a reputation as a hellion. Lee's own copy of The Rebel, the school's first yearbook, is covered with seventh-grade sentiments and references to his passions for wrestling, singing, playing the guitar, and cracking up most of his classmates most of the time. "Our class might have been very dull without you," wrote social studies teacher Mrs. Edith Joy on the autographs page at the end of the book. "I have enjoyed teaching you."
On the cover of the yearbook, Lee's English teacher, Mrs. Marigene Loving, was more to the point: "To my first nightmare every morning!"
As puberty settled in, Lee realized that there was only one sure way to get the attention of girls: football. On the up side for Lee, he could do a James Brown slide in cleats. The downside was he was scrawny, pigeon-toed, ran funny, and his left leg twitched all the time. In ninth grade, he tried out for the B team. "Mrs. Atwater, Lee will never be a football player," the coach told Toddy. "You have to be aggressive to play football, and that's just not in Lee. He's not mean enough."
Lee didn't play a minute. He spent the season entertaining his fellow benchmates as team mascot. After the team banquet, he threw his letter on the kitchen table and announced to his parents: "That's the end of my football career!"
So how to impress girls? If he couldn't play football, he would play rock 'n' roll. At twelve he started smoking cigarettes, trying to act older. He talked his way into the Green Door, a black club near Shakespeare Road where he caught the band and ended up onstage doing James Brown-style splits for the crowd.
At home he held his mother's hairbrush the way Elvis cradled a mike, singing the songs he heard on the radio. Yes, that's what he wanted to be. A rocker. The next year he formed a band and spent weekends playing gigs where he could find them. No job was too small. Classmates recall seeing Lee strumming away on the back of a flatbed truck for the grand opening of a grocery store in the Forest Lake shopping center. He had unusual stamina, high energy, and a devilish mind. But still no girls.
In ninth grade, Lee seemed naive in the ways of women. "There was a latent sexual drive—you had the feeling that there was this really tightly bound drive within him—but it did not come out as pressure to be sexually active with him," recalled one of his dates. "I really don't think he was very experienced at that point. He bluffed a lot and told a lot of jokes, but I don't think he knew as much as he acted like he knew. From the questions he asked, I just think he was largely ignorant of a lot of things related to females in particular, life in general, in terms of human behavior."
Once Lee established conversational rapport with a girl, he'd ask lots of questions. He was very curious about people, about motivations, even biological particulars. He asked questions that he didn't feel comfortable asking at home. "I can remember telling him about girls and what a menstrual cycle was like," recalled one girlfriend. "He would ask, `What do you do? What do you use? Do you have cramps?' He was just eternally curious. It was as though he wanted to vacuum my brain. He plied me with questions all the time, and I think his curiosity was genuine. I don't think he had any bad motives. He would just ask me any question that came to his mind."
Insofar as girls were concerned, the big problem with Lee was trust. Even guys who enjoyed being with Lee could never be sure that he wouldn't do something for a laugh at their expense. Some girls enjoyed Lee's wild streak, but most wouldn't settle for being one member of his audience, someone he would return to after he had performed. Then, in ninth grade, Lee had his first serious flirtation. Her name was Debbie Carson, and, in addition to being cute, Debbie was a member of the National Junior Honor Society, a class officer who had been voted most likely to succeed as well as "best all 'round" in the class. Well, now. Here he was, class clown, and his girl is an honor roll student, a student body officer! It validated his sense of worth. It was too good to last. And it didn't.
Lee's addictive personality pulled him back into the spotlight, where he basked in crowd approval. He loved being the center of attention and could always devise a way of putting himself there. At school dances, he would get onstage and dance around, playing air guitar, mugging with his "blues face," upstaging acts, creating dance contests in the area right in front of the stage. Afterward he would apologize to Debbie for behavior that must have struck her as being compulsive. "I know I acted badly," he would say on the phone the next day. "I hope you'll still go out with me."
