Lee Atwater became one of the most complicated and successful Republican political operatives in history by employing a triple threat: spin when you can, change the subject when you can’t, and if all else fails, appeal to the voters’ resentment and fear, usually of African-Americans. In this conversation from 2008, Brooke talks to Stefan Forbes, director of "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story", about the dark legacy of Atwater’s Southern strategy.
Kenneth Sandford - When All Night Long a Chap Remains
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Lee Atwater, who died in 1991. In the history of U.S. politics, it’s hard to find a more complicated and influential powerbroker than he was. A son of South Carolina, where they know from dirty politics, Atwater played blues guitar, and politics from an early age and rose to become the wunderkind campaign strategist for such notables as Strom Thurmond, Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush. It was Bush, Sr. who eventually made Atwater the head of the Republican National Committee. Atwater’s winning formula was simple: Spin when you can, change the subject when you can't and, if all else fails, mine the voters’ resentment and fear, especially of black people. A few years ago we spoke with Stephen Forbes, the director of a documentary called “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story.” He told us that Atwater played brilliantly on the smoldering rage of many Southern whites towards the secular, the elite and the intellectual, people who they felt looked down on them. Atwater played that tune so well he even made it work for the WASPY, wealthy, very Northern George Herbert Walker Bush.
STEPHEN FORBES: And he realized that they could take the party of the rich, of corporations, and turn it into the party of the working man. And he did it brilliantly, by putting Bush, Sr. into a cowboy hat, into cowboy boots with a big Texas flag on the side and havin’ him eat pork rinds. He singlehandedly, pretty much, created the Bush dynasty, was a mentor to Karl Rove and taught W. how to campaign. Even from his grave, he’s been winning elections for the Republican Party.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He singlehandedly created George Herbert Walker Bush. How did he get to him, to begin with?
STEPHEN FORBES: It’s an amazing story. Back in 1972, they have an obscure guy [LAUGHS] running for chairman of the College Republicans, from Utah. His name is Karl Rove. Atwater’s his campaign manager and they lose, but Atwater won't accept defeat. They start throwing out ballots, challenging people’s right to vote. It gets thrown all the way up the chain to the chairman of the Republican Party, George H. W. Bush, who sees these two hard-knuckled young operatives and gives them the election. And right there, Karl Rove learns from Lee Atwater: how to win an election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Rove worked with Atwater on Vice President Bush’s 1988 campaign against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. At that point, Bush was knee deep in the Iran Contra scandal. He was lagging in the polls. And then Atwater changed the subject with two political ads. The first targeted a Massachusetts prison furlough program, by highlighting a black convict that we all still remember, named Willie Horton.
STEPHEN FORBES: It’s incredible. Back in ’88, in that campaign, Ronald Reagan has literally sold arms to terrorists and lied about it on national TV. Atwater was able to change the subject. He found a fairly irrelevant convict that was out on parole, Willie Horton, and made him the focus of that entire campaign. And his own party laughed at him.
ANNOUNCER: His revolving-door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes, like kidnapping and rape.
STEPHEN FORBES: Atwater was able to change the subject because he realized that the media is often like a school of fish. They're so anxious to chase the story and the prevailing narrative that an operative like Atwater is able to use them as an echo chamber. You put something out there that’s sticky, you know, the face of this scowling killer, and it can really swamp the whole dialogue on television.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the first ad peddled fear. The second notorious ad of that campaign also relied on imagery, some frankly silly footage of Dukakis riding in a tank, to peddle a lie.
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ANNOUNCER: Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we developed. He opposed new aircraft carriers. He opposed anti-satellite weapons. He opposed four missile systems, including Pershing II missile deployment. Dukakis opposed the Stealth Bomber and a ground emergency warning system -
STEPHEN FORBES: Perception is reality. He was a governor. He hadn't voted on any of those weapons systems. But Atwater realized, you find a powerful, sticky image that the media can't resist of this guy looking goofy in a tank helmet and that will dwarf the rest of the conversation. It was so convincing that even someone like Sam Donaldson, in looking back on it in the film, says, gee, I wonder if we really vetted all those claims? I'm not sure we did. Again, you hide in plain sight. You tell a lie that’s so powerful that people can't quite understand that the whole basis on which it’s being discussed isn't true. When George Bush, Sr. appointed Lee Atwater head of the Republican National Committee, he was, in effect, taking these campaign tactics and putting them in charge of the party at the highest level. Then, when Atwater’s acolyte, Karl Rove, won successfully in 2000, he took those same tactics into the White House and used them as a basis for governing. So it’s been fascinating to trace the Atwater playbook through these different administrations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Atwater just plain lied.
