Chances are if a book, movie or piece of art, sticks with you to the point of haunting you, it’s because it’s about so much more than it purports to be about and is not quite about the thing you thought it was about. I just stumbled over just such a piece, the documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. I’m still trying to figure out what it’s about. And what exactly is the lesson to be drawn from the short, controversial and intense life of Lee Atwater. He’s the Republican strategist who masterminded campaigns from Reagan to George H.W. Bush to the political education of George W. Bush, and forever changed the way the G.O.P runs campaigns — many would say in a way that has damaged the political system beyond repair.

When I brought this up on Facebook, a Republican friend responded in anger, charging that Lee Atwater didn’t invent dirty tricks, then outlining all the Democrats she found less than honorable. That brings me to the first thing I think this documentary ISN’T about. It isn’t a Liberal attack on a “bad Republican”. The documentary makes the case (through people who knew and worked with Atwater) that he was actually driven more by an outsider’s desire “to show them all”. In fact, it’s questionable whether Lee Atwater had any political convictions at all. One college friend says he could just has easily have been a Democrat, but decided there were few young Republicans at the time in the South and he stood a better chance of rising with that party.

Lee Atwater

Atwater, a race-baiter and protege of Strom Thurmond, was a great lover of the Blues. Surprisingly, many African American Blues musicians called him “a friend”.

If Atwater had thrown his lot in with the Democrats, would they have been as eager to look the other way or swallow their distaste at his tactics for the near miraculous, against-all-odds wins he seemed capable of serving up?

Conservative columnist Robert Novak thinks not:

Republicans tend to be people who don’t believe in anything, that just want to win elections. Democrats, I think, have really sincere beliefs. I think they’re all wrong, most of them, but they’re sincere. [laughs].”

Yet, at the time Republicans began to embrace Atwater — or at least bring him on board, they were losing a lot of political ground. Maybe today when Democrats have so much more difficulty achieving or holding political power, a Lee Atwater and his tactics might look more acceptable. One of the oddest aspects of the documentary is how so many of the Democratic candidates that Atwater destroyed, laugh nervously while talking about him as if still in awe of his abilities and maybe a little envious that they weren’t as audacious.

Or maybe the nervousness comes from a tingle of fear at the ultimate fate of Atwater. Because this story could be a Greek tragedy or a particularly bloody Shakespeare play.

Lee’s particular genius was to manipulate the issues, the media and the minds of the voters so completely as to distort his opponent out of all recognition. So complete was the transformation, that his victims seemed incapable of defending themselves against the Fun House mirror distortion they suddenly found they’d become. In the Bush-Dukakis Presidential campaign, arguably the largest issue was the integrity of a candidate who had been a key part of an administration that, by final admission, had sold drugs to terrorists. Yet, Atwater was able to shift the issues to be about a Black man who was ill-advisedly let out of prison on furlough and whether or not Kitty Dukakis had burned an American flag. In the process, the son of poor Greek immigrants who made his way up through hard work was skewed to seem elitist next to a WASP son of wealth and privilege.

Willie Horton ad

Remember this race-baiting ad? Not as scary as the campaign kick-off Atwater devised for Ronald Reagan — to go to the town where three Civil Rights workers were murdered by the police and the Klan and have him talk about “cutting off Welfare Queens”. I think we, along with the cheering White crowds, knew what was really being said.

In a horrible Old Testament-worthy retribution of the most horrifying “as ye sow so shall ye reap” kind, Lee Atwater was struck down, at the height of his power, with a brain tumor that left him grotesquely swollen, palsied, wracked with seizures and as distorted physically as he had made his opponents politically. Many of his former friends, colleagues and patrons found this a convenient time to distance themselves from him. He ended up begging a former boss, a man he had betrayed and stepped over to win the job with Bush Senior, to take care of him.

Lee ends his life with a series of death bed conversions and mea culpas to “everyone I hurt including Willie Horton”. Some of the recipients take his apology at face value. Some of his former colleagues say it was just Lee “spinning right up until the end.”

