Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Preconceptions Before Watching the Film)

In prior posts this year, I focused on the tragic lack of civility in public discourse in the modern era. Some people cite Lee Atwater as a chief cause of the polarization, the vilification of political opponents and the general breakdown in civility that we currently see in public life. Personally, I am not sure what the chief causes have been; I haven’t studied the subject enough to know what got us to this point. But I recently came across an interesting documentary about Mr. Atwater. Before I blog about the documentary itself, I think it is helpful to mention the attitudes and impressions I had about Mr. Atwater when I initially watched the film. One’s preconceptions impact how one reacts to new information.

I came of age as an adult in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Growing up in the DC area, I was attuned to politics for as long as I can recall. As a teenager, I volunteered on various political campaigns. It was so incredibly exciting when in 1987 I was finally eligible to register to vote. For the first time, I myself was able to vote for a particular candidate, not just encourage others to do so. It was thrilling and empowering.

Early on in the primary season for the 1988 presidential election, I backed Mike Dukakis. He was a little known, nerdy and frugal governor from a Yankee state. Despite being a Northerner, I thought he was great. He struck me as pragmatic, intelligent and committed. He really seemed to want to make our country better and help as many of us as possible live the American dream. Moreover, he seemed to have the attitude and skills necessary to get the job done. It was thrilling when my candidate actually did well in the primaries and secured the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. When he accepted the party’s nomination at the convention, he seemed well situated to beat George H.W. Bush, who seemed whiney and hopelessly out of touch.

Somehow it all unraveled in the fall of 1988. Our economy was going down the toilet and my fellow college students were pessimistic about our futures. The phrase “McJob” had been coined, and we half-joked we would be flipping burgers after we received our diplomas. Nonetheless, the presidential election somehow focused almost exclusively on red herring issues like flag burning and prison furloughs. I was incredulous, bitterly disappointed and deeply dismayed. When Dukakis lost the election, I shed a lot of tears not just because my candidate lost. That had happened before. It was not fun, but that was nothing new. But in 1988 my tears flowed because of how Dukakis was beaten. Negative campaigning had worked, and enough of the electorate was distracted with red herrings to vote against their own interests and against rationale policies.

The presidential election of 1988 was the first in which I was able to vote and the way that particular election was won ended up having a deep impact on me whether or not I really recognized it at the time. I suppose in retrospect I lost my political innocence and hopefulness just as I was taking my place in the electorate. Although it did not dissuade me from taking part in elections and voting, the 1988 presidential election taught me in a very real way that good guys don’t always win in politics, voters can be manipulated, and to win elections candidates must sometimes play dirty. Prior to that election, having grown up in DC, I think I had always had a vague thought that I might make a career out of politics. The lessons of the 1988 presidential election taught me that I ought to find a different path. I didn’t have the temperament needed to win elections.

By the time George H.W. Bush was inaugurated, the name Lee Atwater was not unfamiliar to me, but I didn’t know a whole lot about him. I knew he was a white Southerner who loved blues music, and he was credited as having turned the election around for George H.W. Bush. I remember him playing blues guitar at the inauguration gala. That was about all I knew at the time.

Several years after the 1988 election, I was taking classes to prepare for my baptism in the Catholic church. Just before my baptism at Easter in 1991, I attended a retreat in Austin, Texas led by a very sweet older priest. He was a white man from some Yankee state; his accent made me think of Brooklyn. But what the heck did I know, he could have been from Boston or Philadelphia. I don’t remember exactly what he was talking about, but the priest made a brief mention of Lee Atwater having converted to Catholicism right before his untimely death. This was a surprise to me, I had not heard about this in the secular news media and it got my attention at the retreat. The priest’s mention of this fact was very casual, he seemed to not find the (deathbed) conversion remarkable or suspicious. I forget the precise context of the priest’s reference to Atwater’s conversion, but he seemed to accept the conversion as earnest and fairly typical. By contrast, I was not so sure.

When Mr. Atwater had died, the secular media had mentioned his legacy as consisting of the infamous Willie Horton ads and being the king of dirty politics. Many of us felt unease that someone who’d apparently lived such an unscrupulous life was going to meet his maker and judgment was imminent. Unlike the priest at that retreat, my intuitive interpretation of Mr. Atwater’s conversion was that he was trying to avoid judgment by embracing a religion that offered forgiveness freely. As a result of this interpretation, I remember feeling very bad for Mr. Atwater.

That mention at my pre-baptism retreat was the only reference to Mr. Atwater’s
conversion I ever remember. I don’t remember hearing much else about his death until I recently watched the documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. It was a fascinating film, but not in the way I had anticipated.

Exodus 20:16

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

Exodus 14:31

And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.

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