'Boogie Man': The Paradox Of Lee Atwater Lee Atwater, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is remembered for being a ruthless political operative. But in a new documentary about Atwater's controversial life and legacy, filmmaker Stefan Forbes shows that despite his reputation as "Darth Vader," Atwater won the respect of many, including political enemies.
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'Boogie Man': The Paradox Of Lee Atwater

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, and here are headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. The first cell phone that runs on Google's new mobile software was unveiled today. T-Mobile said it will sell the phone which looks a lot like Apple's iPhone for 179 dollars with a two-year contract. The phone hit stores October 22nd. And John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin met with the leaders of Afghanistan and Columbia today. Palin is scheduled to meet tomorrow with the presidents of Georgia, Ukraine, Iraq, Pakistan, and India. The leaders are all in New York this week for the United Nations' General Assembly.

Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, voters elect a new president in November, but how much do we really know about what a president does? Lynn Neary sits in for me at the Newseum and talks about the day-to-day life of a president. The former deputy staff secretary to President Bush is among her guests. That's tomorrow's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

When Lee Atwater died in 1991, the obituaries described one of the most ruthless and effective political operatives in American political history and a man with an unquenchable for life and music as well as politics. Atwater worked for segregation of Strom Turmond to his native South Carolina ran George H. W. Bush's campaign in 1988 when he vowed to make Willy Horton, Michael Dukakis' running mate, he became chairman of the Republican National Committee and was unapologetic about his tactics.

Mr. LEE ATWATER (Former Chairman, Republican National Convention): I make no bones about who I am, what I am, and what I do. And I think that's one of the things that always has quote "haunted" me. Very few people in politics are like that. I just don't make any bones about it.

CONAN: Despite his sinister reputation as Darth Vader, Lee Atwater won the respect and love of many including political enemies. Filmmaker Stefan Forbes captures Atwater's paradox in the documentary "Boogie Man: The Life of Lee Atwater." If you'd like to talk with him about the life of Lee Atwater and his influence on politics today, our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Stefan Forbes is the director of the documentary "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story." He's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. STEFAN FORBES (Director, "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story"): Thank you, Neal. Glad to be here.

CONAN: And Lee Atwater, what created him? He was going to go on to be become a guitarist. He played with Percy Sledge. He had a career in front of him.

Mr. FORBES: Well, you know, a lot of that - you kind of find out looking into the Atwater story. It's a little bit more hype than it was in reality. He was an OK guitar player, but he had the brass to get up there with James Brown and BB King and got - you know, hang with these guys, perform with BB in clubs and he didn't really need the talent, he had the mojo. He loved the eyes of the public upon him, and he redefined the role of the political operative as a rock star.

CONAN: And this was a career that came onto him early. He got a job as - well, I guess as an intern to Strom Thurmond.

Mr. FORBES: Yeah, definitely. You know, but he was doing politics back in high school. He created a phony candidate and ran this guy for head of the school and won.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORBES: That was his first election you know, back then, and it fascinates me how some people just have power over other people and here's this guy, he's a guitar-picking rascal from South Carolina with a small school education going up against these big operatives from Harvard and Yale and beating these guys and putting Reagan, George Bush in power. He was a mentor to W and to Karl Rove and you know, his latest tactics before he died may have crippled the Clinton presidency. So, how does one guy get that much power? I wanted to find out.

CONAN: And so where did you go to find out?

Mr. FORBES: You know, I wanted to talk to his friends, his buddies into elite members of the Republican party and try to find out the secret playbook that these guys have been using to win elections every since 1973 when Lee saved Karl Rove's career. And so, I didn't want to make another kind of liberal documentary. I wanted to find out what people don't know about Lee Atwater.

CONAN: So, what don't we know?

Mr. FORBES: Well, you know, the dirty tricks were definitely there. They were terrible and disreputable, but Lee was proud of them. I mean his theme song was "I'm a Bad Boy."

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. FORBES: That's what he wanted his enemies to see. But beneath those often vile and racist tricks, was this incredible keen awareness of the heart of the American voter. How you reached them out with 10 point plans but with emotional appeals to their fear, to their resentment of elites, and Atwater as a southerner, really understood that stuff.

CONAN: You know this wasn't something that he gleaned from his study of demographics though, Lee Atwater also worked harder than anybody else and that was another part of his secret, but this was something that he seemed to know right from his gut.

Mr. FORBES: Exactly. And you know, we haven't had a Democratic president in the last 50 years that wasn't a southerner. So there's really something there, and this southern sense of resentment at the northerners coming in here, telling us what to do. Lee got that and he understood the ways that that resentment in the words of his acolyte, Tucker Eskew, who is now a senior adviser to McCain-Palin, that resentment became the future of the Republican Party. And Democrats still don't understand it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on this conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's go to Tom. Tom with us from Boulder, Colorado.

