Quick Take

'Lee Atwater Story': Riveting Ruthlessness

Lee Atwater, who was George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign manager, was a Machiavellian operative.
Lee Atwater, who was George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign manager, was a Machiavellian operative. (Truly Indie)
Friday, September 26, 2008

In the can't-look-away documentary "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story," the career of the wildly successful, and wildly controversial, late Republican political operative comes back to us in ways that are funny, sad and mean. There is more than one occasion that will likely pop your jaw open.

Consider then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III eulogizing Atwater at his 1991 funeral as "Machiavellian . . . in the very best sense of that term."

Similar marvelous bits help shape this riveting look at a South Carolina kid who became a consultant to three presidents, including the 1988 campaign manager for Bush the elder.

Director Stefan Forbes plays it more or less straight. He's out to capture Atwater's political legacy and why such a talented man might have used the tactics that he used. The storytelling is boosted by interviews with politically connected sources, including Tom DeLay, Ishmael Reed, Sam Donaldson and Michael Dukakis.

Atwater's most notorious bit of campaigning was in 1988 on behalf of George H.W. Bush, in the form of the infamous Willie Horton ad against Dukakis. The ad attacked a prison furlough program that Dukakis had supported while governor of Massachusetts. Horton, a convicted killer, escaped from the program and raped a woman (in Oxon Hill).

In archival footage, we see Atwater denying that he or the Bush campaign had anything to do with the ad.

Then the film cuts to one of Atwater's friends describing how Atwater called him into his office, said he was going to set the ad up as an "independent" and asked what he thought. The friend says he told Atwater that it was appalling and racist and that it was going to "follow you to your grave."

Atwater, he says, responded with a vulgarity that implied his friend was weak.

Atwater died of a brain tumor at 40. Near death, he apologized to Dukakis and others for his tactics. Some people in the film believe the apologies were sincere, and some don't.

What is clear, from watching this talented man and his view of politics and America, is that his corrosive vision has seeped into the nation's political groundwater.

-- Neely Tucker

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story Unrated, 86 minutes Contains profanity. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company