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

June 24, 2008 | 12:00 pm

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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