Austin Meets Lee Atwater
But it was Reagan political adviser Lee Atwater that Austin befriended during the switch process and Austin soon became a frequent visitor to Atwater's office in the White House. Atwater introduced Austin to Reagan and included him in White House social functions and high level events, including the October 8, 1981, South Lawn departure ceremony of former Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter who were leading the nation's delegation to the State funeral of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Atwater would later dispatch Austin to consult on various Congressional campaigns that were important to Atwater.
Atkinson lost in the 1982 mid-term elections in what was a Democratic landslide that year. The Reagan Administration appointed Austin Director of Governmental Affairs, Food and Nutrition Service, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two years later Lee Atwater was instrumental in sending Austin to Atlanta with less than eight weeks until the election to manage the long shot campaign of Republican Patrick L. Swindall against five-term incumbent and former Rhodes Scholar, Congressman Elliott Levitas (D-Ga). An August survey by pollster Arthur Finkelstein showed Levitas held a large lead over Swindall 52.5% to 24.4% prior to Austin's arrival to the campaign.
While Atwater later orchestrated the 1988 presidential election of President George H. W. Bush, and became Chairman of the Republican National Committee, he recognized the fact that the Atkinson party switch was one of his first coups as Reagan's White House political adviser and it was Austin who helped him succeed. They remained close friends right up to Atwater's death from a brain tumor on March 29, 1991. As RNC Chairman, Atwater called Austin "one of my oldest and dearest political pals."
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