Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Manipulation of Journalists, Appeals to Superficial Patriotism & the Use of Fear)

Multiple times in the film, interviewees explain that Mr. Atwater argued that perception is reality, and thus in politics one could create one’s own reality. That is a frightening assertion, but it unfortunately makes sense in the context of Mr. Atwater’s career.

Numerous members of the media are interviewed, and they frankly come off as rather lame. They explain how Mr. Atwater was charming on a personal level and befriended journalists. This made them vulnerable to manipulation as they unwittingly helped to spread innuendo and falsehoods as news stories.

For example, the film includes footage of Lee Atwater calmly telling an incredulous reporter repeatedly that he had no ad featuring Willie Horton. A friend of Mr. Atwater’s then recounts an occasion when Mr. Atwater showed him a tape of the notorious Willie Horton ad, and the friend urged him (unsuccessfully) to not use it.

It is also noted that due to the tremendous press attention it received, the infamous Willie Horton ad received more attention than it would have simply for the number of times it ran as a political commercial.

There are also interviews describing how the media knew that Republican leaders were lying about Iran-Contra, but the media not being willing to confront them publicly about it. The film describes the Washington press corps as being cynical and their reporting as being shallow.

In the film, the late Robert Novak stated at one point that Republican politicians just want to win elections; they are not ideologically committed. By contrast, he said Democratic politicians tend to have sincere beliefs about the causes they support. Novak, a conservative, laughed and added disparagingly that he thought Democrats’ beliefs—although sincere--were misguided. I found Novak’s perspective intriguing. His explanation is one that I’ve frankly often suspected as I’ve followed politics over the years, and I have even heard other progressives voice that same suspicion. But heretofore, I had never heard a conservative voice that perspective.

Tucker Eskew also made an interesting comment in the film. He talked at one point about people voting against their own interest because patriotism was stronger. That comment was made in the context of the issues the film notes dominated the 1988 presidential election: flag burning, mandating the pledge of allegiance in the schools, and perceived threats to gun ownership rights.

Eric Alterman also made several interesting comments. In the same context as Mr. Eskew’s statement, Mr. Alterman stated that people vote their fears, not their hopes. His point was that Lee Atwater recognized that reality and masterfully exploited it. Indeed, the film noted that in the 1988, polls indicated that voters were turned off by the negative campaign tactics. Nonetheless, the tactics worked for those who initiated them in the Bush campaign. They turned some voters against Dukakis. Further, they discouraging other would-be voters from going to the polls; voter turnout was low in 1988 and low turnout favored Republicans.

Mr. Alterman also described the Republican Party as a “stealth party.” He noted that the GOP deliberately tried to appeal to the common man in elections, yet in power deliberately provided all the benefits of power to a smaller group of the electorate: the wealthy. He also noted that the GOP advocated high levels of morality, but exhibited other behaviors in private.

Mr. Alterman did not elaborate what he meant in the film, but I think it is fairly obvious. At least since the 1980 election, the party has pandered to cultural insecurities and resentments of white folk at middle and lower socio-economic levels. In the last presidential election, this approach was focused on “Joe the Plumber” (or “Joe Sixpack” as he was sometimes called). But folks like Joe get ignored when the GOP gets into power. They are supposed to wait for “trickle down” economic benefits that never seem to trickle down. Moreover, when it comes to social issues, such voters are supposed to be patient (and frankly just shut up) when their supposed political allies never come through on their campaign promises to outlaw abortion or adopt a constitutional amendment forbidding same sex marriage.

Indeed, the GOP touts “family values” and embraces religion publicly, and such campaign tactics are directly responsible for many of the votes they receive in elections. However, despite Christ’s own teaching against divorce, many of the GOP’s most prominent leaders and allies have been divorced (some multiple times): Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Bob Barr, Rush Limbaugh, Phil Gramm, Mary Matalin, Bob Dole, Dick Armey, Pete Wilson, John Warner, John McCain, Ed Rollins, and George Will, among others.

Similarly, some conservatives currently accuse President Obama of not being a Christian and chiding him for not going to church regularly. It is interesting that such folks didn’t have a problem with President Reagan’s absence from the pews. But then again, I’m not sure he technically ever publicly professed to be a Christian in his political life. Perhaps it would have conflicted with Mrs. Reagan’s devotion to astrology.

Exodus 18:21

But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.

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