Lost in the Movies: Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

"My God, what have I done?!"
--David Byrne

He bares his teeth like a rodent, stinks up the political discourse like a skunk, and attacks opponents with the ferocity of a wolverine (Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman's physical and temperamental analogy). So why is Lee Atwater so charismatic? I'd heard plenty about Atwater before seeing this documentary. I knew he masterminded George Bush's cleverly nasty '88 campaign, trivialized the political process by focusing on cultural non-issues, and was an eminent master of the art of (just barely) plausible deniability. I knew that he recanted his dirty tricks from his death bed, before succumbing to a brain tumor. I didn't know many of the details presented in this film, which I saw as an episode of "Frontline" (though it was created independently of the PBS series), but I knew the general contours. Yet I'd never seen Lee Atwater himself; oddly enough, despite my fascination with and knowledge of politics, I didn't even know what Atwater looked like. More importantly, I had never seen Lee Atwater in action, and the man's personality is as magnetic as his actions are infuriating. This is the fascinating story about a fascinating man. And the structure of his life is almost too neat, too diagrammatically perfect, so that when it's over it leaves us wondering if we've been had yet again.

Ironically, Atwater's biography gets short shrift. We're given a psychologically pat (yet admittedly chilling) reason for his cynicism: as a little boy he witnessed (or at least heard) his younger brother's brutal death; the boy overturned a hot skillet and was doused in grease. This scalding moment of violence seems to have propelled Atwater forward, characterizing his restless (to put it mildly) drive and nearly apoplectic persona and adding a perverse touch to his obsession with hotter-than-hot sauce slathered all over everything he ate. Atwater is described by friends and enemies alike as a winner above all else. But I'm not so sure. His aim doesn't seem to be winning. It seems to be making the other guy lose and endure intense humiliation. Atwater's mission is not victory but destruction. That Bush won the presidency seems a mere happy accident, an unintended consequence of Dukakis losing and being made a fool.

I say Atwater's biography gets short shrift in Boogie Man because, other than that childhood anecdote (which is related rather late in the doc), we hear next to nothing about Lee the man in his personal life. We hear nothing about his parenting, how he was raised, how his views formed in the crucible of the civil rights era, during which he was an adolescent. What we do hear about him is negative: he WASN'T racist (it's usual to hear "my best friend was black," but here the black best friend actually steps forward himself to defend the alleged racist), he WASN'T an ideologue (no less a partisan warrior than Eric Alterman speculates that Atwater could just as well have been a Democrat as a Republican), he WASN'T this, that and the other thing that he pretended to be (up to, including, and beyond an avid reader: he had his staff read books and summarize them for him, so he could pretend that his folksy manner hid an intellectual streak). As for his personal life, it's best described by Ed Rollins, the political strategist who made Atwater his right-hand man only to get Brutus'd by him in due time. Rollins said that after a couple years of working side-by-side with Atwater, the young man mentioned that he was bringing his wife and children to Washington. Rollins was shocked; he had no idea Atwater was married.

The cause for which Atwater undermined and betrayed Rollins was the golden prize for a young Republican in the mid-80s: campaign manager for King Reagan's heir apparent, the milquetoast George Bush, vice-president and Newsweek-certified wimp. Indeed, what's most astonishing about Atwater's outsize persona and reputation is that it was put to the service of such pettiness. The election of a president is always important, but the 1988 election was one of the smallest, most degrading elections of the modern era: two not-very-inspiring candidates, with lukewarm appeal, duking it out over issues that boggle the mind in their irrelevance to the larger issues at hand. Flag-burning? The pledge of allegiance? Seriously? By comparison, prison furloughs is a positively imperative matter of national security. The eighties was often a sleazy decade, but Reagan was a larger-than-life national figure. In the 1988 election, the era finally found its pathetic political nadir, a pettiness to match that which cultural commentators found in the nation at large.

But just as the Bush presidency, a placeholder in many respects (despite the fall of the Berlin Wall - obviously an accident of timing - and the Gulf War), paved way for the much more historically important Bush II, the Atwater political game sowed the seeds for a political culture which would nearly destroy a president in the 90s (admittedly with a great deal of help from the victim), and far more importantly, twice narrowly elect an administration whose bread-and-butter was "divide and conquer" and "stick it to the other guy." Director Stefan Forbes goes out of his way to link Atwater to the current Bush administration and it isn't hard to do. Dick Cheney pops up now and then, in slightly svelter form, but if that's a bit of a stretch, the connections to George W. Bush and especially Karl Rove are unmistakable.

