Echoes of Lee Atwater in Reinvented Lindsey Graham

Many political junkies still remember Lee Atwater who died 28 years ago from a brain tumor on March 29, 1991. While the passing of the fiery political operative and former GOP national chairman remains largely un-commemorated, an event this past year with Atwater’s fellow South Carolinian Lindsey Graham echoes Atwater’s fearlessness on the political stage. Senator Graham reportedly is preparing a counter-investigation into Democrats in the wake of President Trump being absolved of any Russian collusion.

Lee Atwater cut his teeth in the campaigns of South Carolina politicians such as Strom Thurmond. Catapulting to advise Ronald Reagan, Atwater quickly became a force in GOP politics. George H. W. Bush ascended to the presidency in no small part due to Atwater. Had he not become ill, many believe Atwater would have “snow-plowed” Bush 41 to re-election. Despite Bush’s loss, Atwater’s impact on America’s political landscape rippled for decades, Both Bush 43 and his brother Jeb owe much of their political capital to their father, who in turned owed much to Atwater.

Lee Atwater (cropped from an official White House photo)

A short drive from the town of Aiken, South Carolina where Atwater grew up, another prominent political figure was born in the tiny town of Central, South Carolina.  This one would eventually assume the Senate seat of Strom Thurmond, in whose shadow Atwater’s career sprouted.

Lindsey Graham’s education also occurred in his home state, and the young attorney and commissioned officer swept into Congress with the Gingrich-led “Contract with America” wave in 1994. Settling into Congress, Graham exuded enthusiasm and enjoyed significant popularity as a representative of upstate South Carolina. In 2002, Graham successfully launched a Senate career, winning the seat being vacated by Strom Thurmond’s retirement.

While mild compared to today’s political stunts, Lee Atwater broke ground in assault politics. So much so that it appeared that most Republicans actively tried to distance themselves from Atwater-like tactics. The GOP Congress, along with subsequent presidential nominees, seemed eager to seek likeability rather than generate respect -- or as in the case of Lee Atwater, fear.

George W. Bush rarely answered the withering attacks on his character, leadership, and intellectual capacity from the Left. Graham’s longtime ally and seeming mentor in the Senate, John McCain -- in a glaring contrast to the tributes at his death -- was spitefully demeaned and castigated by the Left when he ran against Barack Obama in 2008. Yet the battle-hardened prisoner of war who years later seemed eager to push against Trump, was reluctant to unleash his famous temper on his attackers.

Following McCain’s example, perpetual nice guy Mitt Romney, again seemingly saved all his retaliatorily outrage for Donald Trump but none for opposing views of the Left nor the vile insults levied against him -- including mocking his faith.

Baffling and frustrating his constituents, talk radio, and conservatives, Graham seemed cozier with those across the aisle rather than those whose values he claimed to represent. His stance on immigration even earned him the nickname “Lindsey Graham-nesty” from Rush Limbaugh.

In the eyes of many, Graham hardly posed a threat to the agenda of the political Left and appeared to embody the swamp Trump promised to drain.

Until the Kavanaugh hearing.  That singular event led Graham to shockingly unleash fire and fury. Shedding the one-sided decorum clung to by Republicans, Graham stunned the nation with raw outrage.

Post-Reagan, many Republicans seemed willing to wait for their funerals to receive respect. Atwater saw it differently. President Trump also sees it differently. Graham now appears to possess an awareness that his strength’s a better negotiating tactic that capitulation, offense puts more points on the board than defense, and opponents must also reach across the aisle.

Graham remains an honorable, and by most accounts, a level-headed man. Although not traveling the path of political guerilla warfare embedded in Atwater’s history, 2018 did witness Graham reaching deep and taking a mighty swing.

In doing so, Graham, like George McFly against Biff Tannen, stepped from marginalized to respected. Sometimes, even the kinder and gentler must not only stand, but aggressively fight. For decades, conservatives craved a Republican to retaliate upon those mercilessly attacking them and their values. Oft-repeated whispers of Lee Atwater’s name became a crescendo that coalesced into Trump’s name. Graham’s name never occurred to them.

Like Trump, Lee Atwater relished the fight. Graham wages war differently. Without the vintage Atwater ruthlessness, Graham’s force seems to emanate from love of what he defends. Yet, at the Kavanaugh hearing, Graham unexpectedly instilled “Atwater-esqe” wariness in his opponents -- and under his leadership as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a repeat of the circus displayed at the Kavanaugh hearing is unlikely.

Although on different trails and timeframes, the measured path of Lindsey Graham now intersects that of Lee Atwater -- both as warriors from South Carolina’s centuries of rich history. Each stepping from a senator’s shadow (Thurmond and McCain), their Southern shadows have risen again on America’s political landscape.

Peter Rosenberger host a weekly national radio program for family caregivers and has authored several books including 7 Caregiver Landmines and How You Can Avoid Them.  He was born in raised in Anderson, South Carolina. He may be found at

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