NEWBERRY — Campaign manager. Kingmaker. Republican National Committee chairman. Master of Tactics. Jokester. Friend.
Among the multitude of things Lee Atwater was — besides being one of the most notable political minds of the 20th century — he was also an alumnus of Newberry College.
Rising from a disastrous early academic career, Atwater would go on to become a political wunderkind serving as a political coordinator to Ronald Reagan and later managing George Bush Sr.’s White House bid that saw him scheme up a notorious campaign that many found distasteful and even downright unethical.
Atwater responded to those criticisms by saying, “We had only one goal in the campaign — to help elect George Bush. That’s the purpose of any political campaign. What other function should a campaign have?”
For his major part in helping to secure the presidency for Bush, Atwater was named the chairman of the Republican National Committee, a feat that surely would have seemed far-fetched to a young Harvey LeRoy Atwater growing up in South Carolina.
Just a few years after the biggest triumph of his political career, Atwater was diagnosed with a brain tumor and passed away at the age of 40, 25 years ago last March.
“Barbara and I are heartsick about it,” Bush Sr. told the media on the day of Atwater’s death. “Lee was a very close friend to my sons and daughter as well as to Barbara and me.”
Another who called Atwater “friend” is Carlos Evans, himself a Newberry College alumnus and a fraternity brother of Atwater’s.
On a personal level, Evans said Atwater made the lives of those he encountered all the more interesting and exciting.
“There’s no question in my mind — absolutely no question in my mind — that George Bush Sr. would not have been elected president were it not for Lee Atwater,” Evans said of his friend’s political legacy.
Like Atwater, Evans was a member of the Newberry College Class of 1973 and a member of Alpha Tau Omega. He would go on to retire as an executive with Wells Fargo in 2014.
The two men met as freshmen and developed a close friendship that would continue to the end of Atwater’s life.
Evans said he was involved in several Atwater campaigns and the pair were even in each other’s weddings.
“I would say the thing that really made him different was he was incredibly competitive,” Evans said. “He was very much focused on winning at every level.”
In 1972, while in college, Atwater signed up over 12,000 supporters for President Richard Nixon — a national record.
“In politics, that competitive nature translated to ‘whatever it takes to win,’” Evans said.
However, Atwater as an imposing political figure with seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm for his work may have come across as a big surprise to those who knew him when he first arrived on campus in 1969.
“Lee, his freshman year, was a very different person than the Lee who graduated from Newberry College in 1973,” Evans said.
Atwater’s grades were horrible in his first year and he was forced to attend summer school just so he could stay at Newberry.
Then everything changed.
While in summer school, Atwater secured an internship with a young Senator named Strom Thurmond, who was 67 at the time.
“He came back that fall and he was a totally different person,” Evans recalled.
His hair was short and his dress conservative. Gone were the remnants of the hippie-saturated 1960’s, Evans said.
Atwater went from coming dangerously close to flunking out the previous semester to a straight A student and Evans said he became highly engaged in his political studies.
“That was the point when we started to believe that Lee had possibilities beyond being just a jokester and a fun guy,” he said.
However, even with his newfound focus, Atwater never lost the “fun” side of his personality — always joking around and entertaining his fraternity brothers by improving “crazy” songs on his guitar, Evans said, which made him an ideal social chair in his frat.
One slow weekend on campus — no football game or planned parties — Atwater came across a band whose trailer had broken down on the side of the road.
Already running too late to make it to their gig in the Upstate, Atwater convinced them to just stay in Newberry and play there, thus creating an impromptu party.
Later, after achieving national success, many of Atwater’s old friends would ask him for favors, something Evans said he never did.
“(Atwater) asked me one time, ‘Everyone’s always asking me for something. Why haven’t you ever asked me for something?’ I said, “Because I’m not interested in politics,” he said.
Evans said the final time he seriously conversed with Atwater was over the phone on the evening Bush Sr. was elected.
“I just want you to know that I’m sitting on top of the world right now. This is the greatest day of my life,” Evans recalled Atwater telling him.
Atwater then told him that Bush Sr. was the “worst politician I’ve ever worked with but he is absolutely the best human being and the best equipped person to be president of this country.”
Evans said under those circumstances that night it was a “very moving” conversation.
Not long after, Evans received a call from Atwater inviting him and a few friends to come visit the White House.
The group arrived, had lunch in the executive dining room and were offered the chance to meet with the president in the Oval Office.
Bush Sr. was to arrive soon via helicopter and a large group of media personnel were gathered just beyond the fence that barricaded the grounds.
Evans said Atwater turned to him and said, “Let’s have some fun.”
Atwater went out and addressed the media saying this group of men (Evans and friends) were to have a private meeting with the president after which Atwater would return to fill them in on what transpired.
Evans said Atwater turned back to him and said, “Those press guys are going to be dying trying to figure out who you all are and why you’re meeting with the president.”
Reach Carson Lambert at 803-276-0625, ext. 1868, or on Twitter @TheNBOnews.