Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story


What are your thoughts on the Lee Atwater story? Do you think his style of brass-knuckled campaign politics is still alive and well today?

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Dear FRONTLINE,

I was astonished by the number of people in this show who hailed Atwater as a "political genius" of great "intelligence" who "outfoxed" his opponents (the same was said of his protege, Karl Rove).

Can some explain to me how it is a sign of "genius" to lie barefacedly about someone? How it is deeply "intelligent" to spread disinformation about an opponent by the most underhanded means? How dishonesty and deception (like making up polls, which one interviewee laughed about) constitutes "outfoxing" an opponent?

Lying and deception are not marks of intelligence or genius but of a profoundly flawed character. That right wing pundits and Republican strategists don't get this is a sure sign of their moral midgetry. It is also rank hypocrisy to lecture the country about morality and strength of character while employing and lauding people like Atwater who lacked both.

For all the tragedy of his untimely death, I see little to admire in Lee Atwater. Let us hope that election of Barack Obama on a message of hope represents the end, or at least a sustained pause, in this time of vile politics pioneered by Atwater.

Garrett Fagan
State College, PA

Dear FRONTLINE,

Excellent Story!

I am sure that most Americans will not remember Lee Atwater in a few years; he was just another 'artist' who knew how to "divide and conquer", by plugging into American's fears and exploiting them to their candidate's advantage.

When we don't adequately fund education we get the kind of electorate that lacks critical thinking skills to discern the facts from the fears.

Lee Atwater was a dime a dozen, and there will be other Republican 'artists' in the future who will utilize the same tactics to win elections. There are lots of people out there who seem nice, but yet do despicable things. I am sure there are some who could find good things to say about Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Sadam Hussein and others. The media, which is run by corporate interests who have their own agenda, will not try to educate the public. We are left to fend for ourselves. Nothing has really changed; please, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that Barak Obama will really change things.

I admit that I don't have much faith in America. It's really hard to find nice things to say about our country, but good job Frontline.

Thomas Stevens
Eugene, OR

Dear FRONTLINE,

Excellent piece on the biggest liar, scumbag, racist, and dirty trickster ever to grace American politics. Lee Atwater was only in politics for his own personal gain he did what he had to win and so he spread a few lies so what.

Rich Peterson said that 'If Lee was alive, Bill Clinton would've never gotten elected. That was really sad to see.'

I take issue with that because as we would find out in 1992 election Bill Clinton swung back and swung back hard! I'm also apt to believe that Barack Obama would've done the same and that his below the belt politics would've met with even bigger blows below the belt.

I think the voters finally got sick of it and now the Republican Party is in pieces because of it. November 4th was a mandate not only for Democrats, but for Republicans too.

If the Republican Party doesn't change they will be in the minority for a long time

Ray Ehr
Clio, MI

Dear FRONTLINE,

Wow. Thank you for airing "Boogieman," it was quite compelling, and I thought the documentary was very worthwhile watching (though flawed by laying it on a bit thick at times).
I do however, completely agree with Thomas McIntyre of Sheridan, Wyoming who called it, "...outrageous to end the Atwater documentary with the sanctimonious quote that 'life gets even with you.'" And I agree that the implication in the filmmakers choosing to do so was to suggest that Atwater's cancer was payback. Anyone who thinks this way is in need of a little grace themselves.

Here is a quote from the Life magazine article that Atwater wrote, "I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime."

That humble admission and advice from a dying man seems a more fitting line with which to end the film, but that may not have been in line with the filmmakers' intent (director Stefan Forbes admitted in interviews that they strategically screened this film to coincide with the 2008 election--I can't speculate on that, other than to say that it just seems somewhat ironic).

I also agree with the poster here who was shocked at Mary Matalin's (and Rollins') dismissal of Atwater's heart wrenching attempt at redemption and plea for spiritual healing. Naturally, I was appalled by his methods, but to reject a dying man's plea for mercy and an admission of wrong as "spin" confounded me. I, of course, didn't know the man. Fascinating study aside, I am still somewhat confounded about him, as well as the people around him.

Ellie Dyk
Ridgefield, CT

Dear FRONTLINE,

It's unfortunate that the Atwater style of politics is commonly referred to as "negative campaigning". Its most important characteristic is not negativity, but dishonesty. Campaigns based primarily on lies and disinformation fundamentally undermine democracy. If the voters can not be trusted to make the right decision when presented with the facts, and well reasoned arguments, then why bother even having elections? Americans should demand that politicians campaign on the merits of their ideas and character. Let the voters decide whose ideas are better. It's perfectly acceptable for politicians to be negative, to criticize their opponent's ideas or character, so long as that criticism is honest and presented in good faith. What should be unacceptable to patriotic Americans is disinformation.

Peter S
Houston, TX

Dear FRONTLINE,

His deathbed remorse was still reflective of his selfish desires. He was afraid of what would happen to him. Narcissistic, a coward when confronted with the end. A man who had lived a life of honor would not have been afraid of death, but would have been happy over the good accomplishments he/she had contributed to society. Not have been a leech to suck life out of a country.

gustavo esquivel
boynton beach, fl

Dear FRONTLINE,

Atwater's aggressive tactics were not just clever tricks that won his party votes, but set to ruin people's lives by broadcasting dangerous lies that mushroomed long after the campaigns ended. His deathbed confession(s) were essentially meaningless, and the cavalier attitude by his surviving 'friends' interviewed reveal the results of stewing in Atwater's take-no-prisoners attitude for winning at all costs. It is now the "way" Republicans work during campaigns, even those 'good Christians' who are supposed to be the light of the world. His party learned NOTHING from his demise. The Bushes, Cheneys, Roves, etc. gleefully allowed this man to hack people to death to increase their purse. Perhaps now that McCain/Palin lost, the Republican party can sober up from his drunkfest on the blood of the American middle class and poor.

