Recalling Atwater the ‘Boogie Man’

Posted September 25, 2008 at 4:06pm

As the war of words between presidential contenders Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) heats up in the next few weeks, a new documentary has come out at a perfect time. Re-examining the history of smear campaigns, “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story” traces those campaigns back to the man who refined the negative tactics in modern American politics.

Atwater, the late chairman of the Republican National Committee, was much loved by conservatives. After all, he helped elect three presidents and mentored Karl Rove.

But Atwater was also cursed by his political victims as a “scumbag,” “racist,” and an “architect of evil” for his unscrupulous style.

Some critics have compared the strategist’s life to a Greek tragedy. A political prodigy from Columbia, S.C., who rose from the chairmanship of the College Republican National Committee to the No. 1 man of the GOP, Atwater ended his life crestfallen when faced with a deadly illness that prompted his frantic search for redemption.

Intrigued by Atwater’s sea change, director Stefan Forbes produced “Boogie Man” to show how the political genius continues to shape the current election.

The film traces Atwater’s notoriety as a ruthless campaigner, starting with the 1988 Willie Horton ad targeting Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.

A master at manipulating the media, exploiting voters’ fears and distracting them from real issues, Atwater scored points by winning over members of the White House press corps with intentional leaks (although columnist Robert Novak recalled in the film how he dismissed Atwater’s slanderous tip alleging that Dukakis had psychiatric problems) and letting them run the Horton ad for free — a bad practice that started the tradition of reporting juicy smears.

As Forbes unearthed new footage of Atwater’s interviews, he shed light on some political mysteries: Atwater lied to “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl that he knew nothing of the Horton commercial. At the same time, GOP operative Roger Stone accused Atwater of “illegally funneling millions of dollars to the political action committee which produced the Horton ad.” Another clip of Atwater’s visit to George H.W. Bush’s estate in Maine showed their distant relationship.

The GOP took Atwater’s mantra that “politics is war” and “winning is everything” to heart. McCain’s surprise pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate is “clearly an Atwater move,” Forbes said in a phone interview. He pointed out that her story is told with “folk charm,” “played on voters’ resentment of elites” and that Palin embodied “religious values.”

Atwater excelled at using American symbols to his advantage, Forbes said. By dressing the senior Bush, a Yale graduate, with cowboy boots stitched with the American flag and transforming him into a Texan country boy during his 1988 presidential run, Atwater laid the foundation for McCain’s own story: that the multimillionaire McCain can pass as an ordinary guy.

If the political mastermind was alive today, Forbes predicted that “Atwater would be shocked how far the McCain campaign has taken his tactics with powerful, subliminal advertising that linked Obama to the men bombing the capital, made him seem like a pedophile, a dangerous wolf in the woods that would destroy Sarah Palin.”

Of all the political twists and turns, Forbes said he is most surprised by McCain’s change of heart. McCain denounced the dirty tactics when he was destroyed by Atwater’s disciple Tucker Eskew in the 2000 primary, but when his poll numbers started to dip this year, McCain hired Eskew as a senior adviser to help groom Palin on the campaign trail. “If John McCain couldn’t stand up to the Southern right-wing conservative base of his party whom Atwater empowered in 1988, who can?” Forbes asked.

Even though history and politics tend to repeat themselves, Democrats still haven’t learned the lessons and appealed to voters’ emotions, Forbes said. The only one who seems to be immune was another Southerner, Bill Clinton. The director said Clinton saw through an “instinctive glass of racial tension” and “understood the resentment against elites.” “He knows how to fight back and speak in simple terms without a 10-point plan,” Forbes said.

The film opened and ended with the footage of the hip-shaking, jazz-playing Atwater headlining Bush’s 1988 Inauguration gala. The wonder boy’s moment of glory was only fleeting. He later developed a fatal brain tumor and died at age 40.

Atwater was “a genius who knows how to win political campaigns. But it’s what you do after winning that counts,” Forbes said. The economic and foreign policy disasters of the current administration are similar to the crisis Atwater faced at the end of his life, he noted.

“We need to search for the truth, like Atwater did on his death bed.”

Atwater’s catharsis was a poignant coda to the documentary. The Republican taskmaster emerged from the radiation therapies as a puffed-face, wheelchair-ridden invalid. He later expressed his remorse in a February 1991 Life magazine article: “My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The ’80s were about acquiring — acquiring wealth, power, prestige. … It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth. … I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.”

Forbes said viewers should not just associate Lee Atwater with lies and smears, however. It would be ridiculously wrong to blame it all on American politics, he said. “Voters should take a long, hard look in the mirror,” Forbes warned. “If we keep repeating Lee’s playbook, it’s all we are going to get in the future.”

“Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story” runs from Sept. 26 to Oct. 3 at E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW; 202-452-7672.