When Debbie began to draw away, Lee asked her why. She explained that girls like sincerity, that they want to feel that somebody is genuinely interested in them. "I'm just tired of being the second half of the show," she said. "I feel like I've got to be part of a stunt routine."
"There were sides of Lee that I certainly adored," she recalled. "But the opportunist in him—the person seeking popularity and a stage—would almost always overrule the nice guy, the more genuine part of him. I don't think he could stop it."
Toddy was then teaching Spanish at Keenan part-time, and she was weary of fellow teachers telling her what Lee had done in class day after outrageous day. Lee didn't even care enough to cheat. His grades were Ds and Fs. He thought it was cool to be dumb. One day, when Lee's teacher had left the classroom to go to the lounge, Lee stood atop an overturned waste basket, playing air guitar and starring in his own rhythm and blues show, when his mother walked by. "He decided that since he wasn't the smartest in the room, he would be the dumbest," she said. "He had to be different." By the time Lee graduated junior high in June of 1966, his parents thought that he had to be different, too. Military school.
"Too bad you won't be at Flora next year!" wrote one schoolmate in Lee's yearbook, which was filled with notations from classmates attesting to Lee's reputation as a schoolyard wrestler, a guitarist, the leader of a band, a teller of jokes, a pursuer of girls, and resident class clown. Lee thumbed through the yearbook and added some gag captions to photos of faculty and friends. On page 35 there was the Keenan Concert Band, with Lee looking positively wholesome in jacket and tie, with a sax in hand. No guitar playing 'round here! "You are the greatest, you are the strongest, you are the biggest," Lee scrawled in his wobbly script above his picture. "You are the star."
* * *
At Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, most of the students were discipline problems, though none of them knew it until they showed up. A cadet could pull guard duty just for having a bad haircut. He could complain, but not between seven and ten P.M. That period was for Closed Quarters—CQ to the embittered—when there was only silence and studying. It was lights out with taps at ten-thirty.
Some cadets ran off from FU, refusing to return. Those who stuck it out attended classes taught one topic at a time in six-week segments. If they didn't make a 75, they failed the course and had to repeat it. Outside the classroom, they could look forward to inspections and drills. "Four boys got into serious trouble last week for buying this lemon extract, which is 80 percent alcohol, and getting drunk," Lee wrote in an early letter home. "They didn't get kicked out but they were all sergeants or above, and now they're reduced to the rank of private and have no more leaves and have to march tours every day till the end of the year."
Wow, thought Harvey and Toddy. Just what Lee needs!
Lee knew what he needed, too—and generally got it. "He was a manipulator," recalled a roommate. "He could talk you into agreeing to anything." Their room, on the second floor of the barracks, didn't have to be as clean as the others, because Lee was in with the upperclassmen. If a room up the hall had anything amiss, "You're on report!" As for the Atwater abode—A company, second platoon—a scuff on the floor would simply elicit an upperclassman's compassion. "They'd actually help us with a rag to buff the floor."
When the upperclassmen were out of sight, Lee reverted to his former life as Dennis the Menace. He had arrived with a guitar, a saxophone, and a moniker: "Little LeRoy." He dubbed his roommate Benny Ferrell "B.B. Bluesboy." Lee sold memberships in a record club to his classmates and thereby enriched his own blues collection. "For every new member you get, you get a free album," he wrote home. "So far I've got four new members—that's four free albums right there!"
There were quicker routes to collecting glory. One night, Lee bet Benny a handful of record albums that he could jump out a second-story window in the barracks and return to their room undetected. He won that bet, so he offered another. After lights out, he bet that Benny couldn't even go down the hall to get a magazine and return undetected. As Benny returned triumphantly to his room he found that Lee had placed a locker behind the door, leaving Benny stranded in the hall where he was sure to be caught.
Lee was addicted to the showy gamble. In the mess hall he bet an upperclassman $3 that he could drink an entire bottle of Tabasco sauce, which he did. After collecting the money, Lee laughed all the way to the barracks head. "You could hear him laughing and barfing at the same time," recalled a classmate. "He never made a wager for the money. It was just to show he could do it."
