What Did Lee Atwater Really Say?

I was blissfully unaware of Lee Atwater’s most famous quote (or alleged quote) until I ran across it in connection with Martin Bashir’s demented claim that Republican criticisms of the IRS are “racist.” Bashir explained that everything Republicans do or say is racist, regardless of whether there is any apparent connection to race. As authority, Bashir cited Lee Atwater, the most successful Republican campaign manager of his time. In Bashir’s words, “Mr. Atwater revealed how Republicans evolved their language to achieve the same [i.e., racist] purpose.” This is the quote that Bashir attributed to Atwater, from a 1981 interview:

You start out in 1954, by saying n*****, n*****, n*****. By 1968, you can’t say n*****, that hurts you, back-fires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states rights, and all that stuff and you’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about cutting taxes. We want to cut this is much more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than n*****, n*****.

That strikes me as falling far short of the significance Bashir and other leftists have attributed to it, but I was curious enough to track down the original audio of the interview. You can listen to it at The Nation. It turns out that the Atwater quote is very famous indeed. The Nation tells us that it was used in at least ten books published in 2012 alone.

The audiotape is of a conversation between Lee Atwater and two men: Professor Alexander Lamis, who first quoted the now-famous paragraph in a book, and a second man named Saul. It is 41 minutes long, with occasional interruptions. The quality is sometimes poor, but it is generally easy to make out. The subject of the interview was contemporary politics in the South, and the main point that Atwater made is that race is no longer a major issue in Southern elections:

From 1954 through 1966, race was THE issue [in the South]. …

In 1980, I think the crucial thing in 1980 is, the two dominant issues in southern politics, which had been race and party–you had to be a Democrat to win–are pretty well resolved. And the main issues became the economy and national defense.

Atwater explained that the “Southern strategy” of the 1970s included, in his view, coded racism, but that there was no racial element in Reagan’s 1980 campaign:

So what you have is two things happening that totally washed away the Southern strategy, the Harry Dent type Southern strategy, and that is, that whole strategy was based, although it was more sophisticated than a Bilbo or a George Wallace, it was nevertheless based on coded racism. The whole thing, busing, we want a Supreme Court judge that won’t have busing, anything you look at can be traced back to the issue [of race], in the old southern strategy. It was not done in a blatantly discriminatory way.

But Reagan did not have to do a southern strategy for two reasons. Number one, race was was not a dominant issue. And number two, the mainstream issues in this campaign had been, quote, southern issues since way back in the sixties. So Reagan goes out and campaigns on the issues of economics and of national defense. The whole campaign was devoid of any kind of racism, any kind of reference. And I’ll tell you another thing you all need to think about, that even surprised me, is the lack of interest, really, the lack of knowledge right now in the South among white voters about the Voting Rights Act.

So the central point that Atwater made in the interview was the exact opposite of the proposition for which liberals have endlessly quoted him. Lamis, however, wanted to find some role, even if a modest one, for race:

Q: I’m just wondering how much residual there is called racism in the anti-government, anti-Washington, states rights, return to states rights, de-federalize, cut social programs–how much is a residual of the old days in the antipathy towards welfare programs, poverty programs, and other political, social, economic programs which give power to black folks, or poor folks…and it’s not purely southern, but the Legal Services Corporation giving problems to municipalities in Mississippi that want to gerrymander, and those types if things.

A: Well, sure, OK, but I think this, and don’t get me wrong. You go to these white country clubs and they’ll say, shit, I’m tired of them getting everything and all that. But the bottom line is, it’s a mainstream thing now. It’s not grounded in racism, as much as it is on account of the Network movie syndrome, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. Now, statistically, the poor people, the people receiving all these things, are black. Now, some of the Southern stuff may still be racism, but it’s such a widespread thing now, I think it’s almost developing into a class struggle type issue rather than a racism issue.

