PBS Frontline: 'Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story'

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Stefan Forbes
Frontline Producer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008; 11:00 AM

PBS Frontline producer Stefan Forbes was online Wednesday, Nov. 12 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his film "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story," which examines the meteoric rise and tragic death of a man both admired and reviled for the controversial, sometimes racially-charged political tactics that helped elect George H.W. Bush president and inspired such proteges as Karl Rove.

"Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story" will air Tuesday, Nov. 11 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Forbes has shared Emmy Awards for HBO's "Inside the NFL" and PBS's "Rome and Jewels."

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Rochester, N.Y.: How badly served is the public by a Washington press corps that is so lazy that they are easily manipulated by the likes of Lee Atwater and his proteges to this very day?

Stefan Forbes: I thought Sam Donaldson had some good thoughts on that in "Boogie Man," about how "the best political operatives make friends with the press." That's half the Atwater playbook right there. We actually see him flattering a reporter on screen, causing Tucker Eskew to ask incredulously, "don't you know when somebody's gaming you?"

Ed Rollins also explains how much reporters depended on Lee for his leaks. They build their careers on inside information. Perhaps his biggest victory was playing to their cynicism, reinforcing that it's the horse race that matters. Atwater reassured them that political journalism is about whose spin is working better, that they weren't duty-bound to report the truth.

Encouraging horse-race reporting and tabloidization has reaped huge dividends for the GOP. Al Gore, for instance, was swamped by a tidal wave of personal attacks and ridicule, constantly mocked for having "invented the Internet." Vanity Fair did an interesting piece on this much later. And of course Kerry was mocked for looking French. Interestingly the mockery index switched up this cycle, with Palin on the receiving end of much of it.

Ultimately it's the job of the press to have a laserlike focus on the truth. That's where true objectivity lies -- to vet ads and spin for their actual truth, not simply to report what both sides are claiming.

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Columbia, S.C.: I was out tonight and was wondering if "Boogie Man" was going to be rerun.

Stefan Forbes: Hey there, Columbia! I love your town, the friendly people, and the great barbecue sauce. Please keep an eye out for Lee's friend Joe Sligh performing live in your area.

Frontline will be rebroadcasting throughout the week.

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Minneapolis: I take it all back about the politicians, their political machines, and the journalists. It's the intellectually lazy electorate -- we deserve who we vote for.

Stefan Forbes: Great point, Minneapolis. It's ridiculous to blame all the sins of American politics on Lee Atwater. He wasn't doing these things because he was evil, but because he knew they worked. Ultimately, to blame only him is a way for us to let ourselves off the hook and ignore our own complicity in the fate of the country.

In a panel after "Boogie Man's" screening at the GOP Convention in September, longtime GOP operative Roger Stone said Atwater would do whatever it took to win. If being a Marxist-Leninist was the way to win, Atwater would have done that.

He spent hour after our in K-Marts, at diners, listening to peoples' fears and concerns. In some ways, perhaps he knew us better than we know ourselves. We have to accept some level of complicity for the success of his tactics, and for the "winning is everything" philosophy that is instilled in us from the time we're in Little League.

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Pocahontas, Ark.: Mr. Forbes, your documentary on Lee Atwater was one of the greatest films I have ever seen. Thank you for for revealing this information to the American people. Every American citizen needs to see this documentary. Congratulations on your most serious work.

Stefan Forbes: Thanks, Arkansas!

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La Puente, Calif.: When do you plan, in the name of fairness, to do a similar program on Terry McAuliffe, using Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity as guest commentators on his character and tactics?

Stefan Forbes: That's a cool idea, and I would love to interview Karl Rove and Limbaugh. I greatly enjoyed interviewing Bob Novak, Mary Matalin, Ed Rollins, Tucker Eskew, Roger Stone and other legendary Republicans.

Unfortunately Terry's life probably is not quite as interesting as Atwater's, and he hasn't had as big an impact on our politics -- although his run for governor of Virginia could be dramatic. Let's just say that when he records a blues album and jams with B.B. King, I'll consider the movie.

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Albany, Calif.: I saw the documentary last night and wondered how Lee's daughters and wife are doing.