Lee's extracurricular pursuits included signing out for visits to a roommate's home and going instead to a couple of rented hotel rooms in Georgetown for a weekend of hard partying. When Lee did go home with another classmate, it was to party with the roomie that he called a hillbilly—Benny, from Tazewell, Virginia, population 4,700. On weekend leaves, they took the family car (driving age was fifteen) and motored to Bluefield, West Virginia. Lee, wearing his academy uniform to look older, purchased six-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon at a grocery store that didn't check IDs. In the car, he changed back into civvies and chugged beers in long extended gulps like a sword swallower. He could consume a six-pack in ten miles, tossing cans out the car window, then arriving at a rock or soul dance thoroughly blitzed. On the dance floor, he did James Brown splits and pirouettes. He picked up girls who were impressed at first by his wildness and wit, but who slowly froze on the unbearable ride home.
And then it was back to good ol' FU. "Life up here is routine," Lee sighed in a letter home. He wrote home weekly, because he had to. That was another thing about Fork Union: rules, rules, rules. "I'm beginning to get fed up with this place," said Lee after two months. "I don't really miss anything in Columbia except my family and a home environment." Toddy and Harvey did not relent. After all, Lee's grades were better. He averaged 87 now.
Lee wanted to enroll with his friends at J. C. Flora High, a campus-style school, complete with social clubs, in Columbia. So he devised a campaign (not his last). It began with letters that told his parents what they wanted to hear. "This school is doing wonders for me and I'm really maturing a lot up here," he wrote in December. "I have been thinking a lot about the future and I think the best thing for me to do is come home this summer and take an advanced subject in summer school." As his parents began to yield to the promise of a new maturity, Lee's countdown began.
"I don't think I could stand another year of this place," he wrote in March.
"In only twelve days I'll be out of here for good," he wrote in May. "I know this place has done a lot of good for me but I still will be glad as heck to get out of here."
Harvey and Toddy caved in. Lee would enroll at Flora for eleventh grade. He promised to do better. He had even devised a career strategy in a letter from Fork Union that winter, hadn't he? "I think that at the beginning of 12th grade I will apply at South Carolina, the Citadel, N.C. State, and Wofford," he said, tossing in Harvey's alma mater. "I would especially like to go to Wofford. I think I would like to be a lawyer and maybe someday go into politics."
Well, now. A career in politics. Harvey and Toddy were skeptical as ever.
* * *
Columbia in the late 1960s was a small segregated city, struggling like so many other southern communities as the Old South was on the verge of becoming the New South. Pols met then, as now, at the Capitol Restaurant, where legislators enjoyed a weekly hoedown with banjos and guitars. Columbia was not a particularly rich or moneyed town, but the economy was strong because of the diversity that had built up over the years—state government, city and county government, the University of South Carolina, local businesses, and the big army base, Fort Jackson, nearby. It all kept the economy steady, with no rocking up or down in boom-and-bust cycles. The first mall in the state had just opened opposite Flora High, but downtown was still the hub of commerce and where everyone went on Saturday morning. There were numerous department stores and eight movie houses downtown—bottom floor and balcony for whites; back balcony for blacks, with separate water fountains. At that time Forest Acres, where the Atwaters lived, was a middle- and occasionally upwardly middle-class suburb, somewhat rural and uncluttered by commerce. Now it's all part of a city that has doubled in size and sprawl.
