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,

Machiavelli, Svengali, Son of Sam, whatever Lee Atwater may have been, it was outrageous to end the documentary with the sanctimonious quote that "'life gets even with you,'" implying that Atwater's fate was payback for his purported misdeeds. This is, to coin a phrase, voodoo causality. If Atwater's tumor was just deserts for Willie Horton, for what is Ted Kennedy's? Cancer is a disease, not a judgment.

Thomas McIntyre
Sheridan , Wyoming

Dear FRONTLINE,

I never cared much for the Bush family, but if Dukakis had been a strong leader he would have fought back. Rats and roaches like Atwater serve to test ones abilities. Had Dukakis been a smart politician, he would have used Atwater to ruin Bush's credibility. By the way, very educational show, too bad it's 10-20 years too late.

brad scher
huntington, indiana

Dear FRONTLINE,

I find it utterly laughable to watch this parade of holier-than-thou Obama supporters talking about the triumph of some new era of pure and dignified politics. Perhaps all of you were asleep at the wheel while the influx of bloggers, YouTube technicians, Michael Moore proteges, and pupils of Keith Olbermann were busy depicting our current President as Adolf Hitler incarnate. President-elect Obama himself rose above the fray because he was able to enlist legions of devotees to propagate maniacal hatred of George W. Bush (and thus too John McCain) on his behalf. This obvious undercurrent was curiously never addressed by Obama amidst his mantras of unity and hope.

Ethan M
Boston, MA

Dear FRONTLINE,

Sad. Interesting. Didactic. As I watched "Boogie Man," I kept being reminded of Oscar Wilde's novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Atwater -- amoral to the end -- morphing into a grotesque embodiment of his disturbing life. Never more than the hired help for the Bush family. Discarded at the end. And, among the politicos, only Ed Rollins seemed to have a shred of humanity.

Robert Wood
Little Rock, AR

Dear FRONTLINE,

I worked with Lee at Black, Manafort & Stone and also with Ed Rollins at Kemp for President in 1988. I enjoyed the show very much. I can remember exactly what it was like to be in the room with Lee listening to him as he regaled Roger (Stone) or Charlie (Black) with a story or idea. If Lee hadn't come up with negative campaigning, somebody else would have. Maybe James Carville? Can you imagine Lee in today's internet world?

Victoria Ratley
Greenville, South Carolina

Dear FRONTLINE,

This was an extraordinary documentary I could not stop watching, I am facinated by American Politics, but I am so glad I don't live in America. To think that the most powerful nation on earth picks its executive leaders in contests driven by the media; which are based on rumours rather than facts and issues is disgusting.

The media needs to be more responsible. The irresponsibility has not ended. All we have to do is turn on the TV to see the mainstream media still interviewing Sarah Palin. A person incapable enunciating policy, ill-informed and incapable of proper diction. Please America, you can do better!

Paul Fay
Kingston, Ontario

Dear FRONTLINE,

This was another excellent documentary, depressing as it was. It may not be tasteful to criticize a man who died of brain cancer, but it is only fair to point out the damage that this man did to our political system. He was not alone to be sure, but he was one of the major players in creating the poison that courses through national campaigns. Without him, we wouldn't have George W. Bush as President. Need I say more?

As a side note, I noticed that Howard Fineman compared Lee Atwater to a wolverine. Then he went further, describing Atwater as "marsupial." Someone needs to inform Fineman that a wolverine is not a marsupial.

Norm Henderson
Moorhead, MN

Dear FRONTLINE,

I actually experienced Lee Atwater prsonally while hitchiking thru Oregon May 1976. He picked me up on Route 5 and drove us about 4.5 hours. I found him quite charming and very open. He offered to take us down route 1 and we enjoyed the Large Redwood Forest which we had never seen. He was a great converstaionlist and I always remembered him as his car was very fancy antique Model Ford with great interior, He as trying to get us to agree to accompany him to Big Sur but we were on our way to The Bay Area.

I saw the original version done by Roland Walker and I believe Frontline did a very interesting editing job on the original work. I saw the quality of the editing and the film color was greatly enhanced. I agree, the man I met that day on Route 5 seem different than the man in the documentary. However, I remember specifically Lee's response to I was not political aware. He kept asking me "are you sure you never heard of Lee Atwater"? At the time I did not know the name or the reputation he earned polically but I often reflect on the indepth conversation he had during our journey. And his willingness to help two African American hitch hiking on a remote road. I will always endear that move and I ofen ponder what curves our lives may have taken if we had of agreed to accompany his free wheeling spirit to Big Sur... that day in May 1976.

Carin Knight
Philadelphia, PA

Dear FRONTLINE,

As a conservative and Republican my whole adult life (though I'm teetering after McCain/Palin, I must say), I have to say I found this documentary to be pretty fair. The music was a little overdramatic sometimes, and I don't doubt that it was made by a non-Republican, but that's only because no Republican would be so disloyal as to uncover so much unflattering stuff about other Republicans. Yes, it's true that politics is dirty and Dems do the same tricks, but it's also true that they have never done it as dirty or as successfully as Lee Atwater and his proteges.

I was prepared to find this film to be a typical left-wing hit job, but several things make it different, I think. First, the majority of talking heads are Republicans and/or friends of Lee -- and they themselves most often make the most damning statements. Second, we get to see Lee's charm. Who could watch him and not smile a few times? He was lovable (which does not excuse him in the least from severe judgement for what he did, despite some of these comments). Third, according to my reading (and I've been paying attention for 30 years), all this stuff happened. No one denies most of the events in the film. Dukakis is pathetic in many ways and deserved to lose, but not the way he did. Undeniably, racism was invoked in that election, and undeniably, he was slimed unfairly.

