Frontline- Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

Tue, 11/11/2008 - 10:00pm

RNC Chairman Lee Atwater plays the guitar at the Celebration for Young Americans at the DC Armory, January 21, 1989.

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum


In 1989, Lee Atwater was a political rock star. After masterminding George H.W. Bush’s presidential victory over Michael Dukakis, the colorful, blues guitar-playing Atwater was relishing his new role as chairman of the Republican National Committee as he redefined the role of the political operative. Two years later, the political strategist would be dead from a brain tumor at the age of 41, cast aside by the Washington power players he’d helped create and wracked with remorse for the tactics he’d employed in his political ascent. Frontline presents Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, airing Tuesday, November 11 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

In Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, producer Stefan Forbes reveals new information about the meteoric rise and tragic demise of a man both admired and reviled for the controversial, sometimes racially charged political tactics that helped elect George H.W. Bush president and inspired protégés such as Karl Rove. Through a wealth of compelling, never-before-seen footage and photos, as well as interviews with boyhood friends, elite Republican strategists and political adversaries, the documentary examines Atwater’s impact on the way modern political campaigns are waged.

Boogie Man
traces Atwater’s political rise from his early days masterminding political victories in South Carolina. Among his triumphs was a fiercely contested battle for chairman of the College Republicans between Karl Rove and Robert Edgeworth. Atwater, supporting Rove, lost, but mounted an appeal of Edgeworth’s victory, which was ultimately decided by then Republican National Committee chairman George H.W. Bush, who gave the election to Rove.

The program recounts how fellow South Carolinian Sen. Strom Thurmond took an interest in Atwater, tutoring him in the use of highly emotional wedge issues such as abortion and crime that would help Republicans win over disaffected working-class voters to a largely pro-business agenda. Says Atwater intimate Tucker Eskew, “Resentment became the future of the Republican party.” In the documentary, viewers hear from numerous journalists and politicians who say Atwater’s use of scurrilous rumors, push polls and other dirty tricks propelled him onto the national scene, where he became assistant to Ed Rollins, campaign manager for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 election.

Boogie Man
takes viewers behind the scenes of the contentious 1988 campaign, remembered for its infamous “Willie Horton” ad, which portrayed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as soft on crime and easy on rapists and murderers. Among the film’s revelations is Republican operative Roger Stone’s account that while he was running the Bush campaign, Atwater said he had secretly arranged financing for the Horton ad. “[Atwater] locked the office door,” says Stone, “and he popped the famous Willie Horton spot onto a television. He said, ‘I got a couple boys who are going to put up a couple million dollars for this independent.’ And I said, ‘That’s a huge mistake.’”

After Atwater was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1990, some of his closest friends say that Atwater was terrified he was going to hell and embarked on a desperate search for redemption. “Lee really was confronting some very troubling facts,” says Eskew, “that in winning he had hurt people. Fear had been part of his toolkit. That fear came back on him.” But producer Stefan Forbes notes that his reporting reveals a more nuanced story than media accounts of Atwater’s remorseful apologies for his tactics. “Lee apologized directly to some of the people he’d hurt,” says Forbes, “but never criticized the GOP, or even disavowed negative campaigning. And his vision of politics as war would continue to affect a new generation of GOP politicians and operatives.”

While some argue that Atwater’s political successes resulted solely from dirty tricks and a win-at-any-cost mentality, former colleagues say that view is an oversimplification. They explain in Boogie Man how Atwater’s keen attention to the concerns of middle-class Americans helped him identify issues to which his Democratic opponents were often tone deaf.