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 am from Lee's home town and I used to go to some of the events Lee would attend. On several times I spoke with him and he always remebered me the next time...
Remeber when Goldwater ran for president in the 60's-remeber the Dem.'s commericial-no words were spoken-2 little children playing in a field-then a mushroom cloud from an atom bomb came up in the back drop-implying a vote for Goldwater was a vote for a Nuke...This ad ruined Goldwater-hence the Dem's gave birth to modern negative media ads.....Lee Atwater did not invent this game-he just beat the hell out of his opposition using the game invented by democrats-and was despised for his accuracy.....

Jay Graham
Columbia, SC

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

For more on the history of negative ads, see this video playlist at the Living Room Candidate, an archive of presidential TV ads.

Dear FRONTLINE,

I cannot say how I know Lee Atwater, however, I can attest that his secretary and personal assistants read the bible to him daily. His own bible may have been in the wrapper, but he demanded that they keep reading the bible to him. So, Mr. Rollins, maybe he never opened his own up, but he may not have been spinning things all the way to the end.

Annandale, VA

Dear FRONTLINE,

I thought I should add this as I have just read many of the comments. I see many people blaming Atwater for what happened in this country and he certainly was a part of it. However, he never set policy or enacted it. It is wierd to think that all of it may have hinged on this one man's work. I wouldn't even call it diabolical work, it was just superficial crap that they sold. Amazing.

wade jones
campbell, ca

Dear FRONTLINE,

My harshest critique is reserved not for Mr. Atwater. Some apologists insist he was a really a nice guy, and if we only knew that as stoked the fires of racism to win elections, behind the scenes, he donated a few bucks to the NAACP, was kind to his dog or some other such irrelevance. No, Atwater could not have inflicted the damage he did without a lazy, incompetent and, ultimately, complicit Fourth Estate unwilling to check facts and serve as the people's representatives in the political process. I wish I could say that the media have learned their lessons, but their post-debate misuse by "Joe the so-called Plumber" is a recent case in point. While they clamored to get this fraud on the air as soon as possible, it was the blogosphere that did the heavy lifting and background checks that exposed him as a laughable loser and hardly an iconic working man. Thank God for the Internet.

Michael Brooks
Henderson, NV

Dear FRONTLINE,

What a sad story. Atwater was obviously a person of great potential and could have done some real good in the world. It's too bad he found the pursuit of power and influence more important than being a decent human being. Conservatives who would defend Atwater's tactics must really believe the end justifies the means. I can't wait to see the end of such nasty politics.

CJ Kuehl
Waupaca, WI

Dear FRONTLINE,

The documentary gave out some nuggets of interesting information but they were nearly extinguished in self-righteousness. Most deeply disgusting was the implication that Mr. Atwater's cancer and the transformations it made in his personal appearance reflected his career. Maybe the people who made the film have never seen a beloved "good" person suffer cancer with all its pain and disfigurements? And please don't try to excuse yourself by claiming that the comments about "life catching up" with him referred to his remorse. The sinister music along with the shots of Mr. Atwater's chemo-bloated face let us know how you really feel. Be ashamed. PS I'm a Democrat.

Jean H
Richmond, VA

Dear FRONTLINE,

The Republican complaints over this documentary seem to all hinge on the idea that Frontline has somehow broken with their tradition of offering unbiased, hard-hitting, well documented stories. I, an Independent viewer, saw no such departure. But how Atwater-tarian it is of his disciples to see it as anything but exactly what Frontline has always offered: a balanced account that does not preclude the viewer from drawing their own conclusions.

When the truth goes against a personal agenda or the obsession to win, well, then the truth be damned. That's the Republican way. It fits a pattern I've seen over the last 30 years: play dumb and smile a lot and resort to sloganism when pressed for substance. Boogie Man exposes the dirty tricks for what they are: diversions. And yes, the Dems are equally guilty of it. Glad to see a news organization out there with enough stones to call it as it is.

Lakeville, Massachusetts

Dear FRONTLINE,

Lee Atwater was a brilliant man. He was a say anything, do anything, win at all cost politician. He is in my view the reason why you still have so many red states. He understood like the show pointed out that southeners will vote for symbolism over facts. Say you are for guns and religion and give tax breaks to big business while no one is watching. This is how the Republicans win elections and Atwater knew how to do it.

Neil Owen
Nashville , Tn

Dear FRONTLINE,

While watching the documentary of Lee Atwater, I have to admit that it was difficult for me to suppress laughing at the righteous indignation and sanctimonious outrage of the political commentators led by the likes of, Howard Fineman.

I despise the Bush clan, not because of Atwater but because they betrayed the conservative movement.

