If you have a chance, tune in to Frontline on PBS, which is airing “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story.” (I used to work for public television and it was practically a rule that you had to have a colon and a subtitle for every program.)
But, anyway, this is a fascinating show, full of back stories about recent political elections like George H.W. Bush’s victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988. Even now, you could say, Dukakis never knew what hit him. Atwater unleashed one virulent rumor after another — Kitty Dukakis burned an American flag! Michael Dukakis had mental problems! He released Willie Horton to rape and pillage! Dukakis, ever the gentleman, wouldn’t dignify most of these rumors and scurrilous ads with a comment or hard-hitting defense; under this assault, his lead diminished, then disappeared.
The result was the first Bush presidency and a new era in American politics. If you flood the airways and political discourse with vicious rumors about your opponent, he’ll never recover, will never dominate with his own message. Among Atwater’s proteges (not surprisingly) were Karl Rove, who then had hair, but not a conscience, and George W. Bush, who had hair both then and now.
Atwater himself evidently stood for nothing but winning. He wasn’t an ideologue; his initial entry into Republican politics came simply because he could rise more quickly in their older, more moribund ranks. A blues devotee, he loved black musicians and music and had black friends. He wasn’t a racist, some of his friends insist. But he was willing to incite racism in others, to stir existing prejudices, with ads about the murderous Willie Horton. Here, again, he believed in nothing, except destroying the opposing candidate.
The documentary makes nods toward explanations of Atwater’s take-no-prisoners behavior. He saw and heard his younger brother die in childhood. He was from the South, a region patronized and underestimated by liberal Ivy Leaguers. It doesn’t quite suffice, though. Here is a man whose brand of political warfare made this country worse for a generation and poisoned our political discourse. Of course he had deepseated problems. Who doesn’t?
In the end, this boyish-looking, charming and clearly brilliant man died very young from a brain tumor. On his deathbed, many say, he regretted his actions and apologized to many of the opponents he had libeled. He came to wonder whether his life and success had been a terrible mistake. In the program, someone references Atwater with a quote from Mark 8:36: For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Although Atwater claimed to have read the Bible and to have “gotten” religion before his death, one friend says the volume was still wrapped in cellophane, unopened, on his deathbed. So maybe he didn’t read that passage and maybe he wouldn’t have recognized its applicability to his own life, anyway. Self-reflection isn’t prized in political operatives even when they’re dying.
It’s depressing to learn about a life that was such a waste of great gifts, though; the only uplifting lesson in the post-Atwater years is that the Democrats have finally learned to fight back effectively. I guess we can thank Atwater and Rove and the Bushes for that.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)