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.”
Atwater was more than adept; he was an unrivaled master with a specialty in smear campaigns. Supporting this fact early on in the film is former South Carolina State Senator Tom Turnipseed, who recounts his bitter Congressional bid against Republican incumbent Floyd Spence. Atwater’s use of push polls, which linked Turnipseed to the NAACP and claimed he had been “hooked up to jumper cables” as a teen undergoing treatment for depression, cost Tunipspeed the election. Nearly three decades later, Turnispeed still can’t believe Atwater got away with it. “I’m laughing now,” Tunsipeed says, “but it’s really not funny at all.”
Soon after, Atwater went to work for Ronald Reagan, devising a new “Southern strategy” that effectively masked a far more sinister racist campaign. After securing the Republican nomination, Atwater convinced Reagan to kick off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in a not-so-subtle attempt to make race a central part of Reagan’s presidential bid. It worked. Then in the 1988 presidential race, serving as George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager, he produced what many believe to be the most damaging and offensive smear ad in American political history: the Willie Horton “Weekend Passes” ad.
With Bush trailing former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the polls, Atwater knew there was no way Bush could win on the issues. So when he learned convicted felon Horton had raped a white woman while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison, he had the ammunition necessary to attack the Democrats. The Dukakis campaign refused to sink to Atwater’s level and did not respond to the ads. Forbes’s interview with Dukakis provides an emotional punch; he still seems haunted by the scurrilous attacks. Whether the decision not to fight back was right or wrong pales in comparison to the media’s lack of interest in verifying the accuracy of the allegations. Veteran ABC news reporter Sam Donaldson pointedly observes that most of what Atwater was putting out to the American public was “lies.” He adds, “We [the media] should have checked every one of the claims they were making and we didn’t.”
As Boogie Man unfolds, it’s hard not to ask how Atwater got away with such outrageously dirty tricks. As one of his friends contends, Atwater used the old Southern trick of “slow-playing ’em” and then, with a “wink and a nod,” charmed the gullible press. Forbes’s film indicts a system that long ago failed to prevent an operative like Lee Atwater from attaining such a powerful level of political influence. It cannot be understated that the Democrats contributed to this political shift, thanks in large part to their inability to effectively counter Atwater. Perhaps they thought that the American people would see through the con the Republicans were running.
Atwater’s bait-and-switch tactics got millions of people to vote for what they felt rather than what they needed; these days, that’s known as “people voting against their own interests.” Atwater’s legacy is profound because the resentment he roused in his short career has flourished, paving the way for reactionary elites to take control of the country, while passing themselves off as the representatives of the “common man.”
One of the more telling revelations in Forbes’s film is Atwater’s lack of any real ideological foundation or intellectual belief in anything he did. He clearly saw politics as a game and played hardball to win. His allegiance was not to a cause or vision of what America should be but to a life-long desire to be the part of “the club.” Unfortunately for Atwater, this “club”–the Bush family–saw him as nothing more than a political hit man who did the dirty work they were unwilling to do themselves. Atwater knew this and remained powerless to change it, no matter how many elections he won for the Republicans.
Atwater died in 1991; Rove was heir apparent. His former protégé did not disappoint, delivering the White House to George W. Bush in 2000. Rove’s ambitions and the power he ultimately attained surpassed that of his teacher. As Nation columnist Eric Alterman explains in the film, “Rove, who learned these tactics at the knee of Lee, moved into the White House, where you have the entire resources of the national government in the services of a political operative. I’d say that’s new and rather frightening.”
Alterman is right. In the end Atwater, who prided himself as the man behind the curtain too clever to leave any trace of his nefarious political operations, has left his fingerprints all over the American political system. And we are the worse for it, as the country remains paralyzed in a cycle of negative politics and chained to the visceral issues that continue to undermine American democracy. It’s the undeniable truth that makes Boogie Man such a sobering and timely film.