Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Stefan Forbes
viewed: 06/15/10

Truth be told, it took me many years to get interested in politics and world events.  So the subject of Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story is something which echoes back through my life, but somewhat shamefully reminds me that back as either a teen or a relatively young adult, I wasn’t interested or following the times and events that this film covers, though I was alive and relatively aware of much of their goings-on.

Lee Atwater, who rose from a Louisiana college Republican roustabout to the head of the RNC, did so in a way that would cement the concept of dirty politics and give definition to an era that has much responsibility for our current world of political nonsense.  And he is a rather compelling, beguiling, and frustrating character, which makes this documentary quite a telling and enlightening tale.

Atwater moved from Louisiana politics to the big time with the Reagan administration and led George H. W. Bush’s 1988 electoral campaign.  What’s fascinating are the perspectives of his friends, admirers, and adversaries among the interviewees, who all have a rather large chunk of admiration for the conniving, sharp-witted, almost unsinkable Atwater, even when he was at his most-dubious worst.

For instance, former Democratic congressional nominee Tom Turnipseed, about whom Atwater had uncovered the fact that Turnipseed had undergone some psychiatric treatment and attacked him with lines such as referring to him as being “got hooked up to jumper cables”, suggesting that Turnipseed had undergone electroshock therapy.  Atwater’s strategy was one that pushed buttons, hot buttons, but had little if any basis in fact, used exploitative imagery and skirted around outright lies.  And it worked like a charm.

In the 1988 presidential campaign, Atwater floated through “leaks” and other clever press manipulation that Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis’s wife had burned a flag during her college years, suggesting there was photographic evidence.  Whether or not she did wasn’t the issue, once it was stated “perception became belief” and left the Dukakis campaign, like many other of Atwater’s political foes, on their heels, defending themselve from spurious accusations while the real issues, like Bush’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, fell behind the discourse.

And most heinously, there was the Willie Horton case (again, a name I felt quite familiar with from the day — I didn’t vote in the 1988 election, though it was the first one that I was “of age” for).  Horton was an African American criminal, who had raped and murdered someone while out of jail on a “weekend release” program in the state of Massachusetts, the state in which Dukakis was governor.  With a very racist-seeming television ad campaign, among many other placements, Atwater made it sound like Dukakis was to blame for this, despite the fact that this was a program, the weekend release program, that had been based on one from California under Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial leadership.

Atwater was a master of raising flashy false subterfuge, demonizing the other candidate, but also manipulating the whole discussion in ways that made the other guy look like not only the villain but the fool, too.  Dukakis appears onscreen to discuss this failed campaign and still is at a loss for words.  His attempts to “take the high road” with these spurious issues left him as the also-ran in history and also kept the door open for George W. Bush (a chum of Atwater’s) and Karl Rove (a protege of Atwater’s) to step further into history.

Atwater, so the film claims, wasn’t really interested in “the issues”.  Some claim that he could have just have easily joined the Democratic party, but joined the Republicans because he thought there was more room to have fun.

The fascinating thing about Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Storyis that while it certainly paints Atwater as the Democrat’s “boogie man”, it is hardly a damning, single-minded portrait.  Atwater, who was a blues guitarist who actually played and recorded with a number of blues greats (most likely due to his status in the public eye, not purely for talent — though not necessarily lacking in talent), ran campaigns that were outwardly racist, good ol’ boy Southern, in stark contrast to his personal relationships with some African American friends and associates.

Atwater’s story has a bizarre coda, in that in his late 30’s, right after his success with Bush, Sr.’s ascendance to America’s presidential throne, Atwater developed a horrible form of brain cancer, which led to disfiguring treatments and a humbling crash for the whippet-fast, savvy political manipulator.  In his illness, he claimed to have a realization of the evils that he had wrought, such as the Horton case and the jumper cables lines, and sought to atone for his crimes.  Some of the interviewees believe his sincerity, others think he was spinning all the way to the grave.

Atwater’s influence on not only the politics of his time, but ultimately, what those politics have wrought (the administrations and actuality of the governments that he helped to empower), are the bases of our present world.  One can easily imagine him hooked up to Fox News, teaming up with the pundits and nonsense-makers of today, having shown them the path of owning the dialogue and running the discourse.  His legacy certainly paved Rove and Bush, Jr.’s pathway to the White House in the decade following his untimely death at age 40.

The film covers an intriguing man, wickedly clever, a no-holds-barred dirty politicker of the highest degree, and a man who may indeed have lacked a moral conscience.  The film really has a rich core and is well-made, having won a number of awards for its coverage of a relatively “untold” story.   And I have to say, it makes me regret that I didn’t become more politically aware at a younger age, because complacency is an easy target when a master manipulator is at the helm.

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