Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

Q&A with Stefan Forbes

Stefan Forbes is an Emmy-nominated director. His award-winning documentary One More Dead Fish, about renegade fishermen in Nova Scotia struggling to survive globalization, was broadcast on PBS. He has written and directed award-winning national PSA campaigns featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, Mike Myers, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Broderick and others, as well as producing and directing many music videos. Formerly a cinematographer, he shot five feature films and created a look for several hit TV shows. Mr. Forbes is a 2006 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow and the 2008 winner of the IDA's Emerging Filmmaker Award. Boogie Man is his debut feature as director.

photo of forbes

How did you become interested in Lee Atwater?

People ask me if the Atwater playbook is over, if hope has beaten fear once and for all. I'm not so sure.

I got fascinated when I saw him on TV performing at the '88 inaugural with some of the greatest African American musicians in our country's history, after having run one of the most racially charged campaigns in our country's history. What a complex guy. So much inner conflict. I also marveled that a Southerner with a bone-deep resentment of elites would team up with that most privileged and WASPy of families, the Bushes.

The arc of his life was so dramatic: a guitar-picking rascal from South Carolina who rises to the heights of power in DC; a charming, handsome, keenly intelligent man stripped of all those things by cancer; an amoral cynic who believes that winning is everything and life is like pro wrestling -- all a scam, all a performance -- watches his philosophy crumble in his darkest hours. Atwater writes about lying on his deathbed, staring into the void in terror. The fear tactics he's used on America have come back on him. It's so Southern Gothic, like Faust rewritten by Flannery O'Connor. He finds himself on a desperate search for meaning.

What did you learn about Atwater that surprised you most?

I knew he'd written the winning playbook for the Bush dynasty, but after uncovering Atwater's key role winning crucial campaigns for Ronald Reagan and Karl Rove, it's hard to imagine the last 30 years in America without him.

I was surprised to learn about his key role in the 1980 South Carolina primary. Reagan had to win the South, and he was facing a daunting challenge from Texan John Connally. All the smart money in South Carolina was on Connally; he even had Atwater's mentor [Sen.] Strom Thurmond on his side, which practically sealed the deal. But Atwater went with Reagan.

Lee leaked a phony story to reporter Lee Bandy that Connally was bribing black ministers to get out the vote, and Bandy printed it. At that time in South Carolina, a newspaper story like that was poison. Connally spent 10 million dollars and got one delegate. A couple of years later, Atwater laughed about it to Bandy, telling him "you got used." It's a shame the true story was never more widely known. If the media doesn't do their job and hold candidates accountable for these kinds of tactics, it punishes politicians who work hard and play by the rules.

Do you have any memorable moments or anecdotes from your travels making the film?

It was pretty memorable one day in New York City, when I was all ready for my long-awaited interview with [Reagan 1984 campaign manager] Ed Rollins. The sound of jackhammers suddenly shattered the air, and I had to hurriedly pack the gear and rush to a tiny, dark hotel room. Ed was gracious about the delay. I had hoped to get him to open up about his complicated relationship with Atwater, and after we'd talked through some things I finally asked him about Atwater's betrayal of him.

Ed's intensity took me by storm. He talked about loving Atwater like a brother, then wanting to kill him, spending years seething in anger, and finally forgiving Atwater in an ambulance rushing to the hospital after a horrific seizure. It was dark, haunted stuff; I felt like a priest hearing someone's confession.

Briefly, what tactics comprise the Lee Atwater playbook? Can you give some examples of how those tactics have been used in campaigns since his death?

Atwater's tactics were successful for so long -- and so little-understood by most Democrats -- that it was inevitable they'd come to dominate the modern GOP. His biggest insight was that people don't vote on 10-point plans but on their emotions. Atwater used a Southern technique called "slow-playing," using his Southern drawl and aw-shucks country demeanor so opponents would underestimate him.

Using his graduate degree in communications, he expertly used the media as an echo chamber for "sticky" messages. His constant references to an irrelevant African American criminal pushed a lot of other issues out of the public consciousness. The success of the Willie Horton ad led in a straight line to the Swift Boat ads, and some of the anti-Obama attack ads. Most Democrats forgot the lessons of the Clinton years: respond immediately, don't look weak and communicate clearly and simply. In '88 Lee opened the floodgates for the constant drumbeat of negative politics we see today.

Dirty tricks and racial-fear appeals were definitely part of Atwater's arsenal, but they may have helped distract Democrats from his most powerful battleground: the culture war. Strom Thurmond taught him how to marginalize Democrats as elitists who didn't love the flag or care about the Bible or the working man. Lee marginalized Mike Dukakis, who had lived the American dream, by constantly mocking him to the press with cracks about "frostbelt liberals" and "quiche in a can." Democratic party leaders had long marginalized Southern voices like [Sen.] Fritz Hollings [S.C.], who could have taught them how to counter these classic Southern stump-speech techniques. They paid the costs of that institutional elitism.