TOM (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say that I grew up with Lee, and I knew him for a long time. It's most unfortunate that his public legacy is hung up entirely on his political career because as a musician, Lee was very intimate with and loved black southern music deeply.

CONAN: There's no denying that. He certainly had enormous appreciation for not just the music but for the musicians.

TOM: Without question. He, of course, had the reputation of being anti-black because of the Willie Horton issue and the (unintelligible) political positions. But in his personal life, he had very, very warm relations with a great variety of people throughout the south based on that community love of rhythm and blues.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.

Mr. FORBES: Yeah. It's great to hear you weigh in, Tom. And you know, race is complex in America, and especially for a southerner like Lee. It was fascinating to me how Lee could get up on stage and jam with blues legends like Chuck Jackson and you know Carla Thomas yet just having won the presidency with one of the most racist campaigns in 150 years. That's fascinating.

CONAN: This, of course, in reference to the famous Willie Horton ad. And actually, the famous Willie Horton ad was not Lee Atwater's creation. It was creation of an independent group. The ad that the Bush campaign had a revolving door. The one with Willie Horton's face in it was run by the National Security Political Action Committee.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: Bush and Dukakis on crime. Bush supports the death penalty for first degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime.

CONAN: That of course is the famous Willie Horton ad. And Lee Atwater vowed famously that at the time, his candidate is 17 points behind in the polls, that if he could make Willie Horton Michael Dukakis' running mate, they'd win this thing.

Mr. FORBES: Well, you know, Lee helped teach the Republican Party how to talk about race in a subtle way, how to use subliminal tactics that they couldn't really be called out on in public. And in "Boogie Man," you know we looked at this supposedly non-racist official Bush campaign ad and Sam Donaldson and Ishmael Reed talk about it, and point to this incredible, powerful messaging where there's a bunch of white convicts. The only guy that actually looks up at the camera is black. So it's this message, here is the guy to be afraid of. And you see that in this race now against Obama. There are subliminal tactics being used, where you know they make Obama look like a pedophile or there was the Wolf in the Woods ad where they say Obama will destroy her you know. And this black man - he will destroy the white woman. It's playing on ancient fears, but it's done incredibly subtly and subliminally, so it's very hard. And you see when Obama even tried to talk about race, they accused him of playing the race card, which is it's a tactic that Democrats haven't learned how to fight.

CONAN: And he used the same tactics in terms of responding to it. He would say, for example, asked about some of the same kinds of things that he did when he worked for Strom Thurmond and he said, wait a minute. We weren't talking about race, we're talking about states' rights.

Mr. FORBES: Exactly. There are always subliminal ads, and Atwater talked about this in an interview with a historian where he said, you can't say the "N" word anymore. We have to use coded language like "welfare queen," where you know - we see right now in America this incredible corporate welfare of 700 billion dollars going as Wall Street tightens. However, we can't blame it on black people with this coded language, and there's coded language of all types that the Democrats don't know how to respond to. For instance, "Country First." That's basically going Democrat traitors, and Lee Atwater understood the power of these emotional messages where you would take the flag away from the Democrats. You would take away patriotism. You would take away any connection with a common man, and he basically turned the party of FDR and John Kennedy into the party of arugula.

CONAN: Let's go to Jeff, and Jeff is with us from East Lansing in Michigan.

JEFF (Caller): Hey! How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

JEFF: Good. You know race is complex, but it's also very simple. I mean, I'm a black voter, and I remember Lee Atwater's tactics. And because he sang the blues that does not make his tactics any less racist. I mean, he had a willing audience for his subliminal messages. Those subliminal messages were not so subliminal to a lot of black voters. And if it's win at any cost, which it seems to be in terms of American politics, even tapping into our worst racist fears, that's just pitiful. And I'd like to see if this maker here, would he be willing to make a well-rounded look at Louis Farrakhan for instance? I mean I just think it's kind of white privilege here that we're looking at Lee Atwater in the fullness, and he's a good guy, but he used a bit of racism. That's my comment.

CONAN: Well, I'm not sure that that's what Stefan was saying, but anyway.

Mr. FORBES: And no, thank you for your call and I believe, you know, "Boogie Man" is must-see viewing for America - simply because it really examines that white privilege, and it really looks at what the caller was saying that black people have been a convenient scapegoat for all the ills of America. We project them on to the African-American community, and I was shocked when I looked back at this campaign. Even moments that we think we know, such as George Bush's inaugural speech in 1989 is filled with the most vile, race-baiting rhetoric which stigmatizes black communities, and I really agree with the caller that the media needs to do a much better job of reporting on this.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jeff. We're talking with Stefan Forbes, the director of "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story," and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I wanted also to follow up just on the tactic of the Willie Horton ad, including the coded one that you mentioned that was ran - put together by Lee Atwater and run by the Republican campaign in which he was - you could see a direct line from there to the push polling that was done against John McCain by the George W. Bush campaign in South Carolina in 2000, and the direct line from there to the swift boats of 2004.