So what’s the documentary really about? I can’t even decide who the real Boogie Man is. A case can be made that none of Lee Atwater’s tactics would have been remotely successful without the Press Corps willingness to be seduced, remain blind that they were being played and refusal to fulfill even the basics of their profession.

As I watched appalled, no less a luminary than Sam Donaldson blithely talked about how hard it is, when dealing with political operatives, to resist a charmer like Lee “who really likes you”. He shakes his head over how Michael Dukakis didn’t come back swinging against obvious untruths, yet admits he himself didn’t do a really good job checking facts and verifying the “stories” Atwater leaked to him:

BUSH CAMPAIGN COMMERCIAL: Michael Dukakis is opposed to virtually every defense system we developed. He opposed new aircraft carriers. He opposed—

SAM DONALDSON: The tank ad went down as his voting record. I remember thinking, “Now, we’ve got to check every one of these points.” I’m not certain we did.

Sadly, those facts hardly needed checking. As Dukakis points out, all those defense systems he was supposed to have voted against — well, these were only voted on at the Washington level and Dukakis, as a Governor, never had the opportunity to vote or even influence a vote on these expenditures.

Then there are the people who hired and profited from the tactics of Lee Atwater. I’ve gone on record as having a certain admiration for George Herbert Walker Bush, but what was his involvement? The Bushes Senior barely tolerated Lee and according to one commentator “treated him as The Help, in fact, as The Help who couldn’t entirely be trusted.” Bush may have hired Lee knowing what he was capable of, while not wanting to inquire too deeply into the hows and whys when the results were coming in. But commentators in the documentary, and even Bush’s own words, would seem to indicated he had a pretty good idea the nature of the tactics.

Vice Pres. GEORGE H.W. BUSH, Presidential Nominee: [Speaking of Dukakis] If he can’t stand the heat, he oughta get out of the kitchen!

The whole concept of going negative, how much negative campaigning is troubling, but there’s a time here when sound political judgment says this kind of negative stuff might work. Did we ever do it? Yeah. Did we feel comfortable about it? No.

SAM DONALDSON: George Herbert Walker Bush has to take the responsibility for his campaign. And he’s not a dummy. You couldn’t be around Lee Atwater without knowing how he did it.

But despite their distaste for Atwater, the newly elected President let him into the ultimate insider position.

TERRY McAULIFFE [DNC Chairman]: But you know what? You never saw George Bush I ever ask him to stop. What did they do? They made him chairman of the Republican National Committee.

ROBERT NOVAK: You did not name political operatives as chairman of the Republican National Committee. You just didn’t do it.

JOE CONASON (political columnist): When Atwater became the RNC chairman, this political party was turned over to dirty tricks, the new spirit of kind of ruthless, win-at-any-cost Republicanism.

TUCKER ESKEW (eventual strategist for Sarah Palin!): I’d watched politics fought like war under Lee Atwater. I think it’s had some bad effects on the country.

So finally where does the buck stop? I think we voters have to take some of the blame for continually allowing ourselves to be manipulated by soundbites and jerked around by negative campaigning. One former colleague of Atwater notes that only Lee understood that: “People don’t vote their hopes. They vote their fears.” And, with very few exceptions, election after election has shown that we’ll cast our ballot based on irrelevant “tabloid” issues. So many of us follow politics with about the commitment and depth we bring to watching the Kardashians.

Can we really demonize a Lee Atwater who figures out a way to build our own laziness and reactiveness into a strategy that wins?

But then again, maybe this documentary isn’t about politics at all. Maybe Lee Atwater’s story is evidence that there does seem to be a God. One with an Old Testament temperament. And a grim sense of humor.

That’s even more frightening.

Notes:

One of the few groups not duped by Atwater’s spin and charm were the students of historically Black Howard University. Atwater was put on their Board of Trustees with promises to recruit African Americans to the Republican party. The students took over the campus until Atwater was ousted.

Apparently the full story of Lee Atwater’s last days is too bizarre even for this documentary, but I uncovered this long Washington Post article that outlines it in full.

The full transcript of the documentary, Boogie Man, can be found here.

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