What does this promise land look like? This Obamerica? Shortly after Obama is sworn in, the police, instead of subjecting blacks and Hispanics to capricious traffic stops, will only stop them to offer free tickets to the policeman’s ball. Throughout the country, they will address blacks and Hispanics as sir and ma’m. The overcrowding prison problem will end, because all of the blacks and Hispanics who’ve been sent there as a result of prosecutorial and police misconduct - probably half - will be set free. And all of those police who have murdered unarmed blacks only to be acquitted by all-white juries will be retried. Blacks will have the freedom to shop in department stores without being watched.
—Ishmael Reed, “Morning in Obamerica: Change, Change, Change?”
“The heyday of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove is over.” So wrote Bob Herbert in the New York Times in October. Indeed, of the many historic changes signaled by Barack Obama’s election, the defeat of divide-and-conquer politicking is among the most profound. Even if this demise is temporary, even if hardball tactics returns at some point down the road, the public rejection of attack ads, robo-calls, email insinuations, and outright lies on the campaign trail offers hope: maybe the ghost of Harvey Leroy Atwater is quieted. For now.
As Ishmael Reed, who appears in Stefan Forbes’ documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, observes, “Lee Atwater perfected the appeal to racist feelings among some white voters.” Remembered as brilliant and monstrous, effective and destructive, the man behind the Willie Horton ads of 1988 changed the shape of American political campaigning. The film includes numerous interviews, reminiscing and critiquing. The story here is not personal—it includes no interviews with nostalgic children now grown or grade school teachers. Rather, Atwater’s tale is about knock-down-drag-out fighting, the style of political combat he twisted into perverse perfection. “He was a great story,” opines Howard Fineman, “Not because of politics, but it was American yearning and striving to be powerful to be great and the personal risks of doing that life gets even with you in the end.”
While Rove may be Atwater’s most visible mentee, he is hardly the only politico to have learned something from him: students range from Bill Clinton to Tucker Eskew (formerly part of the Bush team that smeared McCain in South Carolina in 2000, lately advisor to the McCain campaign). Rove appears in the film in archival footage, extolling Atwater’s genius and their formative years as College Republicans: here the film shows generic wide-faced members of the organization touting “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” and anti-abortion displays in school hallways, enthusiastic campaigners in search of causes.
Atwater’s early years (he was born in Atlanta) were formative, the film suggests, contributing to what seems almost an intuitive understanding of what would become the Southern Strategy. Eskew says Atwater “grew up in a standard, Southern-looking white life.” The story is familiar: because the South, so perniciously Faulkernian, imposes on its citizens regret and resentment (still) regarding its defeat in The War, Atwater understood how to exploit that pain, how to divide populations in order to conquer. “Resentment,” says Eskew, “became the destiny of the Republican party.”
Atwater, a product of what Eskew calls the South’s “brew of racial divides driving the country,” had a complicate relationship to that destiny. He seemed able to exploit more than he believed it, though the dire effects hardly mitigate ambiguous intentions. Famously in love with the blues, and a dedicated friend to his black bandmates, Atwater might be seen as someone who appropriates more than he shares. Though a (white) friend suggests, “Lee was a black person in a white body,” Atwater’s notorious efforts to divide voters by race and racist fears surely complicate this assessment. One of those bandmates, Chuck Jackson, outs it this way: “He was the head of the Klan, that was the way people felt about Lee Atwater. But he treated me like a brother.”
According to Boogie Man, Atwater’s complications extend to his apparent self-awareness. Fineman recalls him as “an attractive figure to cover, because he could wink and nod with the reporters, saying, ‘We all know what a phony deal this is, right?’ By saying it’s all wrestling, he used his own cynicism to anesthetize people to what was going on.” Clever and personable, Atwater made his way from one position to another, tolerating his treatment as “the help” by “Yankee Brahmins” George H.W. Bush and Barbara (reportedly offended by his vulgarity), glorying in his anointment as a political wonderboy when Bush defeated Bob Dole in New Hampshire, then Michael Dukakis in the general election. According to Joe Conason, “Atwater had a genius for the sticky issue, simple enough and scary enough that the media could latch onto it.”
Looking back on the vicious campaign against him, Dukakis and his wife Kitty (who took her share of abuse from Atwater) appear in their home, still appalled by the low blows that redefined political operating in 1988 (“I was angry,” she says, “I had a whole bunch of emotional feelings”). Following the victory, Atwater was appointed the head of the Republican National Committee (Robert Novak asserts, “You did not name political operatives as chairmen of the RNC”), at which point he renounces nothing: “I’m proud of who I am,” he tells a television interviewer, “and don’t disavow anything I’ve done.” Others outside his insular world of high-stakes politics, were less able to forgive and forget. When Atwater endeavored to “bring black people into the Republican party,” in part through his 1989 appointment to Howard University’s board of trustees, the news four days of drew loud protests from students. Insisting that he was misunderstood and lamenting, as Eskew recalls, that “people were gunning for him,” Atwater never had the chance to sort out his relationship to black communities. Shortly afterwards, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Here the documentary offers another sort of judgment on Atwater, reading through his painful last months of illness—and the steroids treatment that swelled his head to a frightening size—as a kind of cosmic payback. Mary Matalin remains steadfastly admiring. “They had to turn him into a boogie man,” she says, repudiating rumors of a “deathbed confession” in which Atwater apologized for his sins and claimed a new devotion to the lessons of scripture. The film grants Ed Rollins a last word, as he remembers the bible in Atwater’s room, unopened and still wrapped in plastic.
However Atwater’s life ended, his legacy persists. You have only to see minutes of this year’s election coverage on television or scan a few headlines in order to see how “negative” campaigning has become the norm—whether posited as a first choice or defensive posture. While the mainstream media are reporting a backlash against such attacks, Atwater’s legacy is visible everywhere, emblems of the fears still “driving the country.”