To understand today’s American political campaigns, it helps to know a little bit about the godfather of modern negative campaigning, a man who has been dead since 1991: Lee Atwater, who is also the subject of filmmaker Stefan Forbes’ new documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. As the campaign manager for George H.W. Bush in his 1988 Presidential Race victory over Michael Dukakis, Atwater orchestrated a strategy built on shameless smears, such as the race-baiting of the infamous Willie Horton ads, which nonetheless proved wildly effective in casting Dukakis as a far-left kook. Atwater unapologetically believed that politics was war, and that any tactics, the truth be damned, were appropriate to secure victory. He served as a mentor to both Karl Rove and George W. Bush, and illuminated the way to future victory and power…if you were willing to follow his slam campaign rulebook. Atwater was also a mass of contradictions, which is what makes him such a fascinating character and Forbes’ film such a compelling view. My first recollections of Atwater were seeing this little man in a blue blazer on the news footage of the 1989 Bush Inaugural, where he was bouncing around like a rock star playing the electric guitar on the stage (next to the new President Bush, also wielding a guitar) with a group of famous R&B Musicians, a routine which culminated in a James Brown-style split. Although former Secretary of State Jim Baker referred to Atwater at his funeral as “Machiavellian…in the very best sense of that term,” the first visual impression of Atwater reminded more of Michael J. Fox’s Young Republican character of Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties. Could one of the most powerful political operatives in America also be a rock and roll-loving goofball? Filmmaker Forbes, too, remembers that Inaugural footage as his introduction to Atwater. Recalls Forbes, “I saw him up there with some of the greatest R&B artists in American history and I was expecting to hear the second coming of Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was a virtuoso, alright, but at spinning the press. As the elections of 2000 and 2004 occurred, I kept coming back to Atwater. I couldn’t believe that nobody had made a film about him. It was a classic American tale of a prankster, a guitar-picking antihero from the south who rises up to change American history. I was fascinated by how he did it and his ongoing influence on American politics.”
In order to get to the soul of the Republican Party’s one-time rock star, Forbes did extensive interviews with longtime friends and colleagues of Atwater, including Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins and Tucker Askew, a former Atwater aide who is now a senior advisor to the McCain campaign. What seemed to drive Atwater more than anything was a desire to win at all costs, must less so than social or ideological concerns. Growing up relatively poor in the South, Atwater was an odd fit with the Bush Family, who often seemed to treat him as one small step above the hired help. Moreover, he hardly seemed to share many of the concerns of conservative Christians, although his understanding of what they were searching for in a political candidate was fundamental to his greatest successes. As far as religion goes, it wasn’t until he was on his deathbed with cancer, which took him at the ripe age of 40, that Atwater “found God” and expressed sorrow towards everyone he had harmed during his political career, writing many of them personal letters. But there are some who were with him at the time who believe that even that 11th hour repentance and religious conversion were all classic Atwater spin, a final attempt to cast his image as he saw fit for posterity.
To Forbes’ credit, he keeps a fairly objective tone to the film, simply stating the facts of Atwater’s life without the trademark twistings of his subject. Says Forbes, “It’s ridiculous to blame all the sins of American politics on Lee. He wasn’t doing these things because he was evil but because he knew they worked. To blame him, ultimately, is a way for us to let ourselves off the hook and ignore our own complicity in the fate of the country.”