The sanctimony of left wing political writers and commentators is particularly insulting considering their lack of it applied to the criminal activities of the Clintons and now Obama.

The left wing press is as complicit as any political Bolshevik campaign aparachik in the Obama inner circle who maneuvered the Black racist, America hating, anti-Semite Obama and his brown shirted accomplices into the White House.

Lastly, in this day and age, not even Lee Atwater could have helped McCain because nothing of what he did would have gotten into the mainstream media dominated by left wing entities such as, ABC,CBS,NBC, CNN, PBS.

David Baker
Delanson, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

Dr. Rodriguez (an earlier respondent to this forum) did not know Lee Atwater personally. If he did he would not have offered the disgustingly judgmental suggestion that Lee was a "clinical example of psychopathy." Perhaps it is Dr. Rodriguez who is unable to exercise empathy. Dr. Howard Dean's televised statement during the recent presidential campaign, "There is somewhat of a higher ethical bar on what we do. We don't have any Lee Atwaters or Karl Roves on our side," is similar.

Lee was an alumnus of my fraternity at Newberry who graduated five years before I arrived there. I met him a few times at the fraternity house. He was brilliant, he was kind, and he was simply a magnificent human being. I was a student in the same political science department. I think Lee understood the politics of the post-integration South better than anyone I ever met. He may have crushed liberal elitists with remarkable effectiveness but he was not evil or psychopathic.

National-level politics anywhere in the world is brutal business and you have to deliver and take punches to succeed. You can accuse Lee of fighting vigorously and perhaps even taking a few cheap shots. Nevertheless, progressives are clearly not above doing the same.

If you attack a man who fought hard, repented, sought redemption and is now dead and unable to defend himself, you are a candyass coward. For every accusation like these against Lee I could point out equally vile offenses committed by liberal operatives, the DNC, and/or the Democratic Party. Tell me more about your "higher ethical bar," Dr. Dean. I am fascinated.

Bob Roman
Greer, SC

Dear FRONTLINE,

Unlike many of your commentators, i only met Lee Atwater a few times when he was just starting out, so I am hardly an expert. I was a Mount Holyoke college student scholar-intern studying how politics worked in Washington, DC. It was a gift and blessing to see just how the inner workings unfolded at such a young age during Watergate; it motivated me to become a journalist covering science and engineering not the "he said, she said" of the beltway.

I never got to say good bye to Lee Atwater when I left Washington, nor did I ever see him ever again socially or professionally as I changed fields in 1975 and we sold our house in Greenwood, but this "movie" made me regret I was remiss more than ever. To his family and widow, my sincerest condolences and know in your hearts you knew the man who was boy, the young student who was well liked by his peers and became, hopefully, became his own person, as well as having been a devoted son, devoted husband and family man. May you rest in peace Lee. God bless to him and his family.

I met Lee at dinner at my parents' home in Greenwood, South Carolina. He struck me as a sensitive, intelligent young man with egalitarian ideals who was respectful of everyone he met. A year later, I met him again in Washington, DC., where he was actively working on Republican campaigns and lugging his guitar, long before he ever was thrust into spearheading the presidential campaign. What struck Lee Atwater at the time was how things were "really" done.

He was learning in the 1970s, and anything and everything he learned and drew upon already existed in the world of Democratic, Republican, as well as Independent, circles he traveled. Those who condemn him most reveal themselves.

To suggest that this young man who grew into the "Boogie Man" of your vision was anything less than a human being who had feelings and considerations for others, as do most people, is beyond harsh when compared in the context of Washington then and especially now. But a portrait of a person is only as good as how well the artist can see and execute.

How do you think his widow or his family feel after viewing this portrait that seems to have left out the human side on purpose? Is the Republican party really the party of rascism as some suggest when in fact the late President Richard Nixon signed Affirmative Action into law as an Executive Order?

Is the Republican party not the party that celebrates the legacy of Lincoln every February?

Can we as a society change from within and become better at providing for our welfare, health and happiness via DC politics? Yes we can But it has to start with a cold, hard look at who we deem "brutal and ruthless" and remember most what we condemn most harshly in others we feel in ourselves.

There was nothing more heartless, cruel and ruthless than what this nation fought against in World War II, and what we have been fighting against ever since, especially after 9-11. To direct our harshest, cruelest assessments against the Bush family, thus against Lee, and againt anyone who wins for America makes me sit back and finally discard my own journalistic independence and ask "who are you that say these things?"

"Cruel, harsh and brutal" in fact do exist: it is called evil. But the enemy, in this case is not us. Unless we are the ones who attack only side verbally and by denigrating anyone who believes in capitalism and freedom . Soon we will have the world wondering, when did America become more totalitarian and socialist/communistic than the enemy our parents fought against so valiantly?

