Rebel. Liar. Manipulator. Mastermind. Sprinkle in a bit of hypocrisy and a ton of opportunism, and you have Harvey Leroy “Lee” Atwater, a key player in the transformation of the Republican Party into the political force it is today. His meteoric rise to the upper echelons of political power was cut short by a fatal brain tumor at the age of 40.
As director Stefan Forbes’s smart, revealing new film Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story shows, Atwater threw away the old Republican playbook and wrote a new one full of dirty tricks aimed not just at winning but at annihilating his opponents. His attack dog style, which included some of the worst political smear campaigns in US history, led to the election of three Republican presidents.
Boogie Man is an important film for those who wonder how the political landscape shifted so dramatically rightward over the past three decades. Forbes gives us an engaging look into the psyche of a person driven mostly by insecurity and a manic desire to win at all costs; he also presents a compelling account of exactly how Atwater lied, cheated and stole his way to power. By choosing to straddle this tenuous narrative line, Forbes draws an absorbing portrait. In less capable hands, Atwater could have been a caricature, as he willfully and shamelessly used racial-scare campaigns to get his candidates elected, but denied being a racist because he played blues guitar and “loved blues music because it was real authentic black music.”
Lee Atwater’s story begins in South Carolina with the death of his brother, burned to death by boiling grease while Atwater watched helplessly. Atwater later said that he heard his brother’s scream every moment of every day for the rest of his life. The tragedy hardened him, giving him a cynical worldview that shaped his political work. While in high school, Atwater ran a friend’s campaign for school president and the eventual victory sparked his interest in being the “man behind the man.” As a student at Newberry College, he took charge of the College Republicans National Committee, recognizing the GOP’s need to bring more youth into the party. Under his leadership, the organization became a national force. As his success grew, so did his ambition, and it wasn’t long before national Republican leaders took notice. Before leaving school to work for the late South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, Atwater orchestrated the campaign of Karl Rove, his protégé, in a bid to take over the College Republicans. Rove eventually won the election after the head of the Republican National Committee, George H.W. Bush, interceded on his behalf. The battle for the 2000 presidential election echoes loudly.
Boogie Man mixes commentaries from a range of political perspectives with fascinating archival footage, breathing life into a story that seems to strain credulity. With a steady hand, Forbes seeks to learn what motivated the man Republican strategist Ed Rollins describes as extremely “insecure” but possessing the “eyes of a killer.” Early on, it was Atwater who understood that “people vote their fears, not their hopes”; he did all he could to stoke those fears. The cultural backlash he created wrested power from one party and firmly entrenched it in the hands of another. Look no further than George W. Bush’s entire presidency as one shining, painful example of just how successful Atwater was at devising a whole arsenal of tactics aimed at shifting the political discourse away from substantive issues to visceral ones. These tactics now dominate American politics and have served to distort the democratic process. They include push polling (fake surveys conducted by “independent pollsters”), the use of coded language (i.e., “welfare queens”) and tapping into white Southern and blue-collar resentment. Of the latter, Atwater acolyte and former deputy director of White House communications Tucker Eskew says, “Resentment became the destiny of the Republican Party, and Lee was adept at tapping into that.”