Perfect timing. I'd just gotten done watching Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, and in the mail was a piece of campaign literature from the Republican Party of Wisconsin that features a picture of Barack Obama next to the words "I don't regret setting bombs." The quote is from William Ayers, former member of Weather Underground and reputed "Friend of Obama." And he's on there too, via one of those I'm-pure-evil mug shots. But it's Obama who's being smeared as a terrorist-associating mystery man, "not who you think he is." I had to laugh at the sheer brazenness of the gesture, the brazenness and the foolishness. Don't the McCain people realize this stuff isn't working this time around? Don't they watch the news, read the polls? At this point, it would take Satan himself to get them out of the jam they're in.
Lee Atwater may not have been Satan, but he took a devilish glee in the power of negative thinking. And he figured out how to translate that negativity into victory at the polls. As George Bush Sr.'s campaign manager in 1988, he vowed to make convicted murderer and out-on-furlough rapist Willie Horton Michael Dukakis' symbolic running mate. And it worked: Bush, despite the "wimp factor," overcame a 17% deficit in the polls. "People vote their fears, not their hopes, and Lee understood that," Nation scribe Eric Alterman tells director Stefan Forbes in this strangely noncommittal documentary, which never quite condemns or praises Atwater, just stands back and marvels at his ability to look you in the eye while stabbing you in the back.
Forbes takes us through the whole sordid story - the upbringing in South Carolina, the looking around for a place to apply his manipulative skills, the latching on to Ronald Reagan's coattails and then the association with the Bush family, who appear to have thought of Atwater as a necessary evil. He cultivated a bad-boy image and is given credit for having reinvented political operatives as rock stars. (Karl Rove, rock star?) But only within the fuddy-duddy, country-clubby confines of the Grand Old Party would a blues-guitar-playing white guy in a blue blazer and a white shirt be considered hip. It didn't help that he looked like Michael J. Fox, circa Back to the Future.
Atwater's legacy will have a lot less to do with having shared a stage with B.B. King and a lot more to do with having figured out that if you tell a lie often enough it starts to acquire an aura of truth. Call it politics-as-usual, but with a media savvy that seemed new at the time. Bending over backwards to be fair, Boogie Man both gives Atwater too much credit and doesn't give him enough blame. Surely this wasn't the first guy who ever played a dirty trick, but even if he was, is that anything to be impressed by? Atwater himself, as he lay dying of brain cancer at age 40, started issuing apologies for all the stuff he'd ever done. Dukakis got one. Willie Horton got one. Even an old girlfriend got one. Good for them, but what about the rest of us?