Stefan Forbes: They are doing incredibly well, and although I only got to meet them briefly, I know they are really lovely, intelligent, insightful, warm people.

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Rochester, N.Y.: "He wasn't doing these things because he was evil but because he knew they worked." So Lee Atwater was the messenger, not the message?

Stefan Forbes: To a large extent, yes. I can't absolve Atwater of moral responsibility for his actions, but he did the more scurrilous things because they would work. I also place blame for the success of his wedge politics on Democratic Party leadership.

They showed great moral courage in sacrificing their prospects in the South for two generations by signing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in order to help America progress, and atone for their past sins on race. This gave rise to Nixon's Southern Strategy and its racial appeals, to which Professor Jack Bass alludes in the film.

But as Eric Alterman says, the Democrats must be held accountable for a tone-deaf quality in the ham-fisted implementation of civil rights in the '60s. They had the right goals, but tried to administer them from on high. They didn't engage communities in the necessary social change. Inside-the-Beltway types started busing kids all over the place, and it backfired.

Tucker Eskew told me that for a long time the Democratic Party consistently has marginalized southerners like Fritz Hollings who could have shown them how to inoculate themselves against culture-war tactics. They have paid the costs of elitism at the highest levels, and their party suffered mightily for it.

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West Chester, Pa.: Mary Matalan still seems to defend Lee Atwater and his actions. Other than loyalty to a deceased friend, can you explain why?

Stefan Forbes: West Chester, in making the film I was surprised to discover deep divisions in the way Atwater was viewed by the two parties. He is still a hero to many Republicans for his unrepentant vision of politics as war. He trained an entire generation of operatives.

They do believe he crossed the line at times, but overall see him as a very positive influence in the party. Many Republicans love "Boogie Man" -- I get e-mails all the time from them. Ed Rollins wrote me this, and said I could share it:

"I saw the film today and I thought it was excellent. I wanted to see it on the big screen and waited for it to come to New York. You are a superb filmmaker and you captured Lee perfectly! He was a complicated man with a fascinating story. It would have been easy to make him only a villain and shallow. You took the time to paint a far more complete story."

He is fondly remembered for the Southernizing of the GOP. Tom DeLay told me: "Lee Atwater taught us how to fight. He said 'we're not going to do it like you do it up North; we're going to do it like we know it.' "

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Columbia, S.C.: The comment that Atwater would have destroyed Clinton is not true. Clinton's entire machine was geared around the dirty tricks that Atwater employed -- the rapid response to any rumor or slight. For some reason Kerry forgot this, but Clinton was well-prepared. Obama learned from this as well. Unfortunately I see the idolization of Atwater daily. His form of politics seems sexy to many of the young -- especially in my home state.

Stefan Forbes: The Clinton team definitely studied Atwater. It's not hard to see his influence on James Carville, who had a similar fondness for the limelight that really wasn't seen in operatives before Atwater.

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St. Augustine, Fla.: Comment to the producer on having watching "Boogie Man": While I enjoyed your story on Lee Atwater you left out how much Lee Atwater assisted and attracted African-Americans to the Republican Party during his tenure in politics. Matter of fact, it was Lee and Ed Rollins who I worked for at the age of 18 at the Reagan-Bush '84 Campaign, and it was Lee who helped me acquire a political appointment in the Reagan/Bush administration and who inspired me to stay involved in politics. He was a friend until his death.

Granted, I am not the only person of color he assisted, for he saw our talent for politics, but understood that if the Republican Party was to grow it had to work on attracting minorities to the party. (As you may well know, the Republican Party was was founded on anti-slavery sentiments.) The man knew how to win elections. As a producer myself it is my hope that, next time you produce a story on such a person, you get all the facts and speak with those whom he assisted along the way who happened to be African American. Thanks.

Stefan Forbes: St. Augustine, thanks for weighing in! You're quite right -- atwater worked overtime on a personal level to make African-Americans feel comfortable in the GOP. Several of them have told me that they often felt slightly awkward at social functions in the Reagan White House, and were appreciative of how personally warm and welcoming Atwater always was.

Armstrong Williams told me that Atwater helped him greatly and did a lot for his career. I did an interview with Armstrong, who loves Lee, that didn't make it into the final film because we were just too rushed and I didn't have enough time to really get in-depth thoughts from him. I'll try to include some of that interview in the Director's Cut DVD extras.

