Everyone knows who Karl Rove is but surprisingly few people remember Lee Atwater. Rove describes Atwater in this documentary as part man and part myth. Others saw his as a political operator utterly devoid of convictions who saw the truth as an inconvenience to be overcome.
Driven by childhood trauma Atwater was determined to win at any cost and was responsible for George Bush Snr’s successful Presidential campaign in 1988. As a result his influence on politics today can not be underestimated. The makers of Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story talk to former friends and enemies alike about how he transformed political campaigning in the United States, largely through introducing and popularising a whole host of dirty tricks used to smear his opponents.
Now obviously Atwater didn’t invent dirty tricks and low campaigning. They’ve been around as long as people have stood for election, but usually as the exception to the rule rather than the norm. Atwater saw politics as a game to be won and that the ends always justified the means. Due to his actions campaigns became more partisan, and going negative on your opponent was the first step rather than the last resort. Atwater’s standard tactics included extensive use of push-polls and putting up third-party candidates. These were used either to split the vote or to raise unpleasant issues that the Republican candidate could later dissociate themselves from.
The documentary charts his rise from college Republican to insider in the Reagan Whitehouse. Initially working for Ed Rollins, Atwater eventually stabbed him in the back, and partly thanks to his friendship with George W Bush became the campaign manager for Bush Snr which the film focusses on. There was a widespread fear within the Republican Party in 88 that the Iran-Contra affair was going to lose them the election and that many more of their number could go to jail if that happened. It was therefore seen as a contest they had to win.
During the race Atwater planted stories in the press indicating that Dukakis has psychiatric problems, that his wife had once burnt the American flag and that both were unpatriotic. All of these were untrue but they had a huge impact on the electorate. Perhaps most famous of all is the deeply racist Willie Horton attack ads. Sadly the best Dukakis could do in response was his infamous tank photograph that failed miserably. Interestingly one of Bush’s most successful lines from the campaign, “Read my lips. No new taxes”, helped him win in 88 but lost him the 92 election to Bill Clinton.
There’s a lot wrong with modern American politics. There’s too much money, too much cynicism and campaigns are all about going negative as soon as possible. Atwater had an almost instinctive understanding that perception was reality and that fear was a bigger motivator when voting than hope. This is a large part of his legacy to the modern world. The other is George W Bush. Atwater taught Bush and Rove everything he knew about dirty campaign tactics and you can see the same patterns being repeated in 2000 and 2004.
The film also looks at Atwater as a human being. He projected an easy southern charm backed up with a killer instinct and a fondness for playing the blues. A lot of the time commentators note that Atwater was a liar and a cheat but that they quite liked him anyway. It’s certainly hard to imagine Karl Rove on stage playing the guitar while doing the splits. Atwater was rewarded after the 1988 campaign by being made National Chairman of the Republican Party, which made him politically one of the most powerful people in America.
Tragically he was diagnosed in 1989 with a brain tumour and over the next two years it slowly destroyed him mentally and physically. During that time he did his best to make amends to those he had schemed and plotted against. At his funeral James Baker the Secretary of State described Lee as, “Machiavellian in the best sense of that term”. I think the cynicism of that statement says a lot about the state of American politics.
Here is the trailer for Boogie Man – The Lee Atwater Story: