Stefan Forbes on Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story
by Peter Sobczynski
The director of the acclaimed new documentary "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story" talks about his movie and the man who, even in death, may well be the single most influential man in contemporary American politics.
Although he has been dead since 1991, the legacy of the late Republican political strategist Lee Atwater--the man responsible for the belief that the best way to get a candidate elected to public office was to drive up the opposing candidate’s negative numbers by any means necessary--is still going strong today. After helping to organize college-aged Republicans during the 1970s into a potent political force, he served as one of the key strategists for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election bid (where his dirty tricks helped the candidate win a crucial primary in South Carolina that saved the entire campaign from doom after some early stumbles) and eight years later, he was put in charge of George Bush’s presidential bid. Thanks to his gifts for lying, mudslinging and cannily exploiting racial fears--best exemplified by the infamous ad that he devised linking an escaped rapist and killer by the name of Willie Horton with a prison furlough program that opponent Michael Dukakis oversaw while serving as governor of Massachusetts--he not only got Bush into the White House but became a media celebrity himself. Alas, he passed away three years later from a brain tumor and in a move that shocked his colleagues, he issued a number of public apologies to many of those that he had wronged throughout his career. Nevertheless, his influence on the contemporary political process can still be seen today thanks to the actions and activities of such avowed protégés as Karl Rove and Tucker Eskew, an associate who helped destroy John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid with dirty tricks and who is now working on McCain’s campaign to help out with Sarah Palin.
Just in time for Election Day, Atwater’s story has been chronicled in Stefan Forbes’ fascinating new documentary “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story.” Using a collection of new interviews with Atwater’s former friends and cronies--and even a couple of victims of his work, such as Dukakis and fellow political operative Ed Rollins--and eye-opening vintage footage (including revealing comments from the then-unknown likes of Rove and George W. Bush and an unaired interview in which Atwater steadfastly denies both the existence of and his participation in the Willie Horton ad), the film paints a clear and distinctive look at how one man managed to completely change the face of contemporary political campaigning and how so many people allowed themselves to fall victim to his actions. If you are at all interested in American politics or if you simply want to know how modern campaigning turned into such a bitter and savage competition to see who can outsleaze the other, you owe it to yourself to see this film.
Recently, Forbes came to town to present his film at the Chicago International Film Festival and the day after the screening, he sat down in a conference room to talk about the film and Atwater’s enduring legacy.
What was it that first got you interested in filmmaking?
I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a time when there were all these incredible independent theaters. My dad was a cameraman and documentary filmmaker in Europe and grew up going to see Woody Allen movies and Bergman and all the classic French films. I grew up surrounded by them--we didn’t even have a TV in the house, so they were my entertainment as a kid. I guess I was always drawn to it and even with making documentaries now, I come at them from the perspective of a movie lover sitting in a dark theater wanting to be transported by the power of a story.
What was it about the story of Lee Atwater that made you want to explore it in a film?
I was just fascinated by how one guy could have such an influence over our country and, by extension, the world. I always felt that there was more to his story that we didn’t know. He was a more complicated man and behind his pose of the gun-slinging political assassin, there must have been something deeper driving this guy and I wanted to find out what it was.
In planning “Boogie Man,” what was the approach that you chose to take in investigating Atwater and his legacy?
The whole epic story about Ronald Reagan and the Bush Dynasty has been told so many times that as a filmmaker, you have to work extra hard to uncover the truth of what really happened, even when we have all been blinded by what we think we know. I had to go back and watch it all again and study hundreds of hours of videotape first-hand to really get at the truth. I thought I knew what happened but the more I really looked at it, I started realizing how we had gotten the story so wrong. I was amazed that George Bush’s inaugural speech in 1989 was filled with this shocking racist invective that I have never seen written about once and if I hadn’t gone back and listened to that entire speech, I never would have known. The project was about starting from scratch and talking to Atwater’s closest friends and worst enemies and going through these archives to discover what really happened and not accept some pre-packaged media narrative. It was incredibly exciting to find these nuggets of video that had never before been seen and they told a completely different story. It was like detective work, like being on the trail of a jewel thief and trying to piece together how this guy pulled off these incredible scams.
Lying, mudslinging and rumor-mongering have been a part of American political campaigns for as long as such things have existed--what was it about Atwater’s approach that made these tactics so successful from when he was utilizing them himself through today, when they have been kept alive through the efforts of protégés like Karl Rove?
When Atwater achieved prominence in the 1980s, people were scared to go that negative in a presidential election and he showed them that if your candidate couldn’t inspire hope, you could win by demonizing the opponent. Traveling around the country during this election season as “Boogie Man” is going into 40 cities, I’ve been amazed at the level of vitriol in these TV ads in swing states. We are living in a world that Atwater created where no attack is too offensive to launch and no smear campaign seems too beneath some of these candidates. His playbook has been winning elections for the GOP from his grave. Nixon may have started the culture wars but it was Atwater who used them in such a brazen no-holds-barred way that it is amazing to me that the Democrats haven’t yet learned how to fight back effectively.
And yet, at least in terms of this year’s presidential election, not many of those tricks seem to be working as effectively as they have in years past. Is this because voters have become more aware of the manipulations thanks to things like the internet or is it for the same reason that they didn’t really work in 1992 when Clinton won--the fact that the economy was in such bad shape that voters were less willing to be swayed by such diversions?
Fear tactics are working better than ever--it is just that the global financial crisis is the scariest thing out there and it puts in perspective the irrelevance of the “washed-up old terrorist,” as John McCain himself called William Ayers.
At one point during the film, it is suggested that if Lee Atwater had been alive to run Bush’s re-election campaign in 1992, Bill Clinton would have been defeated. Do you believe that to be the case or do you think that Clinton would have won thanks to a combination of the poor economy at the time and his own unusual resilience in the face of any obstacle that came his way?
It is a fascinating question that Lee’s friends argue about a lot. As a Southerner, Clinton instinctively understood the Atwater playbook in a way that no Democrat has since. You couldn’t paint this bubba from Arkansas as a guy who hated America or was an elitist, no matter how hard they tried. Again, Democrats get distracted by Atwater’s dirty tricks and fail to understand the power of the culture war. However, the heavily funded misinformation campaign that Atwater launched against Clinton from the headquarters of the RNC way back in 1989 continued to this day and may well have crippled the Clinton presidency and made Hilary an unviable presidential candidate. Even if the GOP loses this fall, they will embark on a similar campaign against Barak Obama because Atwater taught them that politics is war and that you have to win by any means necessary.
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