Lee Atwater, the rough and tumble political tactician who managed President Bush's 1988 campaign and went on to head the Republican Party, died Friday.
The 40-year-old South Carolinian had battled a brain tumor for more than a year.Atwater died at George Washington University Hospital at 6:24 a.m. EST, according to Mary Matalin, chief of staff of the Republican National Committee.
President Bush mourned his longtime friend's death, and said Atwater "will always be in our memories."
"Barbara and I lost a great friend in Lee Atwater," Bush said in a statement released by the White House. "I valued Lee's counsel and abilities. The Republican Party will miss his energy, vision and leadership. "Barbara and I give our deepest condolences to Sally, the kids and Lee's parents. We share their grief. He will always be in our memories."
A wiry, driven man constantly in motion, Atwater was at the peak of an extraordinary career when he was stricken.
"A reputation as a fierce and ugly campaigner has dogged me," Atwater once conceded. "While I didn't invent `negative politics,' I am one of its most ardent practitioners." Even Bush, Atwater's friend and patron, felt the sting of those tactics when they were on opposite sides in the 1980 GOP presidential primaries.
Early in the 1988 campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis, Atwater bluntly told a Republican audience: "If I can make Willie Horton a household name, we'll win the election."
He succeeded on both counts. Horton was a convicted murderer who raped a woman while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The Bush campaign used the incident to portray Dukakis as a liberal who was soft on crime.
Atwater had been in the hospital since March 5, the most recent of several hospitalizations for a "general deterioration in the condition," said RNC spokesman B.J. Cooper.
He was "at peace and comfortable," alert and conversant in recent weeks, Cooper said.
Atwater received a visit Thursday from former President Reagan, who was in Washington for an appearance at George Washington University, a White House aide said.
Funeral services will be held in his hometown of Columbia, S.C., Matalin said in a statement read to reporters.
Not only had Atwater run a presidential campaign and become chairman of the Republican Party, but he also had attained his dream of performing with some of the greatest rhythm and blues musicians. An accomplished guitarist and blues singer, Atwater was featured along with B.B. King, Isaac Hayes and Billy Preston on "Red, Hot and Blue," a rhythm and blues album issued last spring.