In the pivotal summer of '67, Lee—free at last from the rigors of Fork Union—hooked up with his old junior high classmate Steve Sisk, whose father was director of state parks in South Carolina. Lee and "Sisko" made an odd pair. Steve had spent most of his boyhood doing the things that Lee could barely tolerate—fishing, swimming, and camping out in the woods. With chiseled features and a winning smile, he was a boisterous, mischievous tease, whose heart was as big as his size—at graduation from Flora, he was six two and 235 pounds. Steve was sincere, a bit innocent, even shy. He could stumble when trying to give voice to a serious thought. He loved watching cartoons, playing sports, and writing. He kept a journal, and several of his writings appeared in the Flora literary yearbook. "He lived 120 minutes of every hour," said a friend. At Flora, he broke the school shot-put record in his junior year. He played varsity football for three years leading the Flora Falcons to a season record of 9-1-1. Once, when the team lost a tough game, Sisko visited each teammate at home and urged him to snap back. The Falcons didn't lose another game that season.
Lee respected Steve because they could go toe-to-toe-not in fisticuffs (Steve could kill him) but in humor. Steve could muscle his way through a prank, whereas Lee could only talk his way out. That summer of '67 Steve and Lee became lifeguards at Kings Mountain State Park near the North Carolina line. No fishing or camping out required, and girls aplenty at the lake—Lee's kind of job. One night Steve fell out of a boat and feigned drowning. He swam ashore underwater then watched as Lee paddled around in the moonlight, calling for his buddy. The next morning, when Steve showed up at camp, he expected to walk in and see Lee's jaw drop. Not exactly. Lee, smelling a watery rat, had not even reported his buddy absent. "I just couldn't decide whether to report you as missing," said Lee, "or dead."
Lee had been chasing the ladies since age fourteen. He once crawled under the tent at the annual Newberry County Fair to watch a dancer take the glasses off a nosy male viewer, insert them between her legs, then return the smudged optics to the transfigured patron. You could look, but you couldn't touch, that was the rule. Lee touched and was thrown out. He snuck back in and was about to touch again when two bouncers escorted him to the exit, this time with a terminal oof.
From watching the barkers at carnivals, Lee learned how to hype, how to promote. He especially loved pro wrestling shows, where he learned the importance of bombast, and how to immobilize a larger opponent. The Grapevine, the Figure Eight, the Boston Crab—these holds required more ingenuity than brawn; with these moves a shrimp of a wrestler could control a whale. Lee, who had strong hands from years of guitar calisthenics, devised a sport. Two opponents stood a few feet apart, facing each other. They extended their hands and interlocked their fingers. The goal was to push your opponent's hands backward without moving your legs. Lee "lost" only to the oversized Rex Brown, who had threatened to beat him up after the humiliation of an earlier, very public defeat.
* * *
"My childhood, adolescence and high school days are unusually important," Lee reflected near the end of his life. "If there has ever been a time that I developed a uniqueness and sense of humor and the ability to organize, it was then. In those early days I developed the skills that gave me a certain degree of success in American politics."
Lee honed his skills in the class of '69 with 250 students at Flora High—elitist, suburban, and white. There were some 1500 students in the school, but in this era before busing, Flora's "freedom of choice" program drew about 50 black students, mainly from professional families with cars. The school had cliques but no drugs. Just pranks and fooling around. The Selma March and Vietnam had passed Flora by.
After a few months of good behavior at Flora, Lee returned to his old ways. He joined the Dark Horseman, a fraternity that threw the school's best parties. "If you dated someone, you would never tell your mother he was a Dark Horseman," recalled Emily Grice Lumpkin. On weekends the group would rent the Knights of Columbus hall or the Syrian Lebanon Club—a warehouselike building with a stage and a dance floor—for $100. Once Lee led partygoers in a search for leftover booze tossed in the weeds along Ivy Hall, off Covenant Road, a popular parking spot for young lovers. They found enough discards to mix up lethal amounts of "P.J.," or Purple Jesus, a home-brewed concoction made with purple juice and alcohol.
