As Lee Atwater, the Republican political prodigy who is largely remembered for creating the most notorious campaign commercial in modern history, approached death, having been ravaged by brain cancer at the age of only forty, he began making amends, trying his best to atone for the sins he had committed during his short but extraordinary life.
Atwater was a proud Southerner, born in Atlanta, raised in South Carolina, and his ascendance into national politics was due to his reliance on a more insidious iteration of the Southern Strategy, which he spoke about in an anonymous interview in 1981 with political scientist Alexander P. Lamis. At the time, Atwater was working in the Reagan White House. A recording of the interview surfaced 31 years later after it was discovered by James Carter IV, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. And there is one exchange, in particular, that still managed to stun the nation. Quoting (Fair warning: This contains offensive language):
Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now you don’t have to do that. All that you need to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues that he’s campaigned on since 1964, and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.
Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?
Atwater: Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger”. By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this”, 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 backbone.
Atwater had crudely and succinctly summarized the modus operandi that continues to animate Republican politics, particularly in the Deep South. He threw out any pretense of plausible deniability and explained what was at the core of the party’s message to white voters.
Seven years later, he masterminded the infamous Willie Horton ad, which sought to blame Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis when an African American inmate, William Horton, who was serving a life sentence for first degree murder, raped two women while on a weekend furlough. Gov. Dukakis did not create the furlough program; he actually ended it. Weekend furloughs had been in practice in Massachusetts since 1972. But Atwater’s decision, made with the enthusiastic approval of then-Vice President George H. W. Bush, was to blame Dukakis for the rapes Horton had committed. That alone, however, wasn’t what made the commercial so outrageous. The ad prominently featured Horton’s menacing mugshot, and the campaign decided to give him a new name. Instead of William, he was Willie.
“The fact is, my name is not ‘Willie.’ It’s part of the myth of the case. The name irks me. It was created to play on racial stereotypes: big, ugly, dumb, violent, black — ‘Willie’. I resent that,” Horton later told The Nation. ”They created a fictional character — who seemed believable, but who did not exist. They stripped me of my identity, distorted the facts, and robbed me of my constitutional rights.”
At the end of his life, Atwater wasn’t apologetic over his belief in negative campaigning, but he had two specific regrets about the Willie Horton ad. ”In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate.’ I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not,” he said. ”Mostly I am sorry for the way I thought of other people. Like a good general, I had treated everyone who wasn’t with me as against me.”
Today in Louisiana, Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone, alongside his mentor and self-proclaimed kingmaker Lane Grigsby, is running what is arguably the most mendacious and cynical campaign in recent history, an ignoble distinction considering the competition, and it is difficult to imagine either man ever apologizing for sounding racist or for being cruel.
This weekend, Rispone released a quartet of attack ads against his Democratic opponent, incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards, all featuring footage of President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Lake Charles on the eve of this year’s jungle primary.
But Trump, whose brief statements about the election were clearly culled from a Louisiana GOP talking points memo, has nothing to do with why the ads are egregious, misleading, and, in the case of three of the four, cruel. The Rispone campaign, apparently unable to find any legitimate opposition research with which to level against Edwards, decides, instead, to just make stuff up.
When the Trump White House Got Caught Telling the Truth:
All four ads begin with the same clip of Trump claiming Louisiana had been “losing jobs” under Edwards; earlier in the day, Trump had made the exact opposite assertion, seeking to claim credit for the state’s economic rebound in the aftermath of the Jindal administration.
Indeed, the Trump White House managed to step all over Rispone’s message, which is the subject of his first ad, “Jobs,” before the rally even got underway, publishing a series of tweets and Facebook posts touting Louisiana’s economy.
Of the four commercials, “Jobs” is perhaps the least offensive, because it struggles to make a coherent argument.
“Liberal John Bel Edwards, the only governor in America losing jobs,” the narrator intones. But the commercial actually cites numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing job growth.
The only other source referenced in the ad is a clickbait WDSU report from February about an unscientific survey conducted by an online job placement company that ranks Louisiana as the worst state to find a job, something even the survey notes has nothing to do with job growth. Again, it’s a survey conducted by a company that makes money helping people find jobs.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. – Romans 12:13
The other three ads are all variations on the same theme: Stoking hatred against immigrants and asylum-seekers. It’s a message that Trump exploited from the moment he glided down the escalator at Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for president, and more than any single other issue, it has become the crux of Rispone’s campaign for Louisiana governor.
Indeed, Rispone recently claimed that, if elected, he would help Donald Trump build a border wall that voters had been told would be paid for by Mexico, notwithstanding the fact that Louisiana isn’t even on the border.
The extent to which Rispone has cynically attempted to scapegoat immigrants in order to win office should be alarming to any person of conscience; it is a bigoted attack that is squarely directed against the very community that rebuilt Louisiana after the devastation of Katrina and Rita and the Federal Flood, people who were disproportionately victimized by violent crimes and financial exploitation. It also reveals Rispone’s true character. As we have previously reported, after Rispone settled three different class action lawsuits filed by 96 of his former employees, the overwhelming majority of whom were Hispanic, he applied for applications under the H1-B visa program so his company could hire foreign workers.
It may be difficult to believe this is the same man who wrote the following dedication in his one and only published book:
All three of these ads feature the same talking point, a claim that John Bel Edwards provides $16 million in ”welfare” for “illegal immigrants.”
To borrow one of Donald Trump’s new favorite words, it’s bullshit.
Rispone’s ad references the testimony of Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry, who himself was just referencing a shoddy ”report” on “sanctuary cities” by a “task force” that state Rep. Valarie Hodges had assembled nearly four years ago. You may remember Hodges. She’s the same intellectual heavyweight who rescinded her support of Bobby Jindal’s school voucher program not because it was a wasteful failure but because schools founded by Muslims weren’t banned from participating.
Notably, Rispone didn’t actually cite the report itself, only Landry’s book report on it, which included a line about $16 million in Medicaid spending during the last year of the Jindal administration associated with illegal immigrants. That’s it. At the time, it would have been 0.05% of state Medicaid spending, and it’s clear the number is nothing more than an actuarial estimate, as is the estimate that an outmoded eligibility system (which would have already been overhauled if not for a corrupt contracting process during the Jindal administration) may have resulted in $85 million in improper payments to providers, not patients.
There’s no secret “welfare” program that Edwards has been distributing to illegal immigrants. Again, the Rispone campaign just made it up.
The other two commercials include the outlandish assertion that Edwards released “hundreds” of “dangerous criminals” from prison, an echo of Atwater’s “Willie Horton” ad. However, if you bother to check Rispone’s notes, you’ll discover he is actually referring to around 120 pardons and commutations given at the recommendation of the state’s Board of Pardons and Parole to elderly men who have served decades behind bars.
But Eddie Rispone is hoping that no one will worry about checking his notes. He’s spent a vast personal fortune on his campaign, banking everything on the belief that fear and hate are easier to sell than compassion and understanding.