That's not to say the movie (which, in its initially annoying but dramatic low-angle interviews and gripping, energetic, extremely tight pace bears the distinct mark of its subject) doesn't slightly overplay its hand. It left me with the impression that Atwater had something to do with Rove's stolen College Republican election in 1973, which subsequent Internet searches reveal not to be the case. And the bond cemented between Atwater and the younger Bush is established more on the basis of similarities in their personality and conjecture about the influence Atwater had on W., rather than anecdotes of any friendship between them. Still, Rove is a self-described "protege" of Atwater, and Rovian politics is unmistakably Atwaterian in its cheerful sliminess.

As for the younger Bush, he was his dad's "eyes and ears" on the campaign, hired to watch over Atwater. And, as a self-styled Texan who was outwardly folksy and rough-and-tumble, W. also served as a missing link between the rarefied WASPy Bushes and the completely down-home Atwater. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that Atwater was the missing link between W.'s prep school past and his cowboy future. In a speech excerpted in the movie, Atwater calls the vice-president's son "George Bush, Jr." Part of his legacy, through the influence of his personal style and political brass knuckles (which elder Bush was not "comfortable" with, while W. heartily embraced), was to knock the junior off the younger man's name.

The footage of George W. Bush is some of the most fascinating in the whole film. I've often been inclined to think of the president as a misguided fool, an utter incompetent who's probably well-intentioned, though that doesn't do any good. The Bush we see here paints another picture: he's shrewder, with more of an edge and aggression than we saw from Bush the candidate in '00 or '04. He speaks more effectively (though he still comes up with head-scratchers like "misadjective"), and sounds like he's still trying that drawl on for size. This Bush reminds me of the one we catch briefly in Fahrenheit 9/11, between all the dumb-cowboy jokes: a soft-spoken, vaguely arrogant young man who knows how to maneuver in the corridors of power. It's an interesting figure, one we see very little of these days, but one who may explain far more about our soon to-be-ex president then the bumbling image he projects.

Anyway, though it effectively hammers home the contemporary parallels in order to stake a claim on its subject's relevancy, Boogie Man is all Lee Atwater, all the time. To a person, the interviewed subjects, from those Atwater destroyed to those he trained - or who trained him (often these categories all overlap) - seem endlessly enthralled by this vituperative young man. Which brings me back to the starting point of my observations: the man is so goddamn likable. No, not likable exactly - but you like him nonetheless. He's got "it" - I don't know what "it" is, but damn, he's got it. Journalists describe how he would wink at them, getting them to run with his insinuations by overplaying (and by some impressive psychological jujitsu, thus underplaying) his cynical we-all-know-what-we're-doing-here hand. Close friends grin as they describe how the viciously resentment-stoking Atwater loved to jam with blues musicians and never uttered a racist comment. Co-workers find themselves burning with resentment one moment as they recall a ruthless power play from their presumed ally, only to dissolve into warm chuckles as they remember the man's charming personal quirks and political brilliance.

As for Atwater's victims - from the state senator, whose brief bout with mental illness was characterized by Atwater as him "being hooked up to jumper cables," to the Democrats who recall Atwater's underhanded recruitment of a third-party candidate to run anti-Semitic attacks on a Jewish candidate, to Michael Dukakis, the most infamous victim of negative attacks in political history - as for all of these people, even they seem slightly awed by what Atwater did, still flabbergasted by how effectively they were blindsided by his diabolical genius. And Atwater's latter-day critics, from Eric Alterman to Terry McAuliffe, still haven't learned how to play Lee's game. Alterman is interviewed in a dark room with a kitty cat nestling his paw: the very image of an effete urban progressive. McAuliffe, shaking his head at the Dukakis campaign's naivete and waxing self-righteous about Republican's mendacity, is photographed riding around the Mall in what looks like the back of a limousine. All that's needed to complete the picture is a glass of the finest French wine.

Yes, Lee Atwater understood the power of images, and the intoxication of underdog self-certainty. But he lacked other graces, and his post-'88 career points to a misunderstanding of his own role in the political landscape. Within the confines of brutal political campaigns, Atwater's ruthlessness was a necessity. But like the warrior lost in peacetime, he became vulnerable when the anything-goes atmosphere of a political campaign ended. He became chairman of the RNC, over some objections (Robert Novak, a conservative, but decidedly old-fashioned - if not as scrupulous as he'd have us believe, scoffs at the notion of appointing a lowly operative to the position). Then he was booted off the board of Howard University's trustees - the black college's population protested his appointment, and the chickens of Willie Horton had come home to roost.

