In the spring of 1990, after he had helped the first George Bush reach the presidency, the political consultant Lee Atwater learned that he was dying. Atwater, who had just turned 39 and was the head of the Republican National Committee, had suffered a seizure while at a political fund-raising breakfast and had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. In a year he was dead.
Atwater put some of that year to use making amends. Throughout his meteoric political rise he had been known for both his effectiveness and his brutality. In South Carolina, where he grew up, he helped defeat a congressional candidate who had openly discussed his teenage struggles with depression by telling reporters that the man had once been “hooked up to jumper cables.” As the campaign manager for then–Vice President George H. W. Bush in 1988, when he defeated Michael Dukakis in the general election, Atwater leveraged the issue of race—a specialty for him—by means of the infamous “Willie Horton” TV ad. The explicit message of the commercial was that, as governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis had been soft on crime by offering furloughs to convicted murderers; Horton ran away while on furlough and then committed new felonies, including rape. The implicit message was the menace posed by hulking, scowling black men—like the Willie Horton who was shown in the commercial.
Strother, 10 years older than Atwater, had been his Democratic competitor and counterpart, minus the gutter-fighting. During the early Reagan years, when Atwater worked in the White House, Strother joined the staff of the Democratic Party’s most promising and glamorous young figure, Senator Gary Hart of Colorado. Strother was Hart’s media consultant and frequent traveling companion during his run for the nomination in 1984, when he gave former Vice President Walter Mondale a scare. As the campaign for the 1988 nomination geared up, Strother planned to play a similar role.
In early 1987, the Hart campaign had an air of likelihood if not inevitability that is difficult to imagine in retrospect. After Mondale’s landslide defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1984, Hart had become the heir apparent and best hope to lead the party back to the White House. The presumed Republican nominee was Bush, Reagan’s vice president, who was seen at the time, like many vice presidents before him, as a lackluster understudy. Since the FDR–Truman era, no party had won three straight presidential elections, which the Republicans would obviously have to do if Bush were to succeed Reagan.
Gary Hart had a nationwide organization and had made himself a recognized expert on military and defense policy. I first met him in those days, and wrote about him in Atlantic articles that led to my 1981 book, National Defense. (I’ve stayed in touch with him since then and have respected his work and his views.) Early polls are notoriously unreliable, but after the 1986 midterms, and then–New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s announcement that he would not run, many national surveys showed Hart with a lead in the Democratic field and also over Bush. Hart’s principal vulnerability was the press’s suggestion that something about him was hidden, excessively private, or “unknowable.” Among other things, this was a way of alluding to suspicions of extramarital affairs—a theme in most accounts of that campaign, including Matt Bai’s 2014 All the Truth Is Out. Still, as Bai wrote in his book, “Everyone agreed: it was Hart’s race to lose.”
Strother and Atwater had the mutually respectful camaraderie of highly skilled rivals. “Lee and I were friends,” Strother told me when I spoke with him by phone recently. “We’d meet after campaigns and have coffee, talk about why I did what I did and why he did what he did.” One of the campaigns they met to discuss afterward was that 1988 presidential race, which Atwater (with Bush) had of course ended up winning, and from which Hart had dropped out. But later, during what Atwater realized would be the final weeks of his life, Atwater phoned Strother to discuss one more detail of that campaign.
In late March 1987, Hart spent a weekend on a Miami-based yacht called Monkey Business. Two young women joined the boat when it sailed to Bimini. While the boat was docked there, one of the women took a picture of Hart sitting on the pier, with the other, Donna Rice, in his lap. A month after this trip, in early May, the man who had originally invited Hart onto the boat brought the same two women to Washington. The Miami Herald had received a tip about the upcoming visit and was staking out the front of Hart’s house. (A famous profile of Hart by E. J. Dionne in The New York Times Magazine, in which Hart invited the press to “follow me around,” came out after this stakeout—not before, contrary to common belief.) A Herald reporter saw Rice and Hart going into the house through the front door and, not realizing that there was a back door, assumed—when he didn’t see her again—that she had spent the night.
Amid the resulting flap about Hart’s “character” and honesty, he quickly suspended his campaign (within a week), which effectively ended it. Several weeks later came the part of the episode now best remembered: the photo of Hart and Rice together in Bimini, on the cover of the National Enquirer.