I had the pleasure this morning of interviewing Stefan Forbes on my radio program, Uprising, about his new documentary, Boogieman: The Lee Atwater Story. I had only heard vague mentions of the name Lee Atwater but really had no idea how influential to American political campaigning he was, until I watched the film. This young Republican upstart from South Carolina, wrote the script-book for today’s GOP election tactics. Not surprisingly he was Karl Rove’s mentor.
Coming of political age in the College Republicans, Atwater learned early in life that he enjoyed engineering political wins rather than winning himself. He compared politics to war and decided that winning at all costs was worth it. In that spirit, Atwater spread rumors about people’s personal lives, played to the racism of white working-class Americans, manipulated the media, and even planted lies. All, in order to win an election.
Atwater helped Reagan win election, earning a place in the White House while only in his thirties. Eventually he came to be George H W Bush’s chief campaign strategist, a role that marked the zenith of his career. Engineering a win for an unpopular candidate meant discrediting rival Democrat Michael Dukakis using any means necessary. Including the racist Willie Horton ads.
Eventually his disgraceful behavior and extremely high stress caught up with him. In 1991 Lee Atwater was diagnosed with brain cancer and in the last years of his life was thought to have apologized to his political victims. According to Boogieman film maker Stefan Forbes, this is debatable and in fact Atwater was spinning lies all the way to his grave for political effect.
But think about it for one moment. If the Republican Party needs to resort to such low-down dirty tricks in order to get candidates elected, it follows that they would lose election after election if Americans started to see through them. The party’s platform is so unpopular among ordinary Americans, that they have to be driven by their basest fears into voting Republican. What does this say about so-called Republican values?
Still, Republican strategists like Atwater and Rove would never be able to pull off what they do, without such an easily manipulated and lazy media. The smears only gain traction because they are reported uncritically. When they are retracted it is often too late to matter.
Atwater may be dead but his ugly legacy lives on. Think Florida 2000, Ohio 2004, Valarie Plame, Swiftboat Veterans, and on and on. Even John McCain himself has been a victim of the type of disgusting underhanded political campaigning that Atwater exemplified. During his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, Karl Rove started a rumor that McCain fathered an illegitimate bi-racial daughter – a stain that contributed to his loss in favor of George W Bush. In fact that dark-skinned daughter was adopted by McCain and his wife from Bangladesh. Despite McCain’s vow never to resort to that type of negative political campaigning himself, once his poll numbers started sinking in this year’s election, he shamefully hired a man named Tucker Eskew, a close friend of Atwater who was interviewed extensively in Boogieman, to prepare his running mate Palin for prime-time.
The ghost of Lee Atwater lives on in this year’s presidential election. His colleagues and apprentices have managed to turn the Black, deeply Christian candidate with middle class roots and a background in community organizing, into an elite professorial type who is out of touch with the middle and working classes. Oh, and he’s a closet Muslim too. And he plays the “race-card.” Meanwhile, McCain has been transformed into a God-fearing man of the people, despite his lack of devoutness, despite losing count of the vast number of houses and cars he owns, despite being married to one of America’s wealthiest women who flies around in her own private jet. Shockingly, it is McCain who is portrayed as having become the victim of Obama’s reverse racism.
Near the end of the film Boogieman, a contrite Michael Dukakis reveals the major lesson of his political life – when mud starts slinging, don’t just stay silent and weather the storm: fight back. Trying to “rise above it” as he tried to do during the 1988 race against George H W Bush, Dukakis remained tainted by Atwater’s ghastly smears and lost the election.
Quick, before its too late, someone sit Obama down and force him or his aides to watch Boogieman.