Atwater also understood the devastating power of mockery in American politics. Remember, the prevailing narrative early in '88 was of George H.W. Bush as a career loser, a nasal-sounding wimp who couldn't even handle the syntax thing. Atwater got the press off Bush's back and onto Dukakis'. Atwater helped create the "Tank Ride" ad, which made Dukakis a figure of everlasting ridicule. In Boogie Man, we show how the shots of Dukakis in a tank helmet blinded everyone to the ad's blatant distortions of Dukakis' record.

Atwater helped tabloid-ize the Washington political media, encouraging them to act like a bunch of mean grade-school kids teasing someone in the playground. This may have helped defeat Gore in 2000, when the media spent much of the campaign mocking him for things he hadn't really ever said, and Kerry in 2004, when windsurfing was generally taken as evidence of being unfit to govern.

Atwater was adamant that he was not a racist, even while he very skillfully played on others' prejudices. Do you think he was trying to have it both ways, or do you think he honestly saw no contradiction between his tactics and his friendships with black musicians?

Atwater may have sensed that his personal friendships with R&B musicians could be used to whitewash his race-baiting tactics. I'm often asked if I think he was racist. Consciously? Probably not, but most of us have unconscious racist beliefs that we've gotten from the media and elsewhere.

And they're pretty ridiculous. The GOP spent years linking black people with crime, even though America is the most violent country in the world. People often link welfare with African American women, although most welfare recipients are children and most women on welfare are white. It's very effective in distracting us from corporate welfare and regressive tax rates on things like Social Security, where the rich don't pay their fair share. So much effort has been put into dividing America on race because it helped win elections and divided the working class, forestalling social change.

Atwater was a master at spinning the press, but the media landscape has changed dramatically since his day. How do you think Atwater would have dealt with 24-hour cable news, political blogs and fact-check Web sites?

Atwater was always trying to anticipate the ways in which society was changing. He insisted on getting briefings about every new trend. I'm sure he'd have recognized the power of the Internet and worked to prevent his party from falling so woefully behind in its utilization. Most technology seems to be value-neutral. The technology behind the machine gun also made the movie camera possible.

Several moments in the film involve interviewees watching video of Atwater or one of his ads and responding to it. How did you come up with that technique?

Producer Noland Walker and I were searching for a way to bring historical footage alive with a cinema verité approach. I was surprised by the results when I confronted Dukakis with footage of Atwater mocking him to a plane full of reporters. After 20 years, Dukakis was finally responding to Atwater. It was a dialogue that had never actually happened in real life. Dukakis had a pretty good comeback, by the way.

Tell us about the music in the film. It's inspired by the music Atwater loved, but it also has an edge to it.

I was really excited when Gov't Mule gave me some music. They play some of the heaviest blues ever put on wax, and it's uncanny how their lyrics hit big themes in Atwater's life: resentment against elites; getting caught up in fame and lust for power; searching for redemption. I also got noted guitarist and composer Tim Robert to collaborate with me on the soundtrack.

Music was central to Atwater's life, and we often had to weave clips of him playing music into larger pieces, using them as segues into different keys. It was very challenging. I wanted the music to function as a Greek chorus commenting on Atwater's life, and we included some musical quotes that sneak by many people until their second or third viewing. At least it gives people a reason to buy the DVD!

Why did you decide not to use a narrator in the film? What challenges did that pose?

I really wanted to let interviewees from all sides of the political spectrum argue about Lee without interference. I aimed to let everyone get their say without telling the viewer what to think. I envision a documentary like a great dinner party: You want to invite different kinds of people and create some sparks. You only have 90 minutes; get to the heart of things.

Lee's story happens so fast, and has so many twists and turns, it was incredibly tough without a narrator to take people from bitterly fought '70s campaigns in Greenville, S.C., to the heights of power in the White House. I had to make sure people told stories clearly but with passion. I wasn't interested in making a clinical, voice-of-God film. I wanted it to have life and humor.

The images of Atwater near the end of his life are striking. Were you concerned that showing too much of him in that state would make him appear more grotesque than sympathetic?

No, I think showing the truth about someone's struggles makes them sympathetic. I think we relate to people who are imperfect and damaged a lot more deeply than we relate to the blow-dried celebrities endlessly paraded in front of us. The truth about illness and decay is one of the few things American society seems to censor. It was a fascinating transformation: Atwater's body became uglier as his soul was trying to become beautiful.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the 2008 election?

There was an election? I've been stuck in the edit room for the last two years, so I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. People ask me if the Atwater playbook is over, if hope has beaten fear once and for all. I'm not so sure. Fear may have actually won. Peoples' very real fear of losing homes and 401(k)s bested the trumped-up fears that Obama was a Muslim or an elitist socialist in league with Hamas. In future elections, where there's no urgent issue, these sorts of attacks may regain their powerful emotional hold over the American voter.

posted november 11, 2008

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