by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
I vividly remember the 1988 presidential election, or more accurately the months of campaigning that led up to the election. At the time, my family did not have cable television and all that was on the few channels available was election coverage. Throughout the entire summer and fall, my parents forced me and my siblings to watch the Democratic and Republican conventions, and then the nightly news coverage. Once I returned to elementary school in September, someone decided it was a good idea for everyone to gather in the cafeteria and watch more election coverage. I sat there thinking, I had to watch this all summer. Can’t I just get a break? My unending boredom was aggravated by my disinterest in candidates Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush. And I couldn’t even vote!
Boogie Man is 86 minutes of entertaining political history - complete with the juicy gossip that Machiavellian-like Atwater himself loved to spread. And it could not be a more timely documentary. On November 4, Americans will elect their next president. The 2008 campaign trail, which started almost two years ago, has been littered with character attacks, false promises, and manufactured images. These tabloid tactics that have come to characterize modern American politics are thanks in large part to one person: Atwater.
Interviews with aides, friends, journalists, and rivals make Atwater the type of person that is simultaneously admired and despised. With his slim runner’s physique, mop of shaggy brown hair, and marsupial-like grin, Atwater made being a Republican synonymous with “cool.” When he wasn’t organizing political campaigns, he was playing blues guitar in clubs. And he knew how to win elections. As former aide and 2008 John McCain/Sarah Palin Senior Advisor Tucker Eskew summarizes, “Did he give his opponents ammunition to criticize him for negative tactics? Yes. Does that obscure the fact that he outfoxed them at nearly every turn?”
While working as an intern for the late Republican Senator Strom Thurmond, Atwater learned the power of image, which later became his signature move. His successful campaign against Democratic state Senator Tom Turnipseed was centered on Turnipseed’s admission that he had undergone shock therapy for depression as a teenager; soon Atwater had everyone in South Carolina saying, “They hooked him up to jumper cables.” Turnipseed’s public persona went from respected politician to mentally insane loser.The “dirty tricks” that became integral to Atwater’s winning campaigns started early in his career as a political strategist. He knew what needed to be said in order to win a tough race, even if it was totally out of line and discriminatory. He helped defeat popular Democrat Max Heller (a Jewish immigrant and Holocaust survivor) in a race for a United States Congressional seat with very morally questionable tactics: Atwater had GOP operatives call South Carolina voters and ask if they would vote for someone who “didn’t believe in Jesus Christ,” in addition to [reportedly] hiring a third party candidate who campaigned from his RV with the same message.
The success of these state campaigns got Atwater noticed by the national Republican Party. By the age of 31, Atwater was working in the White House for President Ronald Reagan. His then boss, National Campaign Director for Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, Ed Rollins described him as having the “eyes of a killer.” The description seems appropriate because Atwater was later promoted (thereby replacing Rollins) to run Vice President Bush’s 1988 bid for the presidency after, claims Rollins, a “two year effort to destroy” his predecessor.
Atwater’s strategies not only won elections, they changed the entire American political landscape. He became famous, and infamous, after he helped Vice President Bush win the presidency. When Bush was behind in the New Hampshire Republican primary, and Atwater’s job was on the line, he devised Bush’s new economic position – “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Of course, once Bush was elected, he raised taxes. As 1988 Atwater aide Mary Matalin said, Atwater knew he needed to “Go big or go home.” He went big with the now legendary catchphrase, and Bush won the primary in large part because he had the image of someone who wouldn’t raise taxes.
Forbes spends a little too much time describing the intricacies of the 1988 election, especially for those of us that watched it twenty years ago. Still, the brilliance or treachery – depending on the point of view – of Atwater’s strategies still resonates. He was able to create a winning image of Bush that was in contrast with his actual background; Bush’s elitist persona was a problem for him connecting with Middle America, especially since Dukakis was actually from a working-class background.
“Bush could eat the pork rinds but he was a Yalie and an elite and he may have lived in Texas, but people still thought of him from Connecticut. Lee was the one who understood the country,” says Rollins. Understanding the country meant casting Bush as an everyman from Texas, complete with Texas state flag cowboy boots that he proudly showed reporters. That image, along with the racially-charged Willie Horton anti-crime commercials, won the election for Bush.
After being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor at the age of 40, Atwater repented for his cutthroat tactics by apologizing to his rivals, including Turnipseed. But his deathbed recanting came too late; negative campaigning and smear tactics had already become integral to American politics.
Atwater’s ruthlessness makes him a very engaging documentary film subject – and not a very likeable person. Throughout the film it is obvious that he was always looking out for number one, even if that meant turning friends into enemies. But Boogie Man doesn’t sermonize a liberal agenda or smear Atwater; instead, the film questions whether Atwater was a person with little integrity, or if politics is just a dirty game where morally questionable decisions are made in order to succeed.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in San Francisco, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.