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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The real Darth Vader of American politics

Most of my family is from the South, starting with my grandmother, who spent 93 years living in Georgia, Alabama and Florida. She had a pretty simple rule about politicians, saying, "I'd be happy to vote for a Republican, if I could ever find a good one." Apparently she was one of the few Southerners resistant to the wily political charms of Lee Atwater, who did more than any political strategist of his generation to help the GOP gain a decades-long stranglehold on the South. Atwater is dead, but his malevolent spirit roars back to life in the new documentary "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story," which debuted Sunday night at the L.A. Film Festival. (It plays again Friday at 1:45 p.m. at the Landmark.) Directed by Stefan Forbes, it offers a compelling portrait of one of the great con men of modern American politics. The movie isn't a knee-jerk lefty hit job. In fact, it shows that Atwater was a runaway success not just because he was a devious political operator, but because, in the words of one liberal reporter Forbes interviewed, the sass-talking, guitar-playing Atwater "was the most fun man I ever met."

For anyone who wants to understand why Barack Obama's campaign already has a Fight the Smears website up, debunking scurrilous political rumors, Atwater's political odyssey offers a telling instructional in the black arts of campaign dirty tricks. A protege of Strom Thurmond in South Carolina, one of Atwater's first triumphs came at the expense of Tom Turnipseed, a South Carolina state senator who was expected to be easily reelected until Atwater (working for Turnipseed's rival) started telling reporters that Turnipseed as a young man had "been hooked up to jumper cables."

That was just the beginning. Atwater helped pioneer the use of push polls, hiring operatives to pose as telephone survey questioners. He defeated a South Carolina Democrat named Max Heller by having his henchmen phone voters, ask a few routine questions, then wonder, "Would you vote for a Jew who didn't believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?" A popular mayor until then, Heller was a goner, especially after Atwater nudged a third-party candidate into the race who kept bringing up the issue at campaign events.

But how did Atwater graduate from local Dixie devilment to the national stage, where he ended up running George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign and serving as chairman of the Republican National Party? 

Atwater instinctively grasped that it wasn't all that difficult to persuade Americans to vote their fears. The tactic was dismissed with ridicule by Atwater's Democratic rivals--until they kept losing election after election. It is bracing to see all the old footage again, whether it's Ronald Reagan kicking off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss. (site of the infamous murder of three 1963 civil rights activists) or revisiting the legendary confrontation between Bush Sr. and Bob Dole during the 1988 primary campaign, where Dole--furious over Atwater's scurrilous attacks--is asked by Tom Brokaw if he has anything to say to his opponent. Dole's icy retort: "Stop lying about my record."

Once Bush Sr. got the nomination, he was still considered a huge underdog, his reputation soiled by his involvement in the Iran-Contra fiasco. Atwater responded by getting the media to play up a series of manufactured cultural issues, involving flag burning and the Pledge of Allegiance, culminating with the infamous Willie Horton ad, which miraculously transformed the campaign into a referendum on scary African American beneficiaries of prison furloughs. (Go here to see the ad that really sank Dukakis.)

The documentary offers much for us to brood about, notably the impact Atwater had on Dubya, who is seen in the film as a young buck, sitting at the master's feet, introducing Atwater at one campaign event by joking, "The true test of a good campaign manager is how to deal with my mother."  It makes you wonder why, 16 years after the Willie Horton ad, political reporters would still fall for a Karl Rove-engineered Swift Boat attack on John Kerry. It also makes you ponder the allure of power, since the film makes it clear that while Atwater desperately sought the perks and respectability of running a presidential campaign, he was treated by Bush Sr. like the hired help.

I kept coming back to the whole nature of why we are so easily manipulated into voting our fears. It's worth watching this documentary to see how Atwater did it, because only a wacko idealist would believe--with all the e-mail whispering campaigns already under way against Barack Obama--that someone couldn't do it again. 


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It's 12:25 pm, so I MUST be a late congratulator to you on initiating the Big Pic blog. But more to the point, the Boogie Man item is excellent. The legacy of Lee Atwater, so clearly a part of the McCain-Republican strategy, is going to be the core of this election. They haven't yet played the Why do Obama and Malcolm X look so much alike card.
Of course, Lee Atwater is no match for Brad Pitt in bed.

"It makes you wonder why, 16 years after the Willie Horton ad, political reporters would still fall for a Karl Rove-engineered Swift Boat attack on John Kerry."

All the Swiftees ever wanted, and all John Kerry ever had to do to vindicate himself, was sign Standard Form SF-180, with explicit instructions to release his ENTIRE military personnel record to the public and submit that signed form to the Federal RecordsCenter in St. Louis, Missouri.

Had he done so, he would probably be President today, unless there is something embarrassing in those records.

To this day, John Kerry has not released his entire, official military personnel record to the public (as has John McCain, for instance). He has released versions edited, redacted and expurgated by his minions and called them complete, official versions, but lying about it does not make it so.

The reason he cannot release his entire military record directly to the public is because the US Naval Reserves gave him a dishonorable discharge on account of his illegal anti-war activities. President Jimmah "Peanut Boy" Carter gave him a pardon, but the fact that he originally received a dishonorable discharge must remain in his official record, by law.

A couple of points from the Wikipedia article on Willie Horton...

It was Al Gore who first brought up the furlough program. The Republicans got the idea from listening to Gore.

