It has been the stuff of legend for years now -- an interview that canonized GOP political consultant Lee Atwater gave while he was working in the Reagan White House in 1981. In that sit-down, Atwater explained how the Republican Party had so successfully executed the "Southern Strategy" of convincing large numbers of Southern Whites to vote Republican while navigating a new world in which overt prejudice was no longer politically viable. How? By replacing formerly overtly racist appeals, embodied in the n-word (which, Atwater noted, "you can't say" anymore) with coded language instead. These coded appeals -- "dog-whistles" -- whether about busing or, even more "abstract," as Atwater put it, things like tax cuts and other economic issues, would have the effect of "hurting blacks worse than whites," appealing to the constituencies the GOP was trying to attract, all while affording the party plausible deniability with respect to racism.
Now the full interview, 42 minutes long, has been unearthed by James Carter IV, who dug up the Romney 47 percent tape. As Rick Perlstein wrote over in The Nation today in describing the release of the tape, since first being highlighted in a column by Bob Herbert in the New York Times in 2005, Atwater's "n-gger, n-gger, n-gger" quote has emerged as a kind of Rosetta Stone for unlocking the political language the American right has been using for decades to siphon off white voters, especially in the South, from their formerly traditional home in the Democratic Party.
One of the striking facts about the just-completed presidential campaign was the degree to which the GOP barely concerned itself with dressing up its appeals in the kinds of camouflaged terms about which Atwater spoke. These included Rick Santorum's unprompted comments about Blacks and welfare in Iowa in January (which he later tried to dodge by insisting he'd said "blah people"), the Romney campaign's baseless and ongoing insistence that the Obama administration was getting ready to end the work requirements for welfare and repeated over-the-top diatribes from high-profile surrogates, including former New Hampshire Governor and Chief of Staff to President George H. W. Bush, John Sununu (Obama's "lazy and "not that bright,") and former Speaker Newt Gingrich.