Sunday, May 15, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Bigotry, Deceit & Hypocrisy)

Early in the film, some time is devoted to Mr. Atwater’s early days in Southern politics. There is mention of exploitative, divisive “push polls” that suggested slanderous things about opposing candidates or invoked bigotry. In that vein, there are claims that Atwater exploited anti-Semitism in the Bible Belt to win an early election. It is also asserted that Atwater had said that in a prior era Southern politics required extensive use of the n-word to win, but that day was past and one had to be more subtle. In that context, it is asserted that Reagan’s use of the term “welfare queen” became code for the n-word.

In a similar vein, it was also observed in the film that in 1980 Ronald Reagan began his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It was a small town off the beaten path, but was known internationally as the site of one of the most egregious, racially charged crimes. Three civil rights workers were killed there in 1964. Reagan famously used the term “states rights” in his speech in Philadelphia. The film asserts this campaign ploy was pandering to the basest instincts in the electorate.

The film portrays Atwater as a workaholic striving for power and recognition. Interviewees stated he had an amazing work ethic, working 7 days per week. People who worked closely with him when he first came to D.C. said they were shocked to hear eventually that he had a wife and child. Interviewees also described Atwater as devious, manipulative, and insecure. They expressed the belief that he was trying to prove himself; he was cynical about politics and not idealistic.

Along those lines, Ed Rollins described his betrayal in 1984 at the hands of Atwater. Mr. Rollins expressed in the film that he had been warned by those around him to not trust Atwater, but he did not heed that advice. Mr. Rollins did decide to trust Atwater, but he indicates he came to regret that decision bitterly. Rollins described Atwater as cold-blooded. He also noted that Atwater’s younger brother had died when they were little children in a tragic, grotesque kitchen accident. It was asserted that early childhood experience warped Atwater, proving to him that God was unmerciful.

The film described that the Bush family treated Atwater dismissively and viewed him as the “hired help.” Barbara Bush allegedly disliked Mr. Atwater’s vulgarity. George W. Bush was apparently assigned by the family to keep an eye on Atwater. The film asserts that George W. Bush ultimately became a fan and admirer of Atwater, learning much about politics from him.

There were a number of interviewee comments about the 1988 election that were interesting. One charged that Ronald Reagan desperately needed to prevent the Democrats from taking over the White House to make sure he did not face investigations and possible prosecution for the Iran-Contra Affair. The plan was to keep Dukakis constantly on the defensive; in such a context, even if you did nothing wrong, you seem guilty if you always have to defend yourself.

One of the things I myself remember about the 1988 campaign and found most insulting at the time was the obvious manipulation of image, which the film attributed to Atwater’s genius. Dukakis was the son of immigrants who had had to work hard for all he had achieved. Nonetheless, Dukakis was successfully portrayed as an elitist by the Bush campaign. By contrast, George H.W. Bush (who was a prep school grad, the son of a respected politician and well-entrenched in the aristocratic Yankee elite) was paraded around in fancy polished cowboy boots eating pork rinds.

As a native Texan whose family has been in the state for many generations, I had found that parody to be deeply insulting at the time. Even worse, I was disappointed that we Texans allowed this quintessential blueblood Yankee New Englander to briefly put on the most stereotypical of Texas costumes to pretend to be something he clearly was not. If you were born in Massachusetts, you were educated in elite private schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut, your home is actually in a place like Kennebunkport, you only came to the Lone Star State as an adult to exploit its oil resources, and your speech does not naturally include the word “y’all,” you are not a real Texan in my book. Nonetheless, the Bush family continues to be quite popular in Texas—much to my dismay and disgust.

The film interviews Mike and Kitty Dukakis. Sadly, Mr. Dukakis seems to still be kicking himself for the decision to stick to the moral high ground and not respond to the baseless negative campaign ads ran against him in 1988. In the interview with Dukakis, the film noted that the Massachusetts prison furlough program, with which the GOP pummeled him in the campaign, was actually initiated by other political leaders such as Governor Ronald Reagan of California.

Psalm 26:4 (New International Version)
I do not sit with deceitful men, nor do I consort with hypocrites.

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