Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (Interpositive Media), a portrait of the infamous Republican operative who helped elect Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush before succumbing to brain cancer at age 40, may not be the most elegant political documentary you’ll see this year. With its conventional biographical structure, 86-minute running time, and interviews with familiar cable-news talking heads, the film feels a bit slight, like a made-for-TV quickie. But the timing of its release is so perfect, and the figure at its center so fascinating, that Boogie Man is nonetheless required viewing for anyone obsessed with the 2008 race. It’s a primer in wedge-issue politics, the strategy by which, as former Bush II spokesman Tucker Eskew puts it, “[r]esentment became the destiny of the Republican party.”
The much-decried smears propagated by the McCain campaign—Obama supported sex ed for kindergartners! he metaphorically implied that our VP candidate is a pig!—are perfumed love letters next to the depredations of Atwater. In 1973, the 22-year-old protégé of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond began his consulting career by publicizing the fact that Tom Turnipseed, a candidate for the state Senate, had undergone shock therapy as a young man: “They hooked him up to jumper cables” became the catchphrase that sunk Turnipseed’s candidacy. Five years later, Atwater helped to defeat Max Heller, a Holocaust survivor running for U.S. Congress, by secretly enlisting a third candidate to enter the race and stir up anti-Semitic sentiment. Atwater finagled his way into a minor post in the Reagan administration, but it was as the director of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign (and mastermind of the Willie Horton TV ads) that he found his true Machiavellian voice.
What sets that voice apart, not only from the operatives who proceeded Atwater, but even from today’s ubiquitous masters of spin, is his brazenly frank embrace of politics as stagecraft. Quizzed about Bush Sr.’s role in the Iran-Contra cover-up, he told a journalist, “We don’t talk about how we make sausage.” In clips from old press conferences and interviews, Atwater doesn’t bother to feign passion or outrage; rather, he revels in his own phoniness with an impish sparkle.
In the ‘88 race, Atwater framed Michael Dukakis as an elitist Northeastern liberal in terms that uncannily presage the language of the 2008 race. We watch as Atwater jokes about the Dukakises “sitting up in Brookline eating Belgian endives” (the ‘80s equivalent of Obama’s arugula). Dukakis’ wife, Kitty, is accused, without evidence, of having burned an American flag in an anti-war demonstration (shades of the alleged Michelle Obama “whitey” video). Most disturbing were the Willie Horton ads, which leveraged white voters’ fears about race with a bluntness that would be inconceivable in our own eggshell-stepping PC era. Atwater, after a long day of tacitly OKing these and other race-baiting ads, was capable of spending the evening jamming on guitar with B.B. King. King and other R & B musicians appear here to testify to Atwater’s bluesy bona fides (though one friend’s claim that Atwater was “a black person in a white body” is pushing it, to judge by some profoundly unfunky dance footage).
The last reel of the film, which documents Atwater’s shockingly rapid physical decline after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1991, founders a bit in sentimental narratives of redemption. Yes, it’s awful to see Atwater’s boyish face puffed up from steroids and to witness the alacrity with which his political buddies abandoned him to die alone. But after spending more than an hour establishing his credentials as a modern-day Iago, the movie has a hard time representing Atwater as a contemplative tragic hero. Several interviewees attest to Atwater’s deathbed regrets about the ruthlessness of his tactics. In his last months, he wrote and published personal apologies to many victims of his smears, including Dukakis, who appears here to read aloud from the Life magazine piece in which Atwater apologizes for his “naked cruelty” in the ‘88 race. It’s a wrenching moment that leaves open the question: If Atwater had lived, would he have changed political discourse in the two decades since for the worse or for the better?