Also, "Attempting to counter-attack, Dukakis's campaign ran an ad about a murderer named Angel Medrano who raped and killed a pregnant mother of two after escaping from a federal correctional halfway house. Unlike Horton, Medrano (who according to Arizona Department of Corrections records, has been found guilty of 16 major and eight minor violations of prison rules and conduct between 1982 and 1999 including assault with a weapon) was not already serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Dukakis' ad ignored this fact and displayed Medrano's name and showed his photograph. According to Elizabeth Drew of The New Yorker, several Hispanic congressmen in the Southwest asked Dukakis to delete Medrano's name, which was done."

The good news about the scummy Lee Atwater is that Karma got him in the end. This political criminal succumbed to brain cancer. Bye bye!

Mr. Goldstein, you're missing the point of Atwater.

His "dirty tricks" which aren't unique to Republicans (think dead people voting, Carville, accusations of racism) were marginal to his success.

What made Atwater so successful was understand the huge gap between the electoral coalition of Blacks, Hispanics, Gays, Rich White Yuppies, and Unions that compromise the Democratic Party and the interests of blue collar workers and white middle class suburbanites. "Reagan Democrats."

Take the Willie Horton Ad. It gave voters important information about Dukakis. That he would cater and pander to Blacks and Civil Rights lobbyists (rich white yuppies) over the public safety interests of blue/white collar white voters. Blue and White collar white voters are perfectly happy to have Black criminals locked up for life or as long as practical. They are not interested in reforming them, rehabilitation, or any of that.

They don't like crime, they want it stopped. They don't (blue collar people especially) have the financial resources to combat it by moving to gated wealthy communities. Dukakis proved that when it came down to deciding for their interests or that of his electoral coalition, he chose that of his coalition.

Atwater understood that gap and exploited it brilliantly. It remains a liability for Democrats today, and explains why Rudy, after Dinkins, was elected twice in heavily Democratic NYC.

This is particularly true as America ages. Young people think themselves invincible to crime. But there are 8 million more seniors than young people. A mugging for an older person can lead to hospitalization and early death from pneumonia. Why, it's almost as if I'd blogged about those issues here and here.

Why, it's almost as if I'd blogged about this ("Senior Nation" and "Can Obama Win With The Youth Vote?").

Somehow, I doubt that the doc will point that out. Atwater wasn't a con man. Just a guy who saw that huge gap and took no prisoners in exploiting it.

One more thing, the Pledge of Allegiance and Willie Horton were important information about Dukakis, because culture is important.

It's hard, very hard, for rich white yuppies to understand, but culture MATTERS in climbing out of poverty, advancing from working to middle class, and from middle class to upper class. It's probably the single biggest determinant to achieving success. People who believe in a right and a wrong, good and evil, hard work, deferred pleasure, saving, education, only having kids when one is married and can afford them, and staying married are far more successful in moving upwards economically in life.

It would have cost Dukakis nothing to have, early in his career embraced the Pledge of Allegiance, and proposed making it mandatory for schools. That he refused to do so, repeatedly, told voters that Dukakis valued the "rebellion" of rich white yuppies over the conservative cultural values (including patriotism) that help people get ahead. That he would actively oppose those values as part of his electoral coalition.

This was not a trivial issue for blue collar voters particularly, because it went to the heart of their struggle -- to maintain traditional culture in the face of mass-consumerism "rebellion" marketed by and for rich white yuppies.

As for Willie Horton, it told everyone that Dukakis lacked the intestinal fortitude to face down the Black lobby and Civil Liberties lobby in favor of blue collar or white collar types. Horton, out on furlough, raping a woman and ruining the couple's lives showed the bankruptcy of Dukakis when it came to the hard decisions where someone had to lose.

If Dukakis had wanted to be President, really wanted it, he should have vetoed any furlough and been tough on crime. Since blue/white collar voters are still the biggest electoral block. He was never a serious candidate, Atwater just helped point that out. The way Carville pointed out Bush's flaws, and later Dole's flaws. The only pol who seems to have learned anything from Atwater was Clinton. Who sought to ruthlessly suppress that "gap" by coming down solidly on the line of the blue/white collar middle class.

Patrick -- Dirty Harry gave you a shout out, recommended your blog. You should link to him at Dirty Harry's Place, he's no longer at Libertas.

Napoleon Bonapart had been very successful, militarily; and then he devoted a lot of money to the research and building of the largest catapult, which could sling the largest stones the farthest at that time. And just before he left town with this amazing contraption, people at court feted him with a large party. As someone raised their glass to toast him, they said, "May God give you the victory." Bonapart's reply? "God gives the victory to whoever has the best weapons", or something to that effect. He lost. It is called "Bonapart's Last Stand".

In the name of The Lord Jesus Christ: God, turn our hearts toYou, and give us to vote as a nation by Your Divine Understanding and not by our own pride; and God, bless us to really turn and obey You, and thus to inherit from You that either the presidents obey You in their office or You simply remove them from office, that our nation and her people be blessed and a testimony both to Your Name, Your Kingdom, Your Will, and Your only begotton son, The Lord Jesus Christ; Amen.

I plan to vote for Jimmy Carter for President, unless he runs for Vice President with Obama. I am a Republican. Integrity with God counts.

We'll see what God shall do.

You have SWIPED the blog name from Barry Ritholz at , one he has had for

Lets get original, okay?

I'm getting more than a little tired of Democrat partisans like Goldstein whining about Republican 'politics of fear'. What do you call Al Gore's fearmongering over global warming? And it's time Democrats acknowledge the real reason they can't get over the Willie Horton ad after twenty years: it was the unvarnished truth and it worked because Democrats do care more about the rights and welfare of street criminals than Joe Citizen.

The Big Unoriginal Picture.

You should be given an F for plagiarism.

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