STEPHEN FORBES: Well, what I see is that Atwater’s vision of politics is pro wrestling, because they didn't pretend to be anything other than fake. You know, that kind of cynicism really infected a whole generation of political reporters in Washington and a generation of political operatives. Atwater was able to sort of pull back the curtain on politics, to say, hey, let me show you how we do our polling and look at this horserace, isn't it great? He kind of divested them of the moral imperative to talk [LAUGHS] about the truth. And you saw that come back with incredible power in the ’04 campaign when these Swift Boat ads came out, and for about three weeks the media really did not vet those charges.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1991, he was 40 years old. He had been made head of the Republican National Committee, and Atwater developed a brain tumor, and then he was portrayed in the media as having a real period of actual repentance, he was sorry for what he did before he died. Was that true?
STEPHEN FORBES: I was, again, incredibly surprised to find out that the truth was much more complicated than it had been reported. Friends of Atwater told me he never even repented for negative campaigning. The fact is, though, as Tucker Eskew, senior advisor to the McCain/Palin campaign says, the fear tactics that he had used on America came back on him. He would lie awake at night, desperately afraid that he was going to hell. He apologized to a couple of people. They say he actually sent a telegram to Willie Horton apologizing for what he'd done. But he didn't send anything to Mike Dukakis, as was reported in Life Magazine. He still doesn't apologize for making the Republican Party a Southern party, for putting the right wing evangelicals, whom he privately mocked as freaks, as guys with hands growing out of their heads, for putting them in firm control of Republican politics. He didn't repent for any of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why did you make this film? Is it just a cautionary tale? Or is it a kind of Shakespeare tragedy?
STEPHEN FORBES: I didn't set out to make a movie to hold Atwater accountable and let the rest of us off the hook. I mean, the fact that a guy who pals around with James Brown and B. B. King runs the most racist presidential campaign in 150 years, that reflects America’s hypocrisy about race. Atwater does all these things and then gets down on his knees and somehow seeks redemption at the end of his life. That’s our country all over again. We like to sin on Saturday night and get down on our knees Sunday morning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stephen, thank you very much.
STEFAN FORBES: Thank you. Take care.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stephen Forbes is the director of “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, which you can find at Boogiemanfilm.com.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: We’ll conclude this show about elections with a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, a favorite, about a man named Strephon whose upper half is fairy and lower half human. He’s the most powerful member of Parliament; none can resist his fairy eloquence. But he’s got a problem. “To the waist,” he says, “I’m a Tory of the most determined description but my legs are a couple of confounded radicals.” Most of us are not plagued with such duality. We think we know what’s right in our bones.
In the September issue of Trends and Genetics, researchers Peter Hatemi and Rose McDermitt reviewed a series of studies of twins and they found that upbringing seems to be the prime factor in our choice of political party. However, the data suggests that the drive to acquire political knowledge and to vote may actually be imprinted in our genes. What’s more, research suggests that a gene called DRD4 may be implicated in the development of our political leanings. If you have a variant of that gene called 7R and acquired a large network of friends during adolescence, you’ve more likely to be liberal.
A hat tip to The Economist, which last week, when pondering these findings, invoked the song of the soldier on guard duty in Iolanthe:
[CLIP/PRIVATE WILLIS SINGING]:
I often think it's comical-Fal, lal, la!
How Nature always does contrive-Fal, lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
That's born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal, lal, la!
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nature, nurture, emotion, evolution and the conscious mind - the ruling forces in your head are sickeningly opaque. You might want to duck responsibility for what goes on up there, but you can’t exactly run off to Canada. The politics in your head are pretty much the same as the politics outside. Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” See you at the polls.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Doug Anderson, with more help from Lita Martinez, Ariel Stulberg and Andy Lancet, and edited — by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was James Coyle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts and read our fabulous blog at onthemedia.org. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, and you can e-mail us at email@example.com. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.