I do have hope for our nation and believe we as Americans we are the "best" simply because we cherish every life, every human being, as just as important as the next not as more or most "perfect." But when we condemn our own so harshly when American antics pale in comparison to the real threats to human life right now, it should give us all pause.

Merja Helen Lehtinen
Colchester, CT

Dear FRONTLINE,

I found this disappointing, to be honest. Lee was a complex, brilliant man and the documentary seemed to skim the surface of his life. There was so much more to tell in terms of how he came by his political beliefs under the tutelage of Senator Strom Thurmond, if nothing else.

I can understand the limitations of the filmmaker-Lee is dead, Ole Strom is dead, it's obvious neither Sally Atwater or the Bush family was interested in participated (were they even asked?).

But there are still many South Carolinians, beyond Tucker Eskew, who remember Lee and could have at least given more context about his formative years beyond the childhood trauma of the loss of his brother. Lazy filmmaking/journalism/thinking abound in this documentary.

Phyllis Overstreet
Bamberg, SC

Dear FRONTLINE,

This was a great documentary on yet another functional psychopath that was employed by the Republican party to help them win at any cost.

It is no wonder that decent, educated, moral, and intelligent Republicans have been pushed out, pushed into the periphery, or smothered by the cretins that have replaced them.

It is very sad that the party of Goldwater and William F. Buckley dug themselves so deep into the sewer.

How apropos that the "religious wrong" has hitched their wagon to this fallen star.

I hope there are still Republicans left with the courage and fortitude to fight for and change their party. They would need to cure themselves of the cancer that is the "religious wrong" and the parasitic infestation of the Neo-Cons.

Here's hoping that happens in my lifetime.

Lenny Shkirenko
Duluth, GA

Dear FRONTLINE,

I am curious about this film. It was my understanding that the film was independently produced by Stefan Forbes without the assistance of Frontline. I know that Mr. Forbes released it to about 35 screens around the country an was selling a DVD version. It had received some critical acclaim for its sound track and work as a documentary. The next thing I knew it was on being shown on Frontline. Did Mr. Forbes seek out Frontline as a platform for national exposure?Did Frontline approach Mr. Forbes regarding it TV broadcast? Did Frontline have anything to do with its production?I thought the piece illuminated the brilliant and devious mind of what even his contemporaries described as and man who possessed "the eyes of a killer".Political partisans will debate the mans tactics for decades. Even on this discussion board they are lining up behind their respective positions. I have serious problems with those who seem to be blind to this mans apparent lack any ethical consciousness. His, ends justify the means, approach of hardball politics have lived on way beyond his own life and for that we are a more poorly informed and less objective society.Anyone who looks into Karl Roves background knows he shares the same tactics and may have even refined some and added others; all while maintaining Lee Atwater´┐ŻTMs aura of "plausible deniability". Even Lee Atwater never bugged his own office like Karl Rove did. But that may have only been because he did not think of it first. In a perfect world people like this would be relegated to medicine shows, circus acts, used car sales, Wall Street and places where everyone knows that their lack of ethics is part of the job description; not sitting at the right hand of power. I hope history judges their actions accordingly.

Small town, Oregon

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

For more on the theatrical release of Boogie Man, visit this Web site. FRONTLINE acquired the rights to broadcast the film after it had been produced. Stefan Forbes worked with FRONTLINE to prepare the broadcast version, which differs slightly from the theatrical release.

Dear FRONTLINE,

I met Lee Atwater in 1990 when he requested that my colleague and I come to his home in Washington DC to consult with him about his health. I was one of the "Tibetans" -- in reality, traditional Tibetan medicine doctors -- who Mr. Atwater mentioned in his 1991 article in LIFE magazine. He greeted us with an earthy Southern charm. However, I also remember that he displayed the most starkly aggressive personality that I had ever encountered. Mr. Atwater's aggressivity made the fear, and feeling of powerlessness, that was gradually enveloping his life even more poignant. As an American I knew all too well of his negative contribution to our politics. Yet, as a Tibetan medicine doctor, I try to keep compassion foremost in my mind. In Mr. Atwater we encountered a man just beginning to struggle with his mortality and to question his legacy. It is to his credit that he went public with the insights that he eventually achieved regarding the profound errors of his professional life. If Mr. Atwater's disciples like Mary Matlin, Karl Rove and George W. Bush had listened to their teacher, perhaps this country would have been spared much of the cultural, economic and political degradation that it has suffered in these past seventeen years.

Eliot Tokar
Howard Beach, NY

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posted november 11, 2008

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