CIFF 2008: Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

Director/Writer: Stefan Forbes

2008 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the run up to the 2008 presidential election, nearly everyone agrees that the United States under Republican domination for most of the last 20 years has come as close as it gets to ideological, financial, civic, and social ruin. Who’s to blame? A lot of people say George W. Bush, the sitting president. Many more say Dick Cheney, Bush’s vice president, who many contend is running a shadow government that is subverting the Constitution.

I’m afraid you have to go back even farther, all the way back to 1980, when Ronald Reagan overtook John Connally, the favorite in the Republican presidential primaries, and went on to beat incumbent president Jimmy Carter. Was it Reagan’s Hollywood charm that won the day? No, it was a lie—that Connally was buying black votes—that sunk the heir apparent. That lie was spread by Lee Atwater.

Lee Atwater—the man who called Strom Thurmond his mentor and Karl Rove his protégé—gets a thorough going-over in Boogie Man as a win-at-all-costs political operative for the Republican Party until he died of brain cancer in 1991 at the age of 40. There didn’t seem to be anything Atwater wouldn’t do to win, yet he didn’t seem to come to character assassination from any ideological reference point. Atwater was from South Carolina, where everyone was a Democrat. A born rebel, he decided he would be a Republican—simple as that.

By the time Atwater had performed his dirty magic tricks on Reagan’s behalf, he had already ruined Democrats Tom Turnipseed’s and Max Heller’s bids for Congress by charging that the former was “hooked up to jumper cables” (mentally ill), and running a independent Christian candidate to slam Heller for being a Jew and having this straw candidate drop out after the damage was done, thereby leaving the door open for Republican candidate Carroll Campbell to win.

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Atwater was so single-mindedly ambitious for fame, money, and power—and put in seven-day weeks to get them—that his colleagues in DC didn’t even know he was married and a father until he mentioned that his family was moving up from South Carolina. People who liked him—and that was just about everyone who wasn’t victimized by him, with the exception of RNC director Ed Rollins, whom Lee stabbed in the back with planted lies to gain the RNC leadership for himself—could look past his empty-hearted ambition. Atwater, a fervent blues fan and musician, endeared himself to his African-American band members despite his race-baiting Willie Horton commercial against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Bush Sr. never truly accepted Atwater, a Southern hick to this East Coast brahmin, but Bush used him and his tactics without compunction.

In one of the enlightening talking-heads interviews director Forbes conducted, so-called liberal journalist Eric Alterman remarks, “Imagine if he had chosen to be a Democrat!” This comment is an interesting “tell” on Alterman, and there will be more subtle, damning commentaries on the media in this film, particularly the Washington press corps, which one interviewee characterizes as lazy and looking for something juicy. Unlike his father, Bush Jr. hit it off famously with Atwater and certainly would have had Atwater ensure that his 2000 race against Al Gore was not so close had Atwater lived. As it is, the press corps did Atwater’s job for him, having learned how those well-chosen lies and steadfast adherence to a narrative can sell newspapers, make careers, and garner power. I was amused to see how Forbes set a camera angle for his interview with Sam Donaldson that repeatedly drew my eye to the journalist’s five Emmys on the bookshelves in the background. Donaldson lied on a 1999 broadcast of This Week in Washington that, “Al Gore does use fear. Remember 1988, it was Al Gore when he was running in the primaries for president who found Willie Horton, and he used Willie Horton against Dukakis.”

Among the interviews in Boogie Man are Tom Turnipseed, who laughs at the jumper cables line that destroyed his candidacy and then says, “It’s really not funny”; Michael and Kitty Dukakis, who ruefully say in unison, “always respond” as the 20-20 hindsight on their decision to take the high road; Republican political strategist Mary Matalin, who complains that the Democrats needed to make Atwater into their “boogie man” because he was “our leader”; and B.B. King, who rather like the voters who were willing to vote against their interests to support a belief, “if he’s for the blues, he’s my man.”

The film is short on psychological insight. We hear from Rollins that he saw the eyes of “a killer” when he looked at the rather unimpressive Lee. Joe Sligh, a musician who played with Atwater in their group, Upsetter’s Revue, said Atwater told him he heard the screams of his little brother Joe every day in his head; Joe was killed when a kettle of boiling oil tipped over on him. We hear about the humiliation of Southerners over their defeat in “the War of Northern Aggression.” Did these formative events and conditions make Lee Atwater what he was? Without interviews with his wife, his children, and other close relatives, it’s impossible to say. The very generous and judiciously chosen film excerpts that tell Atwater’s political story don’t provide a clue, but perhaps his political ambition is the most we need to know about Atwater.

Not a sports fan, Atwater loved wrestling, which he called the most “honest” sport, a comment that seemed to reveal his cynicism about the world. When he was dying of cancer, Atwater wrote about how he found out that the things he pursued weren’t really important. He searched for religious guidance. Yet, after his death, a bible he received as a gift near the end of his life was found, unopened in its wrapper. It appears his cynicism remained intact right to the end. This is must-viewing for anyone with an interest in contemporary politics.

Film trailer

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    27th/10/2008 to 9:00 am

    I am originally from South Carolina and know the story of Lee Atwater well. He should be an embarrassment to the state but given the mindless social attitudes of his many supporters there, is not. I really despise this son of a bitch and his tactics. I understand the need and desire to take the high road but at times I do agree with Michael and Kitty: Respond. Put these lying bastards in their place. I was unaware of this film but cannot wait to see it. Of course, when I do it will probably just rekindle anger and hostility for this worthless bastard but sometimes those fires must be rekindled so we don’t forget.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/10/2008 to 9:19 am

    Jonathan, my overwhelming reaction to this film was anger. The hubby was supposed to see it with me, but he had to help a friend out instead. I told him it was probably a good thing he missed it; he’s even more militant than I am when it comes to the dirty tricks of the past 30 or so years.
    I knew parts of this story, but not all of it. I found the doc very enlightening, particularly with regard to the s.o.b. George W. Bush is. Oliver Stone’s W sounds like it makes Bush seem like a clueless, tragic figure. See Boogie Man and be disabused of that fairytale.

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