If Karl Rove is George W. Bush’s “Turd Blossom,” then that makes Lee Atwater the lump of poop from which Rove flowered. In the 70s and 80s, Atwater authored the Republican playbook of smears, push-polling, racist innuendos and miscellaneous “dirty tricks” pervasive in modern GOP politics. Yet, the former RNC chairman was also a political character for the history books: An attention-greedy “happy hatchet man” who played the race card as masterfully as he shredded on an electric guitar, a Christian southerner plagued in his final days by a guilty conscience.
In the documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, filmmaker Stefan Forbes tracks Atwater's manic (and often spastic) rise to power. And, as Forbes tells SFR, it's no coincidence that the films premieres just as the 2008 presidential campaigns reach the pinnacle of political filth.
SFR: Did you plan for this to come out exactly when the presidential campaigns were going to go negative? I guess that was predictable.
SF: Anyone who knows Lee Atwater could see this coming from miles away. The problem is that the Democrats haven't really studied Atwater's playbook. They don't understand that emotions trump issues. They're always coming out with 10-point plans when the opponent is cutting their legs off with a chainsaw. This election we're going to see if [Atwater's playbook] can even beat the biggest the economic crisis since the great depression.
McCain's gone super-negative to the point where we're hearing people yelling out "terrorist" and "kill him" at rallies. What's your take on that?
[McCain's campaign] is taking the Atwater playbook further than Atwater himself probably could have dreamed of. They've gotten away with this for the last 30 years without being called on it by the national media. It's amazing following Atwater's story to see how the GOP has used the most vicious, subliminally racist tactics since [Ronald] Reagan's run in 1980. I was shocked.
Other than the infamous Willie Horton ad, what are the hallmarks of Atwater's playbook?
America loves a gangster. Lee, as a Southerner, instinctively understood the power of the culture war. He turned the party of FDR and John F Kennedy into the party of arugula. He turned his party, the party of millionaires and tycoons, into the party of the little guy, not through changing policies but just spinning things so much better. He smeared his opponents as foreigners and untrustworthy liberals. Again, we see that with Obama. They're turning an American success story, a guy who represents everything that's great about our nation, and making him un-American.
But doesn't Atwater comes across as very, very likeable?
Sure. I didn't make a movie to demonize Atwater, you know? He's the ultimate American. He is us—a guy who believes that winning is everything, a funny guy, a rascal who is deeply ambivalent on race, loves black music but stigmatizes black people. These weren't Lee Atwater's problems. These are America's problems and watching his dramatic life story we learn a lot about the soul of America.
Do you mean fear and how easy we are to manipulate?
We see how Atwater used fear as a weapon to scare America and in the end, on his death bed, that fear came back on him. He was terrified of going to hell for what he'd done and here's this amoral cynic finds himself desperately searching for truth.
Tell me about the role music plays in the film.
Music is central to the Atwater story. He was the first political operative who became a rock star. He worshipped James Brown and he would get up there on stage and do splits. He saw life like a wrestling promoter. It was all an act, all a game, and he probably did that better than anyone else before or since.
I just got a mental image of MC Rove with that horrible rap.
I was right there and it was hilarious. Lee's friends were rolling in the aisles over that one. It was definitely Rove trying to follow one part of the Atwater playbook, probably the only part that ever backfired on Rove.
Is the film mostly a combination of archive footage and interview?
Yeah, I looked through hundreds of hours of footage and just found these amazing moments. We found these moments that make people jump out of their chairs. I was amazed looking through this stuff that how we've gotten history so wrong. Looking back, seeing something like Bush Sr.'s "Kinder, gentler" speech, his inspiring inaugural speech is actually filled with the most file racist rhetoric. I was shocked again and again to find out how wrong we've gotten our history.
Was there any particular footage where you were like wow?
Yeah. There's a moment where he refers George W. Bush as his "number one soul-brother". Just amazing.
Was it interesting how passionate these political commentators, both democratic and republican, feel about Atwater?
He was loved and hated, that's one of the amazing things about making the movie. And his life is so dramatic too. Tucker Eskew, his buddy, who is senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign right now calls it a Greek tragedy–pride, sin and redemption. It's a legendary american story I thought needed to be told on the big screen.
What are you hoping people will get out of it? Is it just to understand the context or to cut through the BS. What is tit?
Tucker Eskew again, can you understand american politics if you don't understand Lee Atwater? I believe not. There are so many gaps in American History, there are so many lies, there's so much that's been reported wrong. We can't udnerstand ourselves as a country if we don't understand this guy who shaped modern American politics. People in both parties, especially Republicans who are upset that the party of Teddy Roosevelt became the party of Tom Delay. Atwater stole the GOP's heart, he may also have stolen its soul.