Before the pre-festivals press screening of Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, the new documentary about the life and death of Republican political operative Lee Atwater, two separate Rolling Stones songs were running through my head. "Street Fightin' Man, " possibly inspired by Atwater's reputation as a dirty trickster of the higher order, and "Sympathy for the Devil," perhaps springing from Atwater's deathbed renunciation of many of the things he'd done; both associations sprang from the little I knew about Atwater. Thanks to the work of director Stefan Forbