The timing of the PBS documentary on Lee Atwater titled “Boogie Man” last night could not be better. As the inventor of the kind of dirty tricks that John McCain used unsuccessfully, Atwater symbolizes the bare-knuckle politics that have worked so well for Republicans since Reagan’s election. Unfortunately for them, the recent financial crisis delivered a knockout punch to such politics–at least until the Democrats succumb to a new round of ineffectual governance that will render them vulnerable once again.
When asked by a PBS interviewer about his views on the 2008 election, director Stefan Forbes responded:
There was an election? I’ve been stuck in the edit room for the last two years, so I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. People ask me if the Atwater playbook is over, if hope has beaten fear once and for all. I’m not so sure. Fear may have actually won. Peoples’ very real fear of losing homes and 401(k)s bested the trumped-up fears that Obama was a Muslim or an elitist socialist in league with Hamas. In future elections, where there’s no urgent issue, these sorts of attacks may regain their powerful emotional hold over the American voter.
Atwater died of brain cancer at the age of 40 in 1990. It is not hard to see his death as punishment for a misspent life. This morality tale even includes well-publicized reports of Atwater going through a death-bed conversion. The riveting documentary surmises that this could have been just another example of Atwater deception since the Bible he requested in his dying weeks remained covered in the cellophane it came in.
You can watch excerpts of the documentary at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/atwater/view/, but the entire DVD must be ordered from the PBS website. For those who don’t want to spend the money, I recommend looking for the printed transcript which should be online in a week or so. Just check: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/atwater/etc/tapes.html
Stefan Forbes skillfully draws out the dramatic class differences between Atwater and the George Bush family that relied on his scuzzy talents. No matter how much Atwater sought to become part of the Connecticut Patrician world that the Bush family inhabited, they never regarded him more than a kind of elevated household servant.
As an authentic redneck from South Carolina, Atwater helped the Bush ’41 campaign define itself as a “good old boy” defense of American values against the effete brie-eating Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, who is interviewed throughout the film. Dukakis offers ex post facto refutations of Atwater’s lies that are quite eye-opening. It was too bad, as one commentator notes, that they were not used during his feckless campaign. For example, Atwater cooked up the infamous Willie Horton ads that blamed Dukakis for allowing the convicted African-American felon to get a weekend furlough from prison that allowed him to go on a killing spree. Dukakis notes that this program was inspired by another governor, namely Ronald Reagan from California.
Atwater also produced ads that charged Dukakis with opposing various weapons systems that would have left America defenseless against the dirty Russians. Dukakis explains that as governor of Massachusetts, he was in no position to vote on any kind of weapons system. In a period of deep reaction, such as the kind that allowed a Reagan or a Bush to triumph, it mattered little if such ads were true or not. American voters allowed their prejudices to take over, a luxury ill-afforded in a period of rising unemployment. Of course, it remains to be seen whether a Democratic administration can do much about this, given its free market fundamentalism.
Despite his racism, Atwater made a big thing about his affinity for Black people that was mostly expressed through his love for the blues. Atwater played backup guitar for Percy Sledge during the 1960s and sat in with bluesmen such as B.B. King. At the night of his greatest triumph, the election of George Bush the elder in 1988, Atwater played guitar with a virtual all-star band made up of Black musicians. You can see him and President-elect Bush mugging on the stage surrounded by Blacks in an updated version of the minstrel show. (Click “At the Top of His Game” on this page: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/atwater/view/) Ishmael Reed, one of the movie’s more adept interviewees, commented on the irony of such a spectacle attending the most racist election campaigns in American history.
Believing his own bullshit, Atwater was invited to serve on the board of Howard University, one of the country’s most prestigious Black colleges, fully expecting the same kind of warm reception he got from blues musicians. He was bitterly disappointed as the Boston Globe reported. The article is worth quoting at some length since it shows the potential of the Black student movement once it gets aroused about an issue, as well as the class divisions in the Black community:
The Boston Globe
March 12, 1989, Sunday, City Edition
Atwater’s approach to black community hits dead end at Howard
By Jerry Thomas, Globe Staff
The appointment of Lee Atwater to Howard University’s board of trustees appeared, at first, to be an easy way for the Republican Party to make inroads into the African-American community.
Howard, a historic black institution that still considers itself a mecca for the black mainstream and that attracts the sons and daughters of some of the world’s most influential and visible blacks, already has strong links to the party. The university has flaunted its conservative views and its Republican student organization, although the majority of its 12,000 students and the faculty are Democrats.
James Cheek, the president of Howard for 20 years, is a Republican who received the “Freedom of Peace” award from former President Ronald Reagan.
Thaddeus Garrett, one of 32 trustees, is a top aide to President Bush. Last year, the school received a $ 179 million appropriation from Congress, which founded the school in 1867 and pays some of the tuition for more than 60 percent of Howard’s students. Atwater would have been one of more than 11 whites on the board of the university, whose first students were five white women.
The university thought Atwater, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, could add to the wealth and prestige of the school named after Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the school’s first president.
Plus, Atwater, busy schedule and all, seemed accessible. He met with students several times after his appointment.
The first meeting, students say, was on a Thursday in February, shortly after 7 p.m. The setting was a nightclub on a ritzy part of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Just several feet from the guitar strings of blues legend B.B. King sat Atwater, waiting for several guests: six students from Howard.
It was politics at first sight, the students said. Both sides played it cool. They shook hands and talked over drinks.
Robert Turner, a senior from New Orleans and vice president of the Howard University Student Association, said that there appeared to be strategy behind Atwater’s approach. Turner recalled in his own words Atwater’s introduction, “Hey! How are you doing? I’m Lee Atwater, a down home country boy; I even like rhythm and blues.”
Atwater introduced the students to two of his black aides. He agreed to talk to the students again.
The aides took over the next night, meeting some of the same students at a local dance club for “upscale blacks,” the students said. The aides spoke highly of Atwater and the Republican Party. They noted that Atwater could do good things for Howard. They told the students that supporting Atwater’s appointment would not hurt job contacts and could strengthen their networking at graduation.
Atwater had a second meeting with the students. It was the following Sunday at his Capitol Hill office, where he told them how he keeps abreast of some issues, including black concerns.
The political magic was working, and the students were willing to consider what Atwater might offer. But within weeks, the Republican strategy would backfire.
What the party did not anticipate was a backlash from Howard students – many of whose parents and teachers participated in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s – who saw the appointment of Atwater as an insult to the student body and a bad signal to the black and African community worldwide.
On Friday, March 3, shortly before 10 a.m., things took an unusual twist on the campus.
Bill Cosby, the actor and author, was to give the Founder’s Day address in the school’s Cramton Auditorium, where the trustees, the administration, the faculty, students and alumni were to gather to commemorate the school’s 122d birthday. Instead of hearing Cosby, 1,500 students took over the ceremonies and announced “The Black Agenda.”
The protesters’ key demand was that Atwater, who they say was handpicked by Cheek and who was appointed unanimously by the board of trustees in January, step down. Atwater was accused of using racist tactics as Bush’s presidential campaign manager. He was the architect of the furlough issue, which focused on the release of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer, from a Massachusetts prison. The students argued that Atwater’s campaign methods portrayed blacks in a negative manner and fueled the successful campaign of David Duke, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, in Louisiana.
“We are here to oppose Lee Atwaterism,” Ras Baraka, a junior from Newark, told a crowd of protesters. “It is not the man, Atwater, but the ideologies he represents. It’s the conservative view he represents. It’s the Borks that he represents and the David Dukes he represents.”
Baraka, one of the protest leaders, is the son of Amiri Baraka, a poet and 1960s activist.
The students, much to the Cheek administration’s dismay and embarrassment, remained in the auditorium for several hours. They demanded that Cheek address the crowd on several issues, including the appointment of Atwater, requests for a graduate department of African-American studies, improved security and student involvement in school governance, but Cheek never did. The annual Founder’s Day ceremony was canceled.
The following Monday, hundreds of protesters moved from the auditorium to the Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Administration Building, where they barricaded themselves inside.
The protests forced Atwater to resign Tuesday. He said that he was “deeply saddened” by the resignation and that he had been miscast as a racist. He said that he had hoped, as a Howard trustee, to help the university administration and aid fund-raising efforts among GOP donors.
The film concludes with Atwater’s illness and death, including grotesque images of his face blown up twice its normal size due to steroids used to treat the effects of radiation therapy. It is not a pretty sight.
As might be expected, the documentary relies heavily on the analyses of liberal commentators such as Eric Alterman, Joe Conason, and Howard Fineman. For them, the Lee Atwaters and Karl Roves of the world serve as convenient demons whose expulsion will lead to a kind of re-establishment of Camelot with the Obamas as the new Kennedy’s. Such is the state of our degraded electoral politics that both factions in the ruling party of capitalism can keep people mesmerized by celebrity of the right or the left. Since the entire society is drenched in advertising, it is no surprise that this is the kind of politics we get with an Empire in its dotage.