Lee Atwater’s 5 rules of politics

Everyone who reads this blog knows I have my own Rules of Politics.

Lee Atwater, the GOP supremo also has 5 rules of politics.

He had five rules of politics that he would playfully (or not) repeat to those around him.  Even though they are a little coarse and not particularly idealistic, in the real world — or at least in the real Washington — there might still be some applicability to the rules.

Rule #1.  Be for what is going to happen.  Simply put, always try to pick the winner. If you’re a selfishly motivated, hyper-ambitious career-manager, it helps a lot to work on the campaign of the winning candidate. Enough said. 

Rule #2.  Never kick a man when he is up.  Atwater always thought to do so would be stupid.  When somebody is riding high in Washington, leave them alone.  And anyway, if someone is on a roll, rule #3 is probably applicable.

Rule #3.  Suck up to big shots.  Atwater never quite said it the way Benjamin Disraeli did, but I’m sure he would agree with the former British prime minister’s quip, “Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.”  Atwater would just substitute “Washington big shots” for “royalty.”  Mark Leibovich’s recent revelations in “This Town” about the propensity of people in Washington to suck up to big shots seems to confirm that Atwater’s observations are timeless.

Rule #4.  Take total credit.  Atwater used to say this all the time.  He wouldn’t be bashful or even artful about taking credit for the good things that happened around him.  And he would be silent — or “play dumb and keep moving,” as he would say — when things did not go according to plan.  Generally speaking, Atwater was of the impression that in Washington, gall pays off.

Rule #5.  At last resort, deny the obvious. It may produce a moment of confusion where you catch a break.  This rule is consistent with two more of Atwater’s corollaries: “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, no matter what” and, as I remember him saying, “Every now and then, Ed, they’re on to me.” Atwater would always fight to the bitter end.  If his words ever came back to haunt him, he would put up a brave front, stick to his guns and his story, and hope for the best.  Today’s formulaic revelation, denial, confession and comeback cycle would have thrilled Atwater.


THANK YOU for being a subscriber. Because of you Whaleoil is going from strength to strength. It is a little known fact that Whaleoil subscribers are better in bed, good looking and highly intelligent. Sometimes all at once! Please Click Here Now to subscribe to an ad-free Whaleoil.

  • mark

    Yeah, all class.

    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.”

    • JC

      From your quote:

      “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.…”

      As is common these days those dots at the end indicate a break in Atwater’s comment created by his enemies. So lets add in the bit missed out:

      “Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and the byproduct of them is 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 then we’re doing away with the racial problem one way or the other, you follow me? “*

      As this article shows:


      Here’s the concluding part of the article:

      “What Atwater is saying in the omitted portion of this interview is that, by 1980, overt appeals to racism had lost their efficacy. In the midst of a clinical evaluation of campaign strategy, Atwater digresses to contend that racism both exists and is no longer an effective tool for campaigners.

      At the very least, an honest appraisal of what Atwater is saying is that a racial strategy is not a prudent course for campaigners in the South. And this was 30 years ago. To misquote him in order to attest that he was referring to circumstances relevant today is misleading at best.”


      • blairmulholland

        If Atwater was such a freaking genuis, then why would he even say something this vile and stupid and wrong? It’s just wrong. And the Left have used this quote as a stick to beat Republicans with for 30 years now. It’s probably the dumbest thing said by a Republican in that time, and there’s stiff competition out there.