Jack Watkins
Los Gatos, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

I just saw this story recently and I think Lee Atwater was a remarkable & highly intelligent man. I think his competitive nature and warrior spirit was misjudged.I'm sure a lot of people were jealous of him and wanted to be him, because they couldn't beat him. I feel that everyone has knowingly done something wrong to someone else at least once in their life and he was no different. He wasn't a killer or an evil man, he did what he had to do to Win. It is BAD CARMA to talk negative about the deceased when they can't defend themselves anymore. You should have some respect and let him Rest In Peace. Let GOD be the judge..not the media! Most of the media/reporters are hippocrates anyway, they condemn other people when they do the same or worse and then justify it by saying "this is my job". (I bet this doesn't get posted because they can't handle any negativity about them selves, but boy do they dish it)!As for the response from Joseph Harrington of Hartford CT.: Watch what you say, because you may get what you deserve and "Rot In Hell" for wishing this on someone else! Don't be a Jealous Nasty Politician.

Valary Thurmond
Elgin, Illinois

Dear FRONTLINE,

In some way I think we saw the emotional wedge politics of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove defeated in this election. A lot still has to play itself out. For instance, news organizations like FOX with Chris Wallace leading the charge are determined to invest in every debate about the Obama Presidency a high degree of partisan rancor and we'll see if they engineer the kind of hatred and division that Atwater and Rove champion.

Now, the Republicans need to sort out and reinvent themselves. There is a terribly high sentiment for anti-intellectual figures like Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Unless a more moderate core of business-minded pragmatic Republicans are allowed to return to the GOP, it may swing even further to the extremes and there is a lot of violence that lies just below the surface that we see hurled about by inflammatory figures like Ann Coulter, Mark Alexander and Ted Nugent who call out illegal fatwas and ask their followers to act as patriots and commit acts of murder.

What is really needed in the Republican Party are leaders who are willing to "put country first" and bring and end to the fanatical and violent urgings of the extremists among them.

Robb Mitchell
St. Paul, MN

Dear FRONTLINE,

I found the jocularity of the press members interviewed during the program towards Atwater's antics shocking and depressing. They were (and are) complicit - no other word for it - in deceiving the American public by their venal desire to sell papers and their decision to lay off the hard work of investigative reporting. "He said this outrageously untrue thing, and by golly we have the sacred responsibility to print it." I would have liked to see Frontline's coverage reflect at least a suggestion of a collective "mea culpa" for the lows of political coverage during the Atwater/Rove years.

Maggie Moehringer
Albany, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

Wow! What an incredible chapter in history. Thank you very much Frontline. To me, this episode was a learning experience, and that's what I enjoy about your show and PBS, just wonderful, informative programing. Please keep it up!.

Lee Lopez
Burbank, California

Dear FRONTLINE,

I completely enjoyed your story on Lee Atwater. He was a brilliant strategist. But so were many others.

They are all usually remembered for not only their brilliance but for the new depths of human depravity they revealed. Lee Atwater was no different.

Cindy Minton
San Antonio, TX

Dear FRONTLINE,

I was disgusted by Mr. Atwater's behavior and tactics. Constantly lying should not be tolerated and the politicians that benefit from it are not fit to be in office.
I find it ridiculous that people in politics, news media and our government propagate this type of behavior. Our countries present situation is the result of this type of politics. The lies and behavior of people like Atwater and Rove hurt people and the country. They puts special interest above all else. I have read responses that condemn Dukakis for not being tougher. They say he should have used the same type of lies. The fact that he did not follow the Atwater and Bush 1 path should make people proud. It is obvious where Bush 2 learned to run a campaign. I find it unfortunately there are still people writing comments that excuse this type of politics.

James Gallagher
Corvallis, OR

Dear FRONTLINE,

When I saw Marlee Matlin's response to Lee Atwater's death bed confession, I was astounded. She laid waste to his writings, his asking for forgiveness, and his heartfelt compassionate apologies for his involvement in political campaigns. I was left wanting to ask this question, "Are you capable of ignoring these things or are you just a partisan wanker?"

christine gross
brown Deer, wI

Dear FRONTLINE,

Good documentary and fair fact based reporting. However, I can't understand why PBS only concentrate their effort to uncover on GOP smear machines? What about Democrat smear machines? Carville, Moore,Dean, etc.. etc. I've love to see such documentary.

Raymond Jean
Norwalk, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

What is scary about Atwater is that he was not that big a believer in the Republican philosophy. It seems that he was more in it for love of the game and to attain power, and he saw the Republicans as an easier path to accomplish his goals. It seems he really compartmentalized things, as testimonials from people that knew him outside of politics paint him as quite a fun and personable guy to be around with not a hint of racism, yet he produced a very racist political campaign with Willie Horton as the centerpiece. I would have a little more sympathy for him if he had really believed in what he was fighting for and was not mainly doing it for himself, even though I don't agree with the party who employed him. I sincerely hope his repentance was genuine, but if not, I hope there is a special place in hell for him for his legacy of gutter politics and the disastrous policies his candidates have wrought.

Tony Nacelewicz
Indianapolis, IN

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posted november 11, 2008

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