Barack Obama sailed to a fairly easy victory on Tuesday on many voters’ hopes that he will patch together the fractious state of our country and bring an end to the divisive nature of recent politics.
Wanna know why all that is necessary? A good starting place is Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. The documentary tells the story of the South Carolina political operative (above, right) who rose all the way to the chairmanship of the Republican Party. Along the way, he mentored Karl Rove and George W. Bush and guided George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign to victory in 1988.
How did a man with no real political connections to get him started rise to such heights? In a word: ruthlessness. Atwater didn’t invent dirty politics, but he turned it into an art form by using rumors and the press as his weapons of choice. During more than one campaign, he floated gossip that his opponent suffered from psychological problems. According to some in the film, he’s the brains behind the famed Willie Horton/Revolving Door ads that all but sunk Michael Dukakis. Ultimately, his opponents were left defending themselves on red-herring charges, and perception often became reality.
The film attempts to make connections between the death of Atwater’s brother as a child and the man’s lack of a conscience, but those ties are tepid at best. Ultimately, he comes off as a political mastermind who normally won because he was willing to cross the line farther than his opponent. The ends always justified the means.
Stefan Forbes’s film does an excellent job of rounding up both archival footage (Rove effusively praising his teacher) and fresh interviews with those who have been with him, against him or covered him, including Dukakis, Sam Donaldson and many longtime friends, associates and rivals.
The film’s third act provides some life-changing news for Atwater, and for those unfamiliar with his story, I won’t spoil it here. But I will say that some of the movie’s talking heads freely insinuate that karma is a dangerous thing.
Whether or not you agree with that conclusion is up to you. But one thing is certain — Boogie Man is a fascinating portrait of one of the architects of the modern political landscape.
Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story screens Saturday at 1 p.m. For Saturday’s complete schedule, click here.
ALSO SATURDAY: Winter Soldier (5:45 p.m.) tells the story of Vietnam vets (including John Kerry) who came home from combat to protest the war … The Albert Maysles Award Presentation (7:30 p.m.) will include a screening of the Maysles Brothers’ Running Fence … What’s a film festival without a little irreverence? Mickey Mouse, We Ain’t (10:45 p.m.), a collection of adult-oriented animation, should fill he quota nicely.