Funny, I've written eleven paragraphs on Lee Atwater without mentioning Willie Horton. Perhaps it seemed unnecessary, as the two will always have their names linked (ditto Dukakis and Horton). The infamous ad is here:

Its fearmongering is insidiously clever. Put aside the seemingly obvious rejoinders, among them that the progenitor and defender of these programs was none other than California Governor Ronald Reagan himself (and you'd be right to put them aside, as this is what Dukakis himself did). The ad uses a deliberately terrifying image of a deeply whiskered, sinister black man, and almost nothing else (just a blue background and text, with brief pictures of Bush & Dukakis - that latter figure's face fading into Horton's). But can you actually say it's racist? The racism is in the context, not the ad itself. It's in knowing how people will respond to the image, knowing what fears and sensations it will stir, knowing how people will "read" the imagery. What's more, Atwater farmed the ad out to outside groups, allowing himself just-plausible-enough deniability. He did this throughout his career, playing the game expertly, exercising power, subterfuge, and cunning to overcome any challenges.

But the same tactics could be used against him - and no one would care if he felt that black protesters at Howard were "unfair," or that charges of racism were unfounded. He was only as effective as his inability to withstand the same sort of verbiage that he spewed. And perhaps, given time, his obvious insecurity would have led him into a sort of poetic justice, in which he was undone, Eve Harrington-style, by the very forces he unleashed. That's an age-old story, but fate had a grimmer, more poignant, far more upsetting and disturbing irony in mind.

It's as inevitable as it is vulgar to connect Atwater's untimely disease and death with his political career. It's partly inevitable because Atwater himself made that connection: issuing deathbed apologies and publicly discovering empathy in the wake of his own suffering. Atwater's media manipulations reminded us that pictures can speak a thousand words, and the pictures of a tumor-afflicted Atwater leave us speechless. The ferociously charismatic young man (and I've not yet mentioned that he ascended to the highest of political highs at the age of 37), the one whose brashness and energy impressed even his foes, is not just weakened. He isn't just trapped in a wheelchair. He is physically transformed in the most wretched way possible. Anyone who has seen another person suffer through cancer treatment will recognize the hideousness of what Atwater undergoes: a transformation into a disgustingly swelled-up marshmallow man, a puffy-faced invalid encased in his own flesh. The Lee Atwater who once sprinted up and down stairs as a blizzard raged outside his New Hampshire hotel is now a balloon man, trapped - briefly, brutally - in a state worse than death until, having stripped him of every last semblance of dignity, death comes too.

Atwater could have suffered in silence and he would have received his critics' pity, but he went further. His illness genuinely seemed to awaken a sense of spiritual horror in him. The emptiness of his own life, the dry and bitter cynicism of his outlook on life, the devotion to narcissistic pursuit of fame and constant attention and access to the corridors of power, all of this was left bare when his energy and stamina were robbed from him. He wrote long letters to his former enemies, begging forgiveness, penned detailed confessions for magazines, acknowledging all the misdeeds his clever evasions had masked, and said that for the first time, he understood the pain and humiliation he had caused. When he died, there was the undeniable aura of tragedy around him, but also the quiet respite of redemption.

And yet. Ed Rollins, a man who loved and hated Atwater, who ultimately says the bitterness washed out of him as Atwater pleaded for support in his dark hours, a man who still seems to recall Atwater with the fondness of a heartbroken father for his prodigal son, has never forgotten something from the days following Lee Atwater's death. He was cleaning out the room in which Atwater had spent his last months, proclaiming his regret, turning over a new leaf, pronouncing his newfound devotion to the "living Bible" from which all this welled-up emotion and renewal sprang. While cleaning the room, Rollins found Atwater's copy of the Bible. It was still wrapped in cellophane.


Jason Bellamy said...

Interesting. I know Atwater about as well as it sounds like you did going in -- more as a concept than a person.

This sounds worth watching if for no other reason than to see the younger W.

Joel Bocko said...

I would definitely recommend it. It looks like it's not available yet on Netflix (it's in that "Saved" category which could either mean it's coming out next week or it's never coming out). Hopefully Frontline runs it again.

The younger Bush is a surreal sight. I'd almost like to see a whole documentary on the subject...sort of a nonfiction "W."

Tony Dayoub said...

I caught this on Frontline and found it to be a great snapshot of a morally bankrupt individual.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, even if Frontline didn't commision this, it shows they have a great eye - the series has become must-see television for me in the past year or two.

Search This Blog