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Middleton, Wis.: What a wonderful program it was! I had to concentrate harder than normal to hear and comprehend it. I must've tuned out of politics for the details of the Dukakis defeat. If only we could get everyone of voting age to view this, surely it would open their eyes to why just a few sometimes minor issues often dominate the elections. I've been online telling people about this program.

Stefan Forbes: Thanks, Wisconsin! And congrats on your new quarterback, Aaron Rodgers -- he seems to be the real deal.

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New York: Anybody who yammers about the media's liberal bias should see this piece. Atwater couldn't have done half the damage he did, especially to Dukakis, without his close ties to the press.

Stefan Forbes: Thanks, New York. I personally believe the widespread dissemination of the phrase "liberal media" is one of the great achievements of modern conservatism. Most of the media is owned by very large media conglomerates. It's simply illogical to think that their reporting could be consistently "liberal."

Why is the GOP so much better at coming up with sticky catchphrases than their Democratic counterparts? Pro-life, death tax, "country first" -- these are very well-crafted phrases, and Terry McAuliffe lamented to me that the Republican communication strategy was light years ahead of the Democrats. That may be changing.

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College Park, Md.: There was an article title shown in the documentary titled "Politics of repentance: The Saga of Lee Atwater." I was interested in reading this article. Can you please tell me how I can find it?

Stefan Forbes: Harry Dent wrote that. It's interesting that many on the right contradict Mary Matalin's denial of Atwater's repentance. Nobody agrees on the last act of Atwater's life. I personally believe that Atwater really was searching desperately for truth. It's hard not to be moved by his powerful speech from that wheelchair toward the end of the film.

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Lexington, Ky.: Based on your research, what were Lee Atwater's views on many of the critical policy issues of the day? Did he care? Were they known? Was he an ideologue?

Stefan Forbes: Atwater definitely was not an ideologue. In fact, he advocated a big-tent Republicanism that would welcome people on both sides of the abortion issue, for instance ... yet in the long term, his influence on the party may, ironically, have been to make the tent smaller.

When Atwater delivered the South for Bush Sr. in the '88 election -- in the process introducing George W. Bush to the right-wing Christian power brokers who would propel him to the White House -- Atwater handed the reins of his party to hardline evangelicals for whom he had little sympathy. In the words of Eric Alterman -- who spent a lot of time with Lee and called him "the most fun person I've ever met" -- Atwater privately mocked the hardline followers of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as freakish characters with "third eyes and hands growing out of their heads," yet relentlessly courted them as the GOP's new base, ultimately making much of the party quite doctrinaire on social issues.

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Baltimore: Atwater's two-track mind: How do you account, psychologically, for the fact that Atwater specialized in a brand of politics that fed racial fears and bias, while at the same time being enamored of the blues and of African American musicians? For the life of me, I don't see how anyone could go through life with such contradictory impulses playing out.

Stefan Forbes: I definitely don't think Atwater is alone there -- I see him as America writ large. We all have been brought up with similar hypocrisy in a country that uses black people as an all-purpose distraction and scapegoat. The fact that we talk about welfare queens and not corporate welfare is convenient to both parties. The fact that we see crime as having a black face allows us to ignore the incredibly violent history of a country settled in large part by Scots-Irish, the most bloodthirsty maniacs in the world -- of which I'm one, incidentally. The media's emphasis on black men doing violence to white women allows us to ignore a history where white men indiscriminately raped black women for centuries.

As Tucker Eskew points out in the film, racism is not a Southern problem, it's an American problem. I really think we're starting to engage with it much better and put it behind us as a country. Rather than focusing simply on Atwater, let us all search our souls -- as he bravely was attempting to do in his final days. Let us be media-savvy about the messages we receive and let us reach out to our brothers in red states and blue states and continue the dialogue.

I want to thank everyone for a truly interesting and thought-provoking chat today! It was a pleasure.

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Bethesda, Md.: I'm interested in learning more about Atwater and his methods. Can you give me any suggestions on what to read?

Stefan Forbes: There are some great links on Frontline's Web site.

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