Lee Atwater’s infamous “n*gger, n*gger” interview

The interesting blog Fifth Column points us to this great find by Rick Perlstein in The Nation — tape of infamous Republican race-baiting operative Lee Atwater (the “Willie Horton” guy) describing his Southern strategy in iconic (yes, the n-word) terms.

The Atwater language has been much quoted based on its appearance in a number of publications, but here is the source, audio of the actual interview in which he spoke the words. Listen:

A snippet (Atwater’s emphasis in italics, mine in bold):

[It’s a matter of] how abstract you handle the race thing. In other words, you start out … Now y’all aren’t quoting 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, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.

And you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites…. “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” …

Do listen to it all. It’s bare, blunt, a perfect description of Republican strategy since Nixon (note that he starts his timeline in 1968, Nixon Days).

Perlstein also has the history of this quote, this interview, and this audio. It’s fascinating. If you want to listen to the entire Atwater interview, it’s embedded at the site. Do click over — the entire Perlstein piece is a great read, as always.

Atwater is also famous for a literal deathbed conversion. In noting his passing in 1991, the New York Times wrote (my emphasis and paragraphing):

Lee Atwater with George H.W. Bush

Friends said Mr. Atwater spent his final months searching for spiritual peace. The man renowned for the politics of attack turned to apologies, including one to Michael S. Dukakis, the Massachusetts Governor who was the 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee. Mr. Dukakis was the target of a campaign advertisment about Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer who escaped from the Massachusetts prison system while on a weekend furlough and raped a white woman and stabbed her husband. The advertisement became a central focus of the 1988 campaign.

In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate,’ ” Mr. Atwater said in the Life [magazine] article. “I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not.”

If he really wasn’t racist, he really was more cruel — and frankly, more evil — than even the quote reveals.

A little right-wing “music” for your post-election Sunday, and an offset to yesterday’s Cornel West–Barack Obama offering. Peace.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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