The ghost of Lee Atwater hovers over American politics. In the Southernization of the GOP, the ongoing Republican quest to cripple the Obama Administration, the derailing of health care reform, the cluelessness of the Democratic Party about American resentment and the culture war, the rise of Sarah Palin, the way the media covers politics as a horse race…

The Washington Post calls Boogie Man “one of the best political movies ever”. Quite an honor to be up there with The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove, and The War Room.

Roger Ebert wrote this in his Boogie Man theatrical review:

“A fascinating portrait of an almost likable rogue…It makes a companion piece to Oliver Stone’s W…a remarkable portrait…heartbreaking.”

Now he sees a connection to the health care debates:

“I saw a documentary last year about Lee Atwater, the strategist for the Reagan and George H. W. Bush campaigns, the mentor of Karl Rove and George Bush. The man was a brilliant creator of memes…He made “Willie Horton” a code term. He got many people to believe “Michael Dukakis opposed the Pledge of Allegiance.” He was capable of outrageous invention, as when about the Willie Horton ad he said with a straight face: “I don’t think a lot of Southerners even noticed there was a black man in that ad.”

Atwater might have been proud of “Death panels.” Those two little words have derailed the town hall meetings, by stirring up such unruly dissent that legislators have been shouted down by their own constituents…

From Atwater’s Understudies Carry On Bare-Knuckled Political Legacy

Something about South Carolina brings out the beast in U.S. presidential campaigns.

In the last week before its Jan. 19 primary, the Palmetto State is awash in stealth e-mail attacks, fake polling calls and other dirty tricks reminiscent of the scurrilous rumors that scuttled John McCain’s candidacy in 2000.

The dubious tradition stretches back to native son Lee Atwater, the Republican operative who invented many of the modern techniques of negative campaigning, including the 1988 ad that linked Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis to the parole of murderer Willie Horton and contributed to the victory of President George H.W. Bush that year…

Democratic candidates have also been targeted. The campaign of Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, 46, is preparing a fact sheet to rebut an e-mail campaign falsely alleging that he is a Muslim…

Still, Tucker Eskew, a Republican strategist who was George W. Bush’s campaign spokesman in 2000, said the state’s reputation for dirty politics is more myth than reality.

“Some people want to make the case that South Carolina is some sort of backwoods or cockfight-ring kind of place,” said Eskew, a Greenville native. “It is neither: All the current attention we’re getting is because we have a first-in-the-South primary.”

Jake Tapper on McCain hires Operative Who Helped Smear Him in 2000

Former officials of Sen. John McCain’s 2000 campaign expressed shock and disbelief Monday to learn than the GOP presidential nominee had hired South Carolina political consultant Tucker Eskew.

Eskew, along with Warren Tompkins and Neal Rhodes, were key members of then-Gov. George W. Bush’s South Carolina team during the 2000 primaries. McCain and his team long held Bush, Tompkins, Rhodes and Eskew responsible for the various smears against McCain and his family in the Palmetto state during that contentious contest.

Australia’s National Post wonders if Atwater’s really to blame:

In Australia, some wag once noted, the national sport is breaking furniture. In the U.S., these days, the national sport is going to a town hall meeting and trying to break a politician.

Some people believe American politics turned permanently towards nastiness around the time that the late and unlamented political campaign wizard Lee Atwater rose to prominence in the 1980s. It’s just been one long descent into mud-throwing since then, if you accept this view.

That’s a very short-term perspective on things, however. American politics have always had a nasty and brutish side — at least since about 1804, and possibly earlier…Even in the face of serious national peril, with a war going on and the Union in danger of permanent rupture, Americans took time out to bash each other with the 19th century equivalent of negative campaign ads or selectively-edited YouTube videos. I’m talking about partisan political pamphlets…

From The DC Examiner, an article about political deathbed repentance:

Considering that Atwater failed to bring Clinton down, and even failed at taking Hilary Clinton out of the national arena, perhaps his powers were waning. In fact, Atwater repented at the end of his life, apologizing to those he had harmed. Still, one has to wonder whether it was the person or the cancer talking…

Did Novak recant before moving on? No information yet. What is clear is his complicity in defeating Michael Dukakis all those years ago, and, much more recently, outing Valerie Plame, with a little help from his friends, including the cunningly named Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and doubtless a cadre of wingnuts nationwide willing to shoulder the arms of their second master.

Ethically, we cannot mourn the work of Robert Novak, anymore than we can mourn the work of Lee Atwater. Even Atwater didn’t mourn his own work; he mourned the havoc his well-crafted lies had caused, and the time they took from his family life, the negative reputation they earned him.

Today, a sizeable portion of the nation will repeat any lie. It will repeat the mantra “death panels,” worthy, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his most recent column, of Lee Atwater.

From an article on Clinton as Atwater, by Lloyd M. Green

The proximity between the first hardball dustup of the 2008 campaign (Clinton - Obama - Geffen) and the sixteenth anniversary of Lee Atwater’s death crystallizes something. Former President Bill Clinton is the Democrat’s incarnation of the GOP’s master of smash mouth politics, Lee Atwater. Clinton’s observation that “Your opponent can’t talk when he has your fist in his mouth” could have been uttered by Atwater himself.

In the minds of the Clintons and the Democratic Party, the Republican electoral triumphs of the 1980’s were the result of Atwater’s ability to brawl, as opposed to being the by-product of better ideas and a more widely appealing philosophy.

Harvey Leroy “Lee” Atwater managed George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. Atwater then served as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, until he died at the age of 40 of brain cancer in March 1991.

Strong language and verbal intimidation were Atwater’s suit, just as it appears to be Bill Clinton’s. During the 1988 campaign, Atwater promised to “strip the bark off”of the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. On the morning talk shows Atwater would ridicule Dukakis campaign manager and then-Harvard Law School Professor Susan Estrich, leaving Estrich either speechless or stammering.

Atwater and Clinton both loved the spotlight, living large and self-aggrandizement. Each man had an ear for music and an eye for human frailties. Atwater was famous for jamming with B.B. King and Rolling Stone Ron Wood. Bill Clinton will be remembered for playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. Atwater dropped his pants for Esquire Magazine. Clinton entertained the question of boxers or briefs on MTV.

Both men were Southerners, and each knew a thing or two about the power of race and politics. Atwater led the Bush campaign attack on Michael Dukakis, as he hammered away at the Massachusetts furlough program and Willie Horton, a convicted murderer and rapist. In a speech given before the 1988 Democratic Convention, Atwater declared that Horton “may end up to be Dukakis’ running mate.”

Clinton played those same cards, albeit with greater aplomb. During his 1992 presidential bid, Clinton, then still Arkansas governor, presided over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, an African American who was convicted of murder. Rector had an IQ of approximately 70 and was on antipsychotic medication at the time of his execution.

Later during the same campaign, Clinton delivered an attack on Sister Souljah at the Rainbow Coalition. Instead of being pummeled by the press as Atwater was, Clinton was lionized by the media. Joe Klein wrote that the Democratic Party “has come to seem craven, weak and untrustworthy in the process. The only exception to this pathetic tradition was Bill Clinton’s criticism of Sister Souljah’s racist rap lyrics during the 1992 presidential campaign . . .