Dark Horseman hazing was brutal. Heating liniment was rubbed on the genitals of pledges. Initiation left Lee's backside purple and black for weeks. The point was to show that you could take pain. In the slap fight, pledges stood toe-to-toe and exchanged slaps to the face while brothers urged them on: "Harder! Harder!" One afternoon at Flora, Lee was pitted against Doug Seigler, a Cavaliers fraternity pledge and neighborhood pal, who was small and wiry like himself. They slapped the hell out of each other in a lose-lose standoff. That night Lee called Seigler, saying he was sorry that they had had to fight each other, and it was nothing personal. "We're still friends, right?" Absolutely, said Seigler. Fight hard, forgive readily was the rule. They became friends for life.
Lee Atwater was, by consensus, the biggest hell-raiser in his class. "He was a terrible student, terrible," remembered his mother, who taught Spanish at Flora High. Once, after giving him an F on his report card, Toddy Atwater wrote a note: "This student needs stronger parental guidance at home." Lee roared at that one.
He later remembered that two Cs were the highlights of his academic career. His grades, he claimed, were "carefully contrived to increase my popularity and make sure that everyone knew that I was cool." Lee thought of himself as self-educated. "I would read a book or two a week, and the only thing that would keep me from reading a book was if it was assigned reading."
For an English course where the theme for the semester was character development, Lee did a book report on the Columbia telephone directory. "He said it jumped around too much from character to character without sustaining any of them," recalled Robert C. Ellenburg, Atwater's eleventh-grade English teacher. "He predicted it would have to be revised next year." Lee got a D for content, an A for originality. On another occasion, he gave an oral report on The Hunchback of Notre Dame—as a football saga.
Lives, not ideas, intrigued him. He read every biography he could get his hands on: Thomas on Lincoln, Flexner on Washington, Coit on Calhoun. He read, and if what he read intrigued him, he remembered it. Dinosaurs were a passion. Bugs were not. When students had to gather a bug collection for biology class, Lee's was an assortment of plastic creepy crawlers—all displayed on cardboard with proper names Plastico Bugaremus, et alia. During a lecture one day, Lee was talking with Steve Chase at the back of the room. The teacher stopped. "Lee, what are you talking about back there that's so interesting?" she said.
"Dinosaurs!" he replied.
"Well, if it's that interesting, why don't you come up and tell the rest of the class about it."
Lee walked up and went into a half-hour discourse on the topic. He was factual, accurate, and anecdotal. The teacher could not shut him up.
Lee's hunt for the limelight seemed compulsive. He organized students to follow prearranged commands during assemblies. Once the program featured a champion glassblower, and when he was earnestly leaning into his task, all the students in the front row crossed their legs in unison. "This guy almost died," Lee remembered. "You could see him almost inhale the glass." Another time, during Vocational Week, he arranged for everyone to give a speaker a standing ovation at the end of every sentence. After spending his lunch money on blues music, one day Lee broke into the cafeteria line past the cashier for a free meal. He was expelled from school for three days. Lee's version: "I did go to the detention center a few times, but I did that intentionally because it's a different crowd in there. There's two groups. There's people like us, the hell-raisers. But every now and then it's good to just go with the hoods, the assholes in detention center, the ones who have knives and shit. I just wanted to see those guys; it's fun to study those guys." In later years, Lee would call such gatherings the swing vote.
The pranks continued outside school. Once Lee took a black snake and put it in an old pocketbook he had found in lost and found at a pool hall. He placed the purse in the middle of the road on a quiet Sunday and waited until a '59 Chevy, packed full of kids, roared past the purse, then stopped and backed up slowly. An oversized black woman in a red dress got out, looked around, picked up the purse, and got back in the car. The Chevy started down the road again but came to a sudden stop after fifty yards. The doors flew open and everyone began jumping out, led by the heavyset woman, who leaped over a wire fence to escape.
Despite his constant clowning, Lee wanted to be taken seriously—at certain times and by certain girls. "He may have felt ambivalent about the two roles," recalled Debbie Carson. "He was always trying to understand the female perspective. `What do girls think? How would you ...? How does a girl see such and such?' He seemed to think there were huge differences between girls and boys—out of scale to the obvious ones. Maybe that reveals how mystified he was. That's how he struck me: baffled. I think he was frustrated. He never was probably as desirable to girls as he wished to be, and he was trying to understand that—because if he knew why, he could fix it. That's sort of the way he worked. If you don't know what makes somebody tick, then you find out."