Also, I must say that except for being a little too hip at times with the music and camera sequences, this film was very well edited and paced, and I was impressed at the caliber of the interviewees. It could have made more of the issue of the collaboration of the press and politicians, maybe, but in fact it did a pretty good job of showing how Lee Atwater didn't do all these things alone.

For us Republicans, I think this last election showed that we have to get back to being a party of ideas, and stop relying on Atwaters and Roves to slime our leaders into office. Why aren't we strong enough to win without destroying our opponent's character?

Bob Allen
Forestville, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

Watching this show confirmed all my thoughts on Lee Atwater. What a flawed man. Also Mary Matalin struck me as just not getting it. She went on and on about his talent etc. Not a word about how negative and destructive his actions were. Poor Mary she will go down in flames defending Lee and his ilk. That's not what America wants. Remember the results on Nov 4, 2008.

Lisa Moore
Long Beach, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

While it may be true that Mr. Atwater was especially adept at dirty tricks and negative campaigning, it is worth remembering that he was just a tool of the candidates. I really don't know how the two Bushes can look themselves in the mirror without realizing that their 3 terms as President of the U.S. were built of a stack of lies and deceptions. It is a sad commentary that in the U.S. there is so little regard for the truth on the part of our political leaders, regardless of party affiliation. Unfortunately, we only have ourselves to blame. With re-election rates for members of Congress above 90%, there is no incentive for them to change. The only way it will change is if we stop voting for these bozos.

Bob Boller
Benicia, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

I was completely enthralled by this extraordinary and chilling documentary. Although I was an adult during the years when Mr. Atwood was so influential, I had forgotten about the devastating impact he had and still has on our world and lives today. As I watched, it became more and more clear to me why I so despise Republican politics and pity those who fall for their lies and dirty tricks. The Republicans must resurrect themselves from the polluted sewer that they have become. The evil and poison of wedge politics, lies, and misinformation that Mr. Atwood so perfected and is carried on by Rove, Cheney, the Bushes, and their minions Limbaugh, Hannity, Ingram, Coulter, and others, MUST END for the good of the country and its people.

Jan Ahlin
Boise, ID

Dear FRONTLINE,

I thought the title was just right. It had one meaning before you viewed the story and several others afterwards. "Boogie Man" referred to Atwater's love of music as well as his creation and use of boogie men to stir up fear against his political opponents. Was Atwater himself a boogie man in an evil genius sort of way? That's left to the viewer to decide.

McCain-Palin campaign tried and mostly failed to make Bill Ayers and Rev. Wright into Boogie Men. Voters have gotten wise to the kind of baseless smear tactics that Atwater was able to use so successfully during the 80s.

San Francisco, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

I watched this show with fascinated repugnance, like a poisonous snake was within striking distance of me. Atwater personified everything that is despicable and unconscionable in American politics. He was an evil man, a pathological liar and a smear artist who reveled in destroying people. He was clearly (and apparently justifiably) contemptuous of the intelligence of the American public, who repeatedly swallowed his lies. I had to laugh at Mary Matalin whining at the end that "they" "made him" a boogie man. These people still don't get it.

I am elated that the hateful, dirty politics of Atwater, his odious disciple Rove and the smug, arrogant, obnoxious Bushes -- seconded by a degraded John McCain and his ethically-challenged attack-dog running mate -- did not succeed this time around. People are disgusted with this type of politics. Republicans richly deserve a long exile in the political wilderness. Good riddance.

Concord, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

Dear Soapboxers,I'm amazed at how spurred to righteous indignation people are on both sides of this. You all need to grow a pair, and by that I mean right and left lobes of the brain that work in harmony.

Republicans: When a man uses lies, tricks, and totally unscrupulous campaign tactics, then brags about what he did--and later confesses and repents--how in the world can you act like he's moral and a godsend. And do the facts about what the republican party did in the 1980's and nineties and 2000's--from Iran Contra, to El Salvador, to Sadam, to deregulation in the business sector that has all but destroyed the free market economy in support of not the rich, but the super rich--does that matter at all? How moral is it to give a sadistic killer in El Salvador full military support while he butchers his own people, not to mention weapons to third world Islamic factions to use on our own GI's. No, all that it moral to you is abortion, prayer in schools, and keeping the word God on money. Forget about the suffering of people. That doesn't matter.

Democrats: You don't use dirty politics? My god, what Atwater did was absolutely nothing new. It was in fact, very, very old. It was same old-time small town politics that had kept the democrats in power in the south from the civil war on. And yeah, there's the Clintons? Pretty up them for us. Go on, try. I'll wait. And where are your righteous politicians when they know exactly what is going on, what our government is up to? Are they taking it to the streets, making it know while it's happening? No. Their putting it all in a little black book to use in the next election.

When is America going to wake up and care about the issues and demand transparency? Voters who declare themselves Democrat or Republican are so addicted to the politics of distraction, a world of Red Herring madness, that politicians get away with anything and everything. While you are all chanting slogans with your fists raised in the air, the Dems and Repubs are both going through your wallets and spending your children's future. And you make it so easy to for them do that.

Does Lee deserve hell, as one angry poster suggested. No more than that poster does. He was a man with a job. He did it well. He ended up with regrets. Take the facts for what they are. If someone asks forgiveness, give it to them and get on with your life.

Should Frontline even up the score and do one on the Clintons or really take a close look on the Acorn voter fraud scandal and Barak? I'd watch it if they did.

Jason Burge
Laramie, Wy

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posted november 11, 2008

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