The Prez

© Copyright 1996 by
Brian Alpert;
All rights reserved.

The Fundraiser
Blues and politics and a not-so-sordid little secret…


he gig was Monday, April 17th, 1989. Though more than seven years has passed, I know this precisely because I'm a packrat: I still have my 1989 gig-calendar. A musician's calendar superbly indexes the places and events of what might otherwise be a blur of one-night-stands. Leafing through brings back floods of memory, people, places, and couples them in black and white with hard facts one may or may not prefer to remember. (My entire take-home pay for the week of May 8th 1983: $37.) April 17th 1989 is distinguished by two entries: 1) supervise the repair of my parent's garage door at 9am and 2) show up at 2pm for a rare Monday gig, indicated "Jim Brady Party."

The gig, at a plush Washington hotel, was a fundraiser for the James S. Brady Presidential Foundation, a bipartisan organization dedicated to promoting the then-nascent Brady Bill. The gig was a freebie, unusual even for a benefit. But the circumstances were special, we were doing a favor for a friend.

'We' were Jimmy Thackery and The Assassins. The Assassins played straight ahead rock'n'roll, blues and
R&BThe friend, Buz Peele, was a gentle-souled musician who growing-up in Columbia South Carolina had played in prep school bands with a friend who ultimately opted out of music and into politics. In 1989, Buz's friend Lee Atwater was chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Atwater was riding high, basking in the success of his meisterwork, running the 1988 Presidential campaign. His cunning instincts regarding people's cares and fears combined with go-for-the-throat strategy was already the stuff of legend. The most notorious reflection of his approach was a devastating ad, in which (according to the ad) Democratic nominee Gov. Michael Dukakis' prison furlough policies allowed murderer Willie Horton the freedom to murder again. The ad pandered to racist fear and stereotypes. Though Atwater was not personally responsible for producing the ad, he was widely given credit for the strategy. He was the point man with the chainsaw, the man who invited fear and racism to the victory party. He later boasted his every intention to make Horton into Dukakis' "running mate."

Though a powerful national politico, Atwater still played guitar here and there, especially for high profile special events. He jammed onstage at Bush's inaugural ball, and reports of his occasional appearances graced the gossip columns. The Brady event was one such occasion, but he needed his own band. He called Buz, Buz called us. Political conscience be damned, the deal was done. (Musician's creed: "Hey, a gig is a gig.") The Assassins were enlisted to play backup at a James Brady Foundation fundraiser. This item transcribed from the April 19th New York Post gossip column Page Six illuminates the fun:

WASHINGTON, APRIL 17TH -- The swells who packed the $1,000-a-head fundraiser for the James Brady Foundation the other night in Washington didn't know it, but the band they were listening to was using an alias. Brady is the former White House press secretary shot in the head during John Hinckley's assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. The rock band that played at the fundraiser -- with Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater sitting in at guitar -- is normally billed as The Assassins. Sources told PAGE SIX the group was hastily renamed the "All-Star Blues Band."
Actually it was "Lee Atwater's All-Star Blues Band," but close enough. It isn't clear how the story made it to the New York paper, though we heard second-hand that it also appeared in the San Francisco Examiner. Personally, I did my part by speaking freely with a Washington Times reporter. However, the coup de grāce came later. The bizarre, yet amusing scrap went nationwide, appearing on the last page of the May 8th People magazine:

We made it to People magazine.

That's the basic joke; an amusing anecdote which to this day gets good mileage. For me however, that evening's main event happened before we played. It was a single, laser-like moment with Atwater, a crystalline glimpse of the intensity driving the Republican legend.

As usual, the 2pm arrival meant 'hurry up and wait.' There was no need to rehearse. Indeed, it wasn't possible, due to the fact that Atwater hadn't arrived. We figured we'd see him ten minutes before 'hit' time, and we were right. Besides, we were selected for this assignment in large part for our ability to play anything Lee knew without rehearsal. This is not an onerous task. Experienced musicians have large musical vocabularies. There was no doubt: whatever music Atwater knew we'd also know, and play with nary a glitch.

As predicted, ten minutes before showtime, Atwater appeared and introduced himself. He was dressed for the show in dark slacks, a blazer, matching red bow tie and cummerbund. The cufflinks on his white shirt sported the Seal of the President of the United States. He shook our hands and asked if we could go over the songs. We would do two, a Chuck Berry and a blues shuffle. I knew this was going to be a piece of cake. As Lee was explaining some 'stops' in the Chuck Berry song (a tune I had played a billion times and knew cold), my eyes wandered, taking in the scene. It was this wandering attention that for a fleeting moment brought Atwater's native intensity to bear.

Instinctively finding the one set of eyes not fixed on his, Atwater focused on me for a brief instant, moving quickly to gain my undivided attention.

He got it. The intensity of the moment beggars description. It was if I'd been grabbed by the throat and drawn eyeball-to-eyeball; life and death intensity applied to Chuck Berry. All troops in line, Atwater continued, not missing a beat.

He probably did this unconsciously; Standard Operating Procedure. The other guys didn't even notice. I was a little stunned however, not expecting to feel the man's personal fire any more than one expects to see an auto wreck or a building burn to the ground.

Onstage, we played the tunes flawlessly. Atwater was a rambunctious musical mess. He strained his face into every kind of contortion, extending and flapping his lips as if imitating a platypus.
Lee strained his face, lips extended 
like a Platypus.

[Atwater]He played his Fender Telecaster with the energy and slash and burn style of a high school kid set free by the realization that after all that practice he could finally make it from one end of a song to the next without falling down. Big time rock'n'roll it wasn't. But this crowd didn't know from Chuck Berry, and the novelty of seeing Atwater play at all guaranteed our success. Besides, this was an event. There were Washington illuminati crawling all over the place, including James and Sarah Brady, Democratic Congressman from California Tony Coehlo (who would resign his seat that very year, under an ethics-related cloud) and (still current) U.S. Senator John McCain. Atwater's beneficiary-bosses George and Barbara Bush even showed up, an unscheduled cameo which further charged the room with excitement.

Our commitment fulfilled, Atwater shook our hands and thanked us. He then reached into his blazer and pulled out four little boxes, trinkets which are standard currency bestowed upon the little people for those favors done out of sense of duty. Atwater presented us each with Gold-Plated Seal of the President of the United States George Bush Signature TIE CLIPS! Just like his cufflinks. Boy Howdy, I was Proud to be an American.

The famous Great Seal tie clip.

I never saw Lee Atwater again. It was national news when, in 1990, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The painful illness took his life the following year, and some say, the wind out of the 1992 Bush Campaign. He was 40 years old. In his last days he repudiated his lifelong embrace of the vicious win-at-any-cost style he trademarked. He publicly apologized to Gov. and Mrs. Dukakis, serving to further magnify the tragedy of his death. His legacy continues in different forms. The Lee Atwater Foundation supports colleges with scholorships and other grants, while playwright Robert Myers has appraised him rather more critically in his play Fixin' to Die: A Visit to the Mind of Lee Atwater. In 1996 John Brady published the intimate and comprehensive Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater. Heck, Lee has even been blamed for the death of disco.

All judgements aside, this was an amazing guy who died young, apologizing for his greatest victory. Personally, I prefer to remember the half-baked Bluesguy who owned a piece of a local Bar-B-Q joint.

Maybe he should have stuck to playing the Blues.