12 November 2008

On "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story"

In brief.

Last night, PBS’s Frontline featured the documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. This biography of one of the more notorious operatives in American politics presented Atwater (boogie man/boogeyman) as a blues-lovin’, geetar playin,’ good guy. On the other, he was a brutal tactician, a master of the dirty trick who produced some of the nastiest win-or-die campaign tactics that continue to be rolled out every campaign year. Push-polls? Politicians painted as effete, quiche-eatin,’ possibly mentally unsound Commie elitists with anti-American spouses? You betcha.

Atwater was also a master at race-baiting (e.g., Willie Horton): because crying “n*****” no longer worked, you have to get more “abstract” to work the “Southern Strategy.”

At 40, Lee Atwater died of cancer. At the end, he rejected his political strategies as being bad for America. He wrote in Life Magazine:

It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth [the need for brotherhood and family], but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul. (qtd. in Wikipedia's Atwater entry)

It’s pretty much conventional wisdom to say that Karl Rove was an Atwater protogee, and that Tucker Eskew (who celebrates Atwater in the film) and Steve Schmidt of the McCain campaign are Rove's protogees. They certainly drew on the Atwater playbook in their campaign against Obama. The problem is—those plays didn’t work. Will Atwater's influence begin to dissipate? I'm thinking no, not yet anyway. But, because this year’s application of the Atwater rules failed so soundly, we might be seeing that tumor starting to shrink a bit.

For a serious, thoughtful look at the origins of our contemporary political climate, the film offers rich material. So if you're a junkie and haven't seen it--see it (it's got to be landing at Netflix soon, so get it on your queue).

Aside: I don't know why, but I was surprised to discover that Atwater and George W. Bush were good friends. Go figure.

Kevin at Rumproast drew my attention to the film with his review last month. you can also take a look at the Washington Post’s film review here.


Anonymous said...

This was a nice diversion, and reminder that Atwater did reject his methods prior to his death. Some should take note of this point, and should carefully study the greatly reduced efficacy of the smears against Obama this past election.

mpandgs said...

Hi anonymous.
Unfortunately, many people deny Atwater's recanting of his methods.
See, for example, http://themoderatevoice.com/politics/negative-campaigning/24263/boogie-man-the-lee-atwater-story/

You're right that what matters is how ineffectual Atwater's tactics were during this campaign season (despite the smears' amplification via the Internet). Sadly, I'm thinking that folks will return to LA's playbook until they're absolutely certain it no longer works. That might take a while.

Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for commenting.

mpandgs said...

We'll try this again with a tiny url

The Moderate Voice on Atwater's "repentance"