A 'Boogie Man' With A Legacy Of Complicated Moves Stefan Forbes' documentary looks at the life and controversial career of Lee Atwater, the political operative who ran George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign — and introduced the nation to Willie Horton.
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A 'Boogie Man' With A Legacy Of Complicated Moves

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A 'Boogie Man' With A Legacy Of Complicated Moves

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A 'Boogie Man' With A Legacy Of Complicated Moves

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Lee Atwater is widely acknowledged as the man who perfected modern attack-dog politics. His legacy is never more present than during a presidential campaign. Atwater died in 1991. Our critic at large, John Powers, has a review of a new documentary called "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story."

JOHN POWERS: It wasn't so long ago that our presidential candidates were both saying that they wanted a clean, upbeat campaign. You don't need to be a political junkie to know that it hasn't exactly turned out that way. If you want to understand why this always seems to happen, you could do worse than see "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story."

Made by Stefan Forbes, this absorbing documentary chronicles the startling rise and meteoric fall of Atwater, the flamboyant Republican strategist who wrote the playbook on winning elections by using wedge issues. Well, Atwater's success made him a hero to the right. One of his acolytes is Karl Rove. The left has long seen him as, well, the boogie man. Atwater grew up modestly in a small South Carolina town.

And from the beginning, he burned to hit it big. He became a Republican not out of conviction - ideas never interested him - but because he saw more room to maneuver there. The party was his ladder to the top. And up he went from running student elections, to perfecting the darker campaign arts, using racial code words and ads, planting false rumors about rival candidates, playing on voters' fears. By 30, he was in the Reagan White House, where he was viewed as a talented hustler.

By 40, he'd masterminded the first President Bush's election in a campaign remembered for the ads, spotlighting a black convict named Willie Horton. Atwater's drive made him ruthless, as we learned from Democrats and from fellow Republicans who wound up with his knife in their backs. He had a killer's eye, said Reagan adviser, Ed Rollins.

Yet, with his possum's face and great joie de vivre - he put hot sauce in everything, even ice cream - Atwater was a real character. He exuded the glee that in the Reagan era suddenly made being on the right seem much cooler than being on the left. Indeed, one liberal journalist calls him the most fun man he ever met, but one whose life wound up as a cautionary tale.

Not only did Atwater suffer the snob bereave of a Republican establishment that always treated him as a servant - they found him low class, but they liked his results - but he had a final act you wouldn't wish on anybody. At 39, he developed a fatal brain tumor. Yet before dying, he converted to Catholicism, and apologized to those he'd wronged, including Dukakis and Willie Horton.

In his heyday though, Atwater played political hardball with grinning brio. Here, he uses the pledge of allegiance to thump Dukakis, who, years later, still seems slightly shocked by it all.

(Soundbite of "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story")

Mr. LEE ATWATER (Former Political Consultant and Strategist to the Republican Party): The question I really want to hear him answer, is why in the world did he veto this bill calling for the pledge of allegiance to be said in our classrooms. Can you imagine that? Get down here, Dukakis, and answer that question.

Former Governor MICHAEL DUKAKIS (Democrat, Massachusetts): Kids salute the flag everyday. It's part of the law. I'm all for it. The question was, could you put teachers in jail who refuse to lead the pledge? The Supreme Court of the United States said, you can't do that. What I should've done was to make it very clear to Mr. Bush that I wasn't going to let him question my patriotism.

POWERS: Now, "Boogie Man" is not a great documentary. It doesn't interview the politicians that Atwater helped. And like a lousy, modern playwright, Forbes uses a childhood trauma to explain Lee's adult behavior. Yet despite this, the movie remains compelling.

For starters, Atwater's career was historic. When he became head of the Republican National Committee, his success marked the institutionalization of the attack-dog style that has come to dominate American politics, even as the public insists it doesn't like it. Such a style specializes in trying to destroy opponents, by insisting on their irredeemable, un-American wickedness.

As it happens, such an approach dovetails perfectly with the needs of today's sleepless news cycle, where our media always craves something fresh to get hysterical about. Atwater was brilliant at feeding this beast, because he could smell out the cultural issues that often drive American voters more than self interest, a populist gift that over the last quarter of a century has largely eluded the Democrats.

The one good exception to this rule was Bill Clinton, who shared its worth, noting Atwater's mix of Southern charm, Southern appetite, and Southern desire to conquer the big world up north. Like Clinton, Atwater was steeped in admiration for African-American culture.

He just loved playing guitar alongside B.B. King, which only made it all the more startling that he would be the one behind the Willie Horton ad, designed to stoke racial fears. Atwater was horrified when people suggested that he was a racist. After all, he had scads of black friends. And if he occasionally used race bidding to win an election, that was just politics, that wasn't the real him. But of course, it was. And in the end, what makes "Boogie Man" so enthralling is that in the abyss between what Atwater publicly did, and what he privately thought he believed in, he became a symbol of the dangerous, modern tendency to see politics as a game, somehow separate from the rest of life.

And his story provides a useful reminder that as Atwater himself came to learn, the world judges us not for who we think we are, but for what we actually do.

TERRY GROSS: John Powers is film critique for Vogue. He reviewed "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story." You can download podcasts of our show on our web site freshair.npr.org. Fresh Air's executive producer is Jenny Miller.

I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a recording by Dave McKenna, the musician Whitney Balliett described as the hardest, swinging jazz pianist of all time. McKenna died of lung cancer Saturday at the age of 78.

We've played his recordings a lot on Fresh Air, and he performed a couple of times on our show. We plan to feature those performances, and pay tribute to him over the Thanksgiving holiday. Here's McKenna's 1985 recording of "By Myself."

(Soundbite of song "By Myself")

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