Later in the interview, Atwater (a skilled blues guitarist who recorded with B.B. King) repeated his belief that race is no longer a significant element in Southern politics:

My generation will be the first generation of southerners that won’t be prejudiced, totally….But what I am saying is that that has really been sublimated by a bunch of other issues.

Atwater explained that white blue collar workers are (or were as of 1981) the South’s key swing voters. Until recently, the standard way to win their votes was via the race issue (a technique, by the way, that was pioneered and perfected by Democrats). But no more:

We’re leading up to my whole strategy in the deep south in 1980, which…the whole focus group in the south was that blue collar worker. Now that’s important when you tie it back to the racist thing, because he is also the guy who is most threatened by the black, and is also the most prone to be, quote, a racist. And until 1980, and a little bit in 1976, the race issue was how you approached that vote. Plus, the most conservative guy on fiscal matters always got his vote, and the toughest son of a bitch on foreign policy matters got his vote. …

Q: But [Reagan’s] not going to lose the south if he goes along with what the blacks want on voting rights, is what you’re saying?

A: That should be a thrust of his. In 1968, the whole southern strategy that Harry and those put together, the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the south. Now they don’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the south is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964. And that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cutting taxes, you know, the whole cluster, and being tough on national defense.

Lamis was obviously not a Reagan voter, and he pushed back against Atwater’s view that the Reagan campaign in the South was free of any racial element:

Q: But might there–I’m not saying that he does this consciously–but the fact is that he does get to the Wallace voter, and to the racist side of the Wallace voter, by doing away with legal services, by doing away with, cutting down on food stamps–

At this point, Atwater interrupted and gave his famous answer, portions of which have been widely quoted. Let’s parse it:

A: Here’s how I would approach that issue as a statistician, a political scientist–or no, as a psychologist, which I am not, is how abstract you handle the race thing.

It is not clear what Atwater meant by “abstract” here. In the context of everything else he has said about Southern politics, and about the fact that in 1980 the issues that dominated elsewhere–the economy and national defense–also dominated in the South, I think he meant something like “universal.” In other words, are appeals to white Southerners specifically based on race, in a way that historically would not have been attempted in other regions, or are they based on the same issues, promoted in the same language, as elsewhere in the U.S.?

In other words you start out in — now y’all don’t quote me on this–

Atwater apparently said “don’t quote me on this” because he was about to use the word “nigger.” Lamis quoted him anyway.

…you start out in 1954 by saying nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968 you can’t say nigger, that hurts, there’s a backlash, so you say stuff like forced busing, states rights and all that stuff. And you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it, I’m not saying it.

This last statement is key, but is never quoted by liberals. Atwater has already said several times during the interview that race is no longer a significant element in Southern politics. Here, he specifically disclaims agreement with the proposition that Reagan’s policy positions contained a subconscious appeal to racial prejudice. That was Professor Lamis’s suggestion, not his. But he goes on to make the argument that even if some voters draw a subconscious connection between, say, cutting the food stamp program and race, the absence of any specifically racial appeal shows what a minor factor race has become in Southern politics:

But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, then we’re doing away with the racial problem one way or another. You follow me? ‘Cause obviously sitting around saying, we want to cut taxes, we want to cut this, and we want–is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than nigger, nigger. So any way you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.

Liberals like Martin Bashir cite this interview for the proposition that Republicans skillfully conceal appeals to racism in seemingly innocuous policy discussions. Obviously, Atwater said nothing of the sort. And he declined to agree with Professor Lamis’s suggestion that Reagan’s talk about cutting programs like legal services and food stamps “gets to” the racist side of the George Wallace voter, albeit unconsciously. “I’m not saying it.” What Atwater did say, repeatedly and unambiguously, is that racial prejudice no longer plays a significant role in Southern elections, and that Reagan won the South in 1980 on the same issues with which he swept the rest of the country: the economy and national defense. It requires a great deal of dishonesty to twist Atwater’s words into the exact opposite of what he actually said.

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