We Are All Political Animals
"Political Animals," a "Limited Series Event" premiered on USA Network last night. Hurrah. According to USA Network, the series "pulls back the curtain on the polished facade of a former first-family as they navigate the complex world of political and personal ambition." "Political Animals" is loosely based on the Clintons. Sigourney Weaver stars as a former first lady turned Secretary of State. There is a twist, however, as she divorces her cheating husband. Critics have reacted well to the scandals, skeletons in the closet, bitter fights, larger than life egos, and constant contention that make the series tick.
Part of the media blitz promoting the show is a sponsored advertorial -- that is, an ad made to appear as editorial content -- on the Huffington Post prompting readers to vote for the top 50 political animals of all time. FDR, real life Bill and Hilary Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, Eleanor Roosevelt, MLK Jr., Lyndon Johnson, Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and JFK are currently in the top 10.
I take issue with the fact that the list overlooks Lee Atwater. Karl Rove, whom he mentored, and Mark Hanna (whom the contest's copywriters called "the original Karl Rove") both made the cut. Yet Atwater is nowhere to be found. Atwater was by all counts a brilliant and ruthless Republican strategist, a firebrand who rose high amazingly early in life and who was simultaneously respected, reviled, and loved. By the time Atwater was in his late 30s, he had been an aide to Ronald Reagan and directed George H.W. Bush’s victorious campaign. By 39, he was head of the RNC, achieving a lifelong dream.
Soon after arriving at the apex of his career in 1990, Atwater was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In March 1991, one month after his 40th birthday, he was dead.
Boogie Man, a film based on Atwater's life, premiered just ahead of the 2008 presidential election. The trailers for the film said that Atwater “wrote the GOP playbook.”
Whether Atwater invented a new form of negativity, or took an existing lack of ethical inhibitions and cranked them up twenty notches is not worth debating. He still stands out as one of the most effective political animals of all time. In the years since his death, many pundits, lobbyists and candidates across party lines have taken up the Atwater playbook, pursuing their political will at almost any cost.
Is it unfortunate that, for as many times as the Atwater playbook is intuitively invoked, few have considered what Atwater himself wrote on its late page.
In February 1991, with just one month left to live, Atwater told Life magazine:
The '80s were about acquiring — acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime.
In the last twenty years, we have not learned any lessons about the limits of power and prestige. Instead we seem to have headed in the completely opposite direction. Political ruthlessness and ambition have not only continued to rule the day, but expanded their reach.
I think one reason Lee Atwater did not make HuffPo's top 50 political animals is because he ended up involuntarily trading his prestige and power for humanity and humility. His is a cautionary tale. And for some reason we would all rather deny it and instead glamorize people behaving badly.