The Lee Atwater Story: Meet the Man Responsible for Karl Rove and the GOP’s Hate-Driven Politics

A new documentary by Stefan Forbes shows the origins of the GOP’s playbook — the manual of scare tactics on which McCain’s campaign is based.

By Isaac Fitzgerald

“Rovian.” That’s the way many people are describing McCain’s current presidential campaign. Although Karl Rove officially holds no place among McCain’s staff, it is known that he is still in close contact with the campaign, especially his protégé and McCain adviser Steve Schmidt (whom the New York Times credits with some of the campaign’s most headline-grabbing moves, including the infamous Paris Hilton Britney Spears ad). But to describe the manipulation, prejudice, fearmongering and undertone of racism found in McCain’s current campaign as “Rovian” is to have a short memory. As director Stefan Forbes reminds us, the GOP playbook that we are all too familiar with today was written more than 20 years ago by an ambitious young man from the South named Lee Atwater.

Forbes’ “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story” is a magnificent documentary that focuses on Atwater, a horrible but fascinating character. From Atwater’s quick rise in the College Republicans during the time of Nixon, through his years in the Reagan White House, to the height of his political career as George H.W. Bush’s ’88 campaign manager and head of the RNC, Forbes shows how negative campaigning, manipulating the media and flat-out lying seemed to come as easy to Lee Atwater as picking his beloved blues guitar.

But “Boogie Man” isn’t just about the bloodthirsty win-at-all-costs side of Atwater. Forbes does an incredible job of highlighting the undercurrents of Atwater’s life and times that helped shape him as a person as well as a political powerhouse, such as his upbringing in the South with its deep scars and racial tensions, the childhood loss of his brother, the excess and uber-ambitious attitudes of the ’80s, and, perhaps most importantly, his charm. Liberal journalist Eric Alterman, despite all of his distaste for Atwater’s negative style, describes Lee Atwater as “the most fun man I ever met,” and with the amount of film that Forbes has of Atwater singing, playing guitar and generally having a good time, it shows.

But even with all his charisma, it’s hard not to watch “Boogie Man” without focusing on the fact that if there hadn’t been an Atwater, George H.W. Bush or even Ronald Reagan may never have been elected. Karl Rove would not be the power player he is today, and George W. Bush (who became friends with Atwater during his father’s presidential campaign) wouldn’t have learned the worst lesson in politics: winning at all costs. This is the lesson that is Atwater’s legacy, shown by many of the stories from those interviewed who were left much worse off for being on the wrong side of Atwater’s insidious politics (the most interesting of these being Mike Dukakis … Willie Horton, anyone?).

Forbes tells Atwater’s whole story, ending with the sudden illness that led to Atwater’s death at the young age of 40, and the supposed remorse that he felt about the undignified way that he had affected politics. Remorseful or not, Atwater had an influence that can be seen in modern politics today, and it looks like many of his tactics are here to stay. Take the time to learn about the man who took dirty politics to a whole new level, and the next time you hear someone describe McCain’s current campaign as “Rovian,” correct them. It is “Atwateresque.”


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