He still seemed hyperactive. "Lee's leg was like his personality—ever moving," Toddy said. When they were seated she would reach over and gently tap the jiggling left leg to stop it. Then the right would start.
"Was he compulsive? I think so," one girlfriend said. "Lots of little nervous habits and twitches and taps. Could just about drive you crazy. He acted almost hunted at times, constantly alert, ever watchful. Always tuned in. On edge. Very tuned into people around him, but in a guarded sense."
He had trouble dialing a phone, using a typewriter, tying a tie. His mother had always read to him, and he would later learn primarily by ear and by query. If he were a student today, he would be considered learning disabled and given extra help. In the '60s he was on his own, and he had to find his own mountain road to success—which he did, as a performer. Eugene Gatlin, English teacher and chair of the drama department, had seen the Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie. He was casting a high-energy version of it at Flora, something that would compete for the downtown crowd, but he needed a Conrad Birdie. The word on Lee in the teachers' lounge was not good. A discipline problem, a troublemaker who would let you down. When Lee showed up at tryouts, though, Gatlin saw a guy with stage presence who could sing with feeling. So Gatlin built the show around Lee, changing the locale from Sweet Apple, Ohio, to Sweet Apple, Georgia, to account for Lee's drawl. Rehearsal was from seven to midnight, and Lee was there every night. When the play called for a slight burp, Lee gave forth a belch that could be heard in the back row.
"That's fantastic," said Gatlin. "I wish you could do it all the time."
"I can," said Lee. And he did, at every show for a week.
"Never dropped a line," his director said.
After the curtain fell on the night of the final performance, Gatlin praised the cast but—fearing to omit someone—singled out no one. Lee was crushed. He didn't like being part of the crowd. Though he had received kudos aplenty from local critics and viewers, "All the compliments don't mean a thing," Lee told his mother, "because Dr. Gatlin didn't tell me I did a good job." The following year when Gatlin held tryouts for Oklahoma!, Lee wasn't around.
From the stage it was but a short step to politics. Lee made his debut as a political consultant in the eleventh grade when he convinced his longtime pal and fellow Horseman David Yon to run for student body president as Dewey P. Yon. The Yon campaign showed Lee's early genius for two key campaign consultant qualities—identifying hot issues and making over a weak candidate.
Lee made up a list of issues to run on: no homework, free beer on tap in the cafeteria, hot dates, unlimited cuts, no grades less than Bs. He also created credentials for Dewey: among them, Yon had led an Arctic expedition and was winner of the International Hairy Legs Contest.
When an informal poll showed that Yon wasn't well known outside the Dark Horseman, Lee created his own medium to publicize his candidate: Big At's Comedy Ratings, a flier printed on the school mimeograph machine when no one was looking and distributed around campus. The first issue featured listings of the funniest guys in school. Number one, of course, was Dewey P. Yon. There was also a girls' top ten list, and tag-team listings. When Dewey won big in the election, the school principal called for another election. Though his candidate was tossed out of the winner's circle, Lee got an early education in politics—and in how to manipulate people through the power of the press. Lee noticed that after his broadside appeared, students he didn't know were telling him jokes and literally doing somersaults to get his attention. One student wore an oversized plastic display bottle of liquid Ivory soap around Flora for a day. "It took me about an hour to realize that they all wanted to get into the Comedy Ratings."
Lee expanded the handout, adding funny stories, a Bad Breath of the Week award, a "Dial-a-Slut" service run by one Suzy B. Cloksmeyer. Circulation increased, along with Lee's prominence among his peers. Lee was the emcee, the impresario, the delegator of wit and awards. Lee was in the spotlight, though slightly in the shadows. "Nothing ever taught me more cleanly and clearly that people like to see their names in the paper," he said. "And people like to be number one at something. I always remembered that lesson." Another thing that Atwater learned was detachment. Lee's own name never appeared on any of the top ten lists. "By not being involved, I could have a lot more fun with it," he said. "I learned back then that I was just going to cool it and stay out of the scene."
