A key characteristic of Barack Obama's presidential campaign was its aversion to personal and partisan attacks. An attribute of the 2008 election was its focus on issues, not race.
The nation has changed since Lee Atwater's time.
Atwater, the campaign manager for George Bush, Sr. in 1988, is the subject of "Boogieman: The Lee Atwater Story" on Frontline on PBS at 9 pm tonight.
Atwater achieved victory for Bush with a ferocious campaign designed, in Atwater's words, "to strip the bark off" his opponent, George Dukakis. It was marked by slanderous rumors about Dukakis and his wife. Atwater vowed to "make Willie Horton his running mate" with misleading ads about Dukakis's role in a pardon for convicted rapist Willie Horton, a black man.
After Bush's win, Atwater became chairman of the Republican National Committee. His political ascendancy had barely begun when he collapsed, in March 1990, at a fundraising breakfast for Senator Phil Gramm.
Lee Atwater had an aggressive brain tumor that, within a year, took his life. He was 40 years old.
In a life of violent ambition, Atwater was repentant in death. He sought out spiritual counseling. He wrote personally to people he had attacked. He wrote publicly of regrets about his life's work: about "a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambition and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul."
But, as it was too late for Atwater, it was too late for his final wish. His political example lived on in his friend Karl Rove, who played Atwater's role with Bush, Sr. for George Bush, Jr.
At length, however, it seems Atwater got his wish, finally - fittingly - with the triumph of an African-American man, a Democrat, who ran a campaign of respect, not rancor.
"The Lee Atwater Story" was released in theaters in September of 2008 and comes to public television tonight.
for Ithaca Blog