Ruthless Politicians

As we know, politics is often a savage business, one without an ethical floor. One of the more ruthless political operatives may have been Lee Atwater, who direct Bush I’s campaign in 1988. A political scientist named Lamis interviewed Atwater later (and Bob Herbert wrote about the interview even later than that, in 2005), and here is an excerpt, borrowed from Wikipedia (which provides the sources), with thanks:

Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964 and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.

Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?

Atwater: 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 forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] 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, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

As with anyone who’s been working–by choice, by circumstance, or by a combination of both–in an ethical vacuum, Atwater here seems oblivious to the amoral narcissism his rhetoric demonstrates. “By 1968, you can’t say [the n. word]–that hurts you.” Uh, the point is, you ought not to say it because it hurts others, discourse, and society. (And yes, I’m familiar with how Hip Hop artists, among others, have recaptured and redeployed the word, but the rules of the road are that, whatever Black Hip Hop artists may choose to say doesn’t affect the responsibility of whites, especially.) Then he says, “we are doing away with the racial problem on way or another”; by problem, he means a political problem for the Republicans, not problems with racism or problems faced by African Americans and others. It’s as if Atwater’s conscience-age is stuck in middle-school, when boys simply often don’t stop to think about the effect of what they say or do.

Of course, no political party has a corner on the ruthlessness market. LBJ and the Clintons, for instance, seem often to have occupied the same ethical vacuum as did Atwater.

But wait! you cry, being an etymologist (your secret is safe with me), how did we end up with this word, “ruthless,” and what does it mean to be without ruth?

Well, in English, the word’s been around since the 14th century, in print, according to the OED online. It has French roots, and the closest root is “rue,” meaning sorrow or regret. “To rue” now means to regret, but it also used to mean to affect someone–to make them feel sorrow or regret. There is also an evergreen shrub called “rue,” but it has a different root, and a confusing one: rude. Why, how, and when “ruth” slid into “rue” is beyond my ken and within the ken of linguists.

When a politician or back-room handler has an Atwater-moment, he or she is probably not just without sorrow or regret but without awareness–desensitized to appropriate v. inappropriate; to boundaries; to judgment; to right v. wrong. Think of the Bush II campaign-employees doing the “push-polling” in the South, suggesting McCain had an illegitimate Black child, suggesting he had been brainwashed when held hostage, etc. Beyond being bereft of rue.


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