While many of his classmates were enthralled by the Beatles, Lee admired James Brown, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, backed by the Memphis Horns, featuring the incomparable Wayne Jackson on that ballsy trumpet of the '60s. In sixth grade, he had sat in the balcony, with the few other white folks, to watch James Brown—and he used binoculars so that he could learn the guitar parts. Now he listened to soul music on WOIC, a black station that featured Big Sol, a deejay who also had a record shop on Jervais Street. "Here we are sitting on the banks of the Congaree," was Sol's signature line, "sipping our Kool-Aid and doolin' on down the line."
Lee saw to it that black bands were well received at white Flora High. "He showed sensitivity toward blacks that he didn't always show to his good friends," recalled Debbie Carson.
One December morning in 1967, when an assembly was ending, Lee ran up to the stage, distraught. He stood before the entire student body and faculty, raising his hands like a preacher, his body like a wound-up, frenzied doll. "Otis Redding has just died!" he shouted. "I think we should have a silent prayer." He bowed his head, and the congregation did likewise.
Lee's next starring role was as leader of Upsetter's Revue. "Most of the time I was in grammar school through high school, I was in some kind of rock 'n' roll band," he said. "I would say that at least 80 percent of my energy was involved with whatever band I was involved in. The other 20 percent of course was involved in trying to get drunk and get laid. Just like any other normal guy." Lee's band was a boy's club in revue, with fifteen members at one time—including a horn section and four singers, "the Four Expressions," who wore electric green pants, tux shirts, and bow ties. With songs like "Watermelon Man" and "Spanish Harlem," they quickly graduated from malls to club gigs in Alabama and Mississippi. They practiced incessantly in Lee's two-car garage. On hot summer nights crowds would gather in the driveway, listening to the electric wail. Once, the parents of band member J. B. Nelson asked Lee if he would let their son attend a film with them the next night. "He can go if he wants to," said Lee, who was beginning to develop a skill for inflicting discipline on others. "But he's not in the band anymore if he doesn't attend practice."
* * *
Discipline was a trait that Harvey Atwater also admired. But father and son didn't act like they had anything in common. Lee had already realized early in life that it was futile to try to please his father, who expected Lee to learn practical things, evidently by osmosis. Their biggest divergence occurred over Harvey's passion in life, cars. In most aspects of his life, Harvey Atwater was a controlled man; his life was molded by clients who demanded his full attention while chatting on about their own lives and the details of their insurance destinies. Behind the wheel of a car, though, Harvey was in control. A car depended on him for repair and maintenance, for leadership even. Harvey performed mechanical tasks with ease, and when a car grew old, began to waver, no longer had the feel, the noises, the smells that told Harvey things—then that car was gone, replaced by another, and another. Anne Atwater once estimated that her father had given care and shelter to forty cars over the years. Harvey had an inordinate capacity for clunkers, such as the jalopy that Lee drove, a $150 pea green '52 Plymouth. Lee was absolutely indifferent to the vehicle. When it began belching black smoke, Harvey told him to go check the oil.
Lee went out, came back. "I don't know where you check the oil," he said.
Harvey was enraged. Toddy asked him how Lee should know what to do if Harvey didn't show him first. "He's just supposed to know!" said Harvey. "I knew that when I was a kid."
Lee watched in wonder one day as his father dismantled an entire toilet to locate a face towel that had been flushed, accidentally to be sure, by Some Culprit in a hurry. Had Lee been in charge, he would have located a plumber instead.
