Politics can get ugly in South Carolina

Published Feb. 15, 2000|Updated Sept. 26, 2005

Everyone knew that South Carolina would jump ugly. And it did.

Whenever the Bushes start flailing, I mull whether it would be different if Lee Atwater were still around.

I used to wonder if the cocky strategist, the Ricky Martin of dirty campaigning, could have pulled President Bush through in '92, as he did in '88, when he zestfully turned Willie Horton into the boogeyman. Now I'm wondering how Atwater would be smashing up John McCain's giddy insurgency.

Lee and "Junior," as he called W., were close. It was Lee who invited Junior to come to Washington and work on the '88 campaign. And in '92, after Lee had died of a brain tumor, it was Junior who most clearly saw that the campaign was being mismanaged by Baker and Teeter and Malek, missing its wily hit man. But with Lee gone, there was no one to listen to Junior.

The amoral king of the hoods was spawned amid the pig-snout dinners in the swamps of South Carolina, learning conservative politics from Strom Thurmond and Carroll Campbell, the senator and former governor now trying to save W. with the same fire wall Atwater once promised would save Bush senior if he had lost New Hampshire.

Profiling Atwater for Esquire in '86, David Remnick recalled the 1980 congressional race in South Carolina's 2nd District "between Atwater's man, Republican Floyd Spence, and a Faulknerian figure named Tom Turnipseed. . . . At one press briefing, Atwater planted a reporter who rose and said "We understand Turnipseed has had psychiatric treatment.' Atwater played it cool and refused to comment, but later told the reporters off the record, "In college I understand he got hooked up to jumper cables.' "

In 1986, Phil Gailey wrote in the New York Times about a controversy that erupted when Campbell was running for governor. His critics charged that in his 1978 campaign for Congress, Campbell had tried to make an issue of the Jewish faith of his Democratic opponent, Max Heller.

Gailey wrote that Alan Baron, a Washington-based Democratic analyst, had revealed in a 1983 newsletter that Campbell's pollster, Arthur Finkelstein of New York, told him he did a survey to "determine the impact on voters of information that Heller was (1) a Jew; (2) a foreign-born Jew; and (3) a foreign-born Jew who did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior." They learned (3) would hurt Heller.

Atwater allegedly told another consultant that it would be great if a third candidate could bring (3) up. Sure enough, an independent candidate did assert, after his aides met with the Campbell camp, that Heller should not be elected because he was not a Christian and did not "believe Jesus Christ has come yet."

Campbell hotly denied charges of collusion and exploitation but conceded religion was raised in the '78 poll and released the questionnaire.

One question asked voters to choose from six characteristics that best described Campbell and Heller: "(a) Honest, (b) A Christian man, (c) Concern for people, (d) A hard worker, (e) Experienced in government, (f) Jewish."

Another question asked which "personal qualities" would make voters more or less likely to vote for the two candidates. Among the 15 qualities listed were "a Jewish immigrant" and "a native South Carolinian."

Gailey, now editor of editorials at the St. Petersburg Times, does not believe the state has grown sweeter. "There is nothing like politics South Carolina-style," he says. "I don't know of another Southern state in the year 2000 that still plays as rough as the Republicans play in South Carolina."

"They have no moral compass whatsoever," agreed Sam Tenenbaum, a Democratic activist in Columbia who so loved McCain's upbraiding of Pat Buchanan over Hitler that he is now wooing Jewish Democrats for McCain.

McCain accused Bush of push-polling in South Carolina _ calling voters on the pretense of gathering information when you're really spewing dirt. Bush has denied it. McCain said things had gotten so ugly, he would no longer air ads criticizing Bush. Bush aides seethed as McCain once more pushed ahead in the virtue sweepstakes.

Like his father before him, W. is morphing from moderate to conservative, from easy-going to do-what-it-takes, to win an election.

He should take care. Atwaterworld is a dangerous place _ especially without Atwater.

+ Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist. +

New York Times News Service