Mr. FORBES: Sure. And you know the shocking thing is that the Democrats haven't figured out a way to come back against the stuff, and you see every time the Republican Party's been in a jam, whether it was Ronald Reagan in the South Carolina primary back in 1980. We uncovered this incredible story where Lee Atwater blamed his opponent, John Connelly, of bribing black ministers to get their vote. Connelly spent 10 million dollars to get one delegate. He was crushed, and Lee bailed out Ronald Reagan, and he went on to win the presidency. When these guys get in a jam, they go back to the well of these tactics, and their opponents haven't figured out a way to combat them yet. I mean people blame Mike Dukakis for not fighting back in '88. Gordon fought back in 2000, and Kerry certainly didn't do much of a job of rebutting those attacks, and he wasn't helped by the media which took weeks. And so, you know, Atwater created this world where spin is king and the media is content to simply report both sides of the story without reporting what the truth is.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Dave. Dave is with us from Rochester in New York.

DAVE (Caller): Hi! It's a pleasure to be on your show. I could have sworn that I remember Lee Atwater having a death bed repentance of sorts where he expressed foul and apologized for some of the tactics that he used and I was just wondering if that was in the documentary or if that was indeed a fact?

Mr. FORBES: Sure, yeah. I mean that's one of the most amazing things about Lee's story. I mean, here's this guy who climbs to the heights of power. There's kind of amoral cynic, and he doesn't believe that there really is any truth. And all of a sudden, when tragedy hits, he's desperately searching...

DAVE: He gets a brain tumor.

Mr. FORBES: Yeah, yeah. And he's searching for meaning and redemption in his life. And all of a sudden, he desperately needs the truth, and I think America can learn a lot from that. You know we didn't make this film to point a finger at Lee Atwater or blame him for all the ills of American politics. We see him as a classic American figure. And in this time where our country is experiencing crisis, they're worried about the future, all of a sudden, the spin that's being put down on us - it's not enough anymore. And we find ourselves seeking the truth right now, and we're at a crossroads just like Atwater was. Although, I'll tell you, you know we really uncovered a much more complex story about Atwater's so-called redemption than the media has reported.

CONAN: And what is that?

Mr. FORBES: Well, it was a convenient narrative that he repudiated everything he'd ever done. It just simply wasn't true. Atwater never really apologized for negative campaigning. You know he apologized to some of the people that he hurt.

CONAN: Like the jumper-cable remark. Yes.

Mr. FORBES: Sure; or apparently, send a telegram to Willie Horton himself. He was overcome by fear, terror of going to hell. I mean it's just that...

CONAN: He did convert to Catholicism.

Mr. FORBES: Apparently, he converted to just about everything.

CONAN: OK.

Mr. FORBES: I mean if there was you know...

CONAN: If somebody said we got a pathway to heaven, he was talking to them.

Mr. FORBES: Exactly.

CONAN: But he didn't apologize for everything.

Mr. FORBES: No, not at all. And his party is unapologetically following the Atwater play book, and Democrats are shocked by this. They don't realize the other side sees politics as war. Atwater is a hero, and they're using his play book to win election after election, and these guys laughed at me about it. They said look, we hit the Democrats. They don't even defend themselves, they don't even fight back and they don't understand the power of our deep emotional arguments where we take away their patriotism. And literally, when Sarah Palin said Harry Reed can't stand up to John McCain, she wasn't taking away his talking points, she was taking away his manhood. That's the Atwater playbook that the Democrats still have not understood.

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much for the call.

DAVE: Thank you.

CONAN: There is also that other aspect where you used a word about Lee Atwater, rascal. He is not an unappealing human being. A lot of people loved him including some of his political enemies.

Mr. FORBES: Sure. And you know you got to see people as complex human beings. There's so much mystery to what makes people tick. I was fascinated, you know. What makes somebody want to become this political assassin you know and what drives that person? And with Lee Atwater, he masked a lot of his tactics by saying, hey, I'm an assassin but I'm also a fun guy. I'm going to play the blues and everybody's going to love me. And Sam Donaldson talks in a movie about how these operatives convinced the press that their job is just to cover these smears, to report it as if it's a horse race, and not a battle of truth versus lies. And a guy like Atwater who's incredibly likable and charming had a huge impact on the way the media sees their job.

CONAN: Stefan Forbes, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. FORBES: Yeah, my pleasure.

CONAN: Stefan Forbes, director of the documentary "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story" with us here today in Studio 3A. "Boogie Man" is playing nationwide at selected theaters. Check your local listings. Lynn Neary will be here tomorrow with a look at what the president actually does every day. I'm on my way to Phoenix tonight for a show we're doing there on Thursday afternoon. We hope you'll join us for that in Phoenix or on the radio. I'm Neal Conan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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