Just play dumb and keep moving
Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008): 8 out of 10: is a documentary that delves into the life and political career of Lee Atwater, a controversial Republican political strategist and adviser. Directed by Stefan Forbes, the film provides an in-depth look at Atwater’s influence on American politics, especially during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Boogie Man charts Atwater’s rise from his South Carolina roots to the pinnacle of American politics. Known for his aggressive and often ruthless campaign tactics, Atwater was instrumental in the elections of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The film explores his knack for understanding the fears and aspirations of everyday Americans, and how he exploited those emotions for political gain.
Through interviews with friends, enemies, and political insiders, the documentary reveals the methods Atwater employed. These tactics, which some argue laid the groundwork for today’s hyper-partisan political landscape, often involved race-baiting, personal smears, and disinformation. The film also touches on Atwater’s involvement in the infamous Willie Horton ad, which many believe played a significant role in the defeat of Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Despite his undeniable successes, Atwater was a polarizing figure. While some admired his political acumen, others accused him of stooping to new lows and poisoning American political discourse.
In addition to his professional life, the documentary also delves into Atwater’s personal journey. This includes his battle with brain cancer, which took his life at 40. During his final days, Atwater expressed regret for some of his tactics and sought reconciliation with those he had wronged.
“Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story” serves as both a biography of a political genius and a reflection on the darker side of American politics. The film offers an insightful look into the strategies and machinations that can drive a campaign, as well as the costs and consequences of such tactics.
The Good: There is a lot to recommend Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. There is a nice range of interviewees. There is tons of superb footage of Mr. Atwater which is not a guarantee for someone who was a background player and died in 1990. Director Stefan Forbes, despite his own personal political leanings, provides a very well balanced look at a true polarizing figure.
Growing up, I was a true Republican Party Reptile. Alex Keaton was a role model and greed was good indeed. I shook hands with Ronald Reagan during the 1984 campaign and followed political races like one would follow sports. (Being a Jets fan, it was good to have something to follow that did not constantly disappoint.)
As a result, I have a pretty good background on the players involved and the 1988 race featured here between Vice President George H. W. Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Dukakis gets interviewed at some length during Boogie Man and comes across a pleasant genial man who very well may have made a good president. Dukakis had the big lead going into the conventions in the summer of 1988. The film highlights some of his missteps, such as his outrageously tone deaf response to Bernard Shaw’s question over whether he would favor the death penalty if his own wife Kitty was raped and murdered. (A horribly unfair question to start out a political debate, but his response was so calm and robotic it really hurt)
This being a film about Lee Atwater, he gets all the credit for Bush’s come from behind win against Dukakis and Bush’s come from behind primary win against Dole in New Hampshire. A little grain of salt is really needed here. Dole was his own worst enemy in New Hampshire. “Stop lying about my record” he once sneered. The man made Vice President George H. W. Bush seemed likable and relatable.
Dukakis never fought back against the Republican charges against him. Instead, he spent two months between his early convention and mid September on a quiet vacation mowing his lawn. The furlough law that spawned the famous Willie Horton attack ad was modeled off Reagan’s own program when he was governor of California. But Dukakis never mentioned that in his defense. (A fact he admits is incredulous in hindsight.) How much of the various defeats was the work of Lee Atwater and how much was Lee standing back and letting his opponents self destruct on thier own is a good question.
Boogie Man also makes a good case that Lee Atwater had no personal dog in the fight. He could have just as easily been a democratic fixer. He had no personal convictions one way or another. (It is clear though a southern boy Lee was not inherently racist, for example). He seems to have chosen the Republicans in the early seventies the same way a frat guy might try to pick up a woman at a lesbian bar. He thought it would be a fun challenge. The Democrats didn’t need somebody who played the blues or was a party guy. They were chock full of those people and, clearly; the Republicans needed the help.
And a last note on the positive side. I have heard all my life about how Reagan started his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the three civil rights workers were killed. What I had never seen was any footage of the same. Well, good on Boogie Man for giving good clear coverage to that campaign stop. You can see that all white crowd flying their Confederate flags. I mean, you don’t have to be Fellini to figure out the subtlety of that opening. Lee and Reagan knew exactly what they were doing.
The Bad: The last ten minutes of Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story gives coverage to his sad and sudden battle with brain cancer. With the steroids and surgeries, he is an unrecognizable mess. I am not sure how a documentary should cover this turn if they are even going to, but I felt it felt voyeuristic and out of focus with the rest of the documentary.
That Boogie Man really never talks about Lee’s home life with his wife and kids (Outside of Reagan Campaign manager Ed Rollins noting that he worked with Lee for a year before he found it he was married with kids) having them jutted on in the last ten minutes seemed wrong.
Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story also tries its hand at the ye olde, what makes Lee Atwater run with some dime store psychiatry involving a brother tragically killed in front of him. It comes across like one of those people trying to figure out why Stephen King writes horror.
The Ugly: While I was a Republican Party Reptile in 1988, a glance at the Young Republicans of 2008 is shocking. Horrible memes, pasty faced losers and dead baby dolls abound. Had the republicans been anything like this in the eighties, both Lee and I would have run screaming.
Oh, has there been a decade where Roger Stone was not a fucking creep? Yikes.
In Conclusion: I liked this documentary. Sometimes, with documentaries familiarity breeds contempt, but this was a warm bath of nostalgia for my youth. Put on some Pat Benatar, read some P. J. O’Rourke and do a line or two for old times’ sake. The eighties are back for an evening.
On the other hand, the Bush is a wimp charge also made equally little sense. The 1988 Democratic Convention was chock full of people like Ann Richards, claiming that Bush was born with a silver foot in his mouth. Not only did Bush survive Prescott Bush as a father (The guy literally had his bank closed down in 1944 for hiding Nazi Gold). He was a proper WW2 hero in the Pacific Theater. Started his own wildcatting oil firm in Texas. Was ambassador to China when such a task was not carrying Apple’s water. And was the director of the CIA. Plus, he made a deal to sell arms to the Iranians to keep the Contras’ bellies filled. The man was a lot of things. Wimp was not one of those.