It was the same with fishing. Lee would tangle the line, lose the lure, break the pole. Harvey even fussed after Lee for not doing better in school, though he had failed eighth grade himself—a lifelong secret he kept from Lee. But the Atwater men finally bonded over women on the night that Lee literally lost his date. At the Twilight Drive-in, a young couple could park in the back row, facing backward, and get down to business, all for $1. After the movie that night, Lee drove to a lover's lane for even more serious endeavors. That night, while Lee was parked with a date in his backseat, a cop shone a light on them through the steamy windows and told them to move along. The girl panicked and scrammed. Lee went home and told his father what had happened, certain that he would be grounded for life. Instead, Harvey phoned the police department to say it was outrageous for a public servant to poke his nose in the business of young lovers. What a dad, thought Lee.
Bright, brooding, dryly witty, Harvey was a point of reference for Lee, but Toddy was the moral compass. "He always acted like he knew he was letting his mother down," said a Flora classmate.
Up to the last day of his senior year, Lee's graduation was a cliffhanger, because he had to pass psychology. Teacher John Ellsworth called his colleague, Toddy. "It's doubtful about Lee passing," he said. "I'm gonna do what I think is best for Lee."
"Do what you've got to do," said Toddy. By now she was hoping that Lee would keep his job as a stock boy at Winn Dixie. Maybe something full-time would eventually open up there.
Lee passed. Later Ellsworth explained that Lee had contributed more to the class than any other student. "Lee just wouldn't take the time to study for a test."
After graduation, Lee had wanted to accept an offer to tour the South with Lee Dorsey, who had recorded the hits "Ya Ya" and "Working in a Coal Mine." It would have been forty bucks a night. Instead, at the insistence of Toddy, he was off to a Lutheran college: Newberry, forty miles north of Columbia. Toddy arranged a personal interview with the dean of admissions, who struck Lee as being all business. "I can make it, if you'll just give me the chance," Lee told him. The dean was just skeptical enough to bring out Lee's competitive underside. They struck a deal. If Lee passed two summer-school sessions with a C average, he would be accepted in the fall. Lee made As.
That September, as Lee readied for Newberry, Steve Sisk was preparing for the football season at the University of South Carolina. He could have gone to Alabama, but he wanted to stay close to home. He had been staying up nights, unable to sleep. "I know I'm different," he had written in his diary. "There are great things for me in life. All I have to do is reach and pluck the apple of good fortune. I only hope it will be ripe!" He shaved his head, like all the freshmen on the squad. Coach Paul Dietzel wanted to turn the fullback into a lineman, perhaps a center, and Sisk was working at it on September 3—not a scorcher of a day, but humid nonetheless. Steve had a history of allergies; as a youngster he had had night sweats and fever rages. On the practice field that day he collapsed from heat exhaustion, complicated by a viral infection that was making the rounds on campus. In minutes his temperature rose from 104 to 109 degrees. By the time the he arrived by ambulance at the Charleston hospital, he was comatose. His organs were burned, his brain was gone—only the strong athlete's heart pounded on. He lingered for five days. On September 8 he died.
Steve's funeral was one of the largest that Columbia had seen, drawing hundreds of young mourners, including his fellow frosh "baldies" from the USC squad and the boys of autumn from Flora. Steve had been the toughest guy in the Flora '69 class. The look on the young mourners' faces went beyond puzzlement. It was the look of fear. A few days after the funeral, Lee and Joe Sligh, a fellow soul singer in Upsetter's Revue, went out to Steve's grave. They drank beer and left an empty can atop the grave with a single artificial flower, borrowed from a nearby grave, pointing up at the Carolina sky.
|1. Defining Events||1|
|2. Life of the Party||28|
|3. The Education of a Consultant||44|
|4. Lee Atwater's Office, Can You Hold?||74|
|5. The Permanent Campaign||101|
|6. The Odd Coupling||130|
|7. The Hazards of Duke||170|
|8. The Tar Baby||195|
|9. Top of the World||219|
|10. The Spoils of War||248|
|11. The Final Campaign||270|
|Sources and Acknowledgments||324|