BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In the history of U.S. politics, it’s hard to find a more complicated and influential powerbroker than Lee Atwater. A son of South Carolina, he played blues guitar – and politics – from an early age and rose to become the wunderkind campaign strategist for such notables as Strom Thurmond, Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, who eventually made Atwater head of the Republican National Committee.
His formula was simple – spin when you can, change the subject when you can't, and if all else fails, mine the voters’ resentment and fear, especially of black people.
Stefan Forbes is the director of a new documentary, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. He says Atwater played brilliantly on the smoldering rage of many Southern whites towards the secular, the elite and the intellectual, people who looked down on them.
Atwater played that tune so well, he even made it work for the WASPY, wealthy, Northern George Herbert Walker Bush. STEFAN FORBES: And he realized that they could take the party of the rich, of corporations, and turn it into the party of the working man. And he did it brilliantly, by putting Bush Sr. into a cowboy hat, into cowboy boots with a big Texas flag on the side and having him eat pork rinds. He singlehandedly pretty much [LAUGHS] created the Bush dynasty, was a mentor to Karl Rove and taught W. how to campaign. Even from his grave he’s been winning elections for the Republican Party. BROOKE GLADSTONE: He singlehandedly created George Herbert Walker Bush. How did he get to him, to begin with? STEFAN FORBES: It’s an amazing story. Back in 1972, they have an obscure guy [LAUGHS] running for chairman of the College Republicans from Utah. His name’s Karl Rove. Atwater’s his campaign manager, and they lose.
But Atwater won't accept defeat. They start throwing out ballots, challenging people’s right to vote. It gets thrown all the way up the chain to the chairman of the Republican Party, George H. W. Bush, who sees these two hard-knuckled young operatives and gives them the election.
And right there, Karl Rove learns from Lee Atwater how to win an election. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Rove worked with Atwater on Vice-President Bush’s 1988 campaign against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. At that point, Bush was knee deep in the Iran Contra scandal. He was lagging in the polls. And then Atwater changed the subject with two political ads. The first targeted a Massachusetts prison furlough program, by highlighting a black convict that we all still remember, named Willie Horton. STEFAN FORBES: It’s incredible. Back in ’88, in that campaign, Ronald Reagan has literally sold arms to terrorists and lied about it on national TV. Atwater was able to change the subject. He found a fairly irrelevant convict that was out on parole, Willie Horton, and made him the focus of that entire campaign. And his own party laughed at him. [CLIP]: ANNOUNCER: His revolving-door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes, like kidnapping and rape. [END CLIP] STEFAN FORBES: Atwater was able to change the subject because he realized that the media is often like a school of fish. They're so anxious to chase the story and the prevailing narrative, that an operative like Atwater is able to use them as an echo chamber. You put something out there that’s sticky, you know, the face of this scowling killer, and it can really swamp the whole dialogue on television. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that first ad peddled fear. The second notorious ad of that campaign also relied on imagery, some frankly silly footage of Dukakis riding in a tank, to peddle a lie. [CLIP]: [SOUNDS OF TANK AND AIRCRAFT IN BACKGROUND] ANNOUNCER: Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we developed. He opposed new aircraft carriers. He opposed anti-satellite weapons. He opposed four missile systems, including the Pershing II missile deployment. Dukakis opposed the Stealth Bomber and a ground emergency warning system - [END CLIP] STEFAN FORBES: Perception is reality. He was a governor. He hadn't voted on any of those weapon systems. But Atwater realized you find a powerful, sticky image that the media can't resist, of this guy looking goofy in a tank helmet, and that will dwarf the rest of the conversation. It was so convincing that even someone like Sam Donaldson, in looking back on it in the film, says, gee, I wonder if we really vetted all those claims? I'm not sure we did.
Again, you hide in plain sight. You tell a lie that’s so powerful that people can't quite understand that the whole basis on which it’s being discussed isn't true.
When George Bush, Sr. appointed Lee Atwater head of the Republican National Committee, he was, in effect, taking these campaign tactics and putting them in charge of the Party at the highest level. Then, when Atwater’s acolyte, Karl Rove, won successfully in 2000, he took those same tactics into the White House and used them as a basis for governing. So it’s been fascinating to trace the Atwater playbook through these different administrations. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Atwater just plain lied. STEFAN FORBES: Well, what I see is that Atwater’s vision of politics is pro wrestling, because they didn't pretend to be anything other than fake. You know, that kind of cynicism really infected a whole generation of political reporters in Washington and a generation of political operatives.
Atwater was able to sort of pull back the curtain on politics, to say, hey, let me show you how we do our polling, and look at this horserace, isn't it great? He kind of divested them of the moral imperative to talk [LAUGHS] about the truth. And you saw that come back with incredible power in the ’04 campaign when these Swift Boat ads came out, and for about three weeks the media really did not vet those charges. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1991, he was 40 years old. He had been made head of the Republican National Committee, and Atwater developed a brain tumor. And then he was portrayed in the media as having a real period of actual repentance. He was sorry for what he did before he died. Was that true? STEFAN FORBES: I was, again, incredibly surprised to find out that the truth was much more complicated than it had been reported. Friends of Atwater told me he never even repented for negative campaigning. The fact is, though, as Tucker Eskew, senior advisor to the McCain/Palin campaign says, the fear tactics that he had used on America came back on him. He would lie awake at night desperately afraid that he was going to hell. He apologized to a couple of people. They say he actually sent a telegram to Willie Horton apologizing for what he'd done, but he didn't send anything to Mike Dukakis, as was reported in Life Magazine.
He still doesn't apologize for making the Republican Party a Southern party, for putting the right wing evangelicals, whom he privately mocked as freaks, as guys with hands growing out of their heads, for putting them in firm control of Republican politics. He didn't repent for any of that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So having just completed this film and released it, as the Obama campaign drew to a close, what were you left with? STEFAN FORBES: It’s fascinating to watch how the Atwater playbook has basically created a civil war in the Republican Party. When Atwater made the Republicans a Southern-based party, he put the right wing preachers in power, these evangelical conservatives who threatened to walk out of the convention if John McCain was allowed to choose a Tom Ridge or a Joe Lieberman. Their candidate was Sarah Palin.
And now that she has imploded so spectacularly, the whole intellectual wing of the Republican Party has peeled off. Guys like George Will and David Brooks don't see that as the future of Republican politics.
On the other side, these incredibly powerful people who believe in a faith-based version of politics, that reality doesn't matter, they will be fighting over the 2012 nominee, and it’s going to be really interesting to watch to see how this plays out over the next couple of years. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why did you make this film? Is it just a cautionary tale, or is it a kind of Shakespeare tragedy? STEFAN FORBES: I didn't set out to make a movie to hold Atwater accountable and let the rest of us off the hook. I mean, the fact that a guy who pals around with James Brown and B.B. King runs the most racist presidential campaign in 150 years, that reflects America’s hypocrisy about race.
Atwater does all these things and then gets down on his knees and somehow seeks redemption at the end of his life. That’s our country all over again. We like to sin on Saturday night and get down on our knees Sunday morning. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stefan, thank you very much. STEFAN FORBES: Thank you. Take care. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stefan Forbes is the director of Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. It airs on Frontline on your public television station on Tuesday, November 11th, 2008, and you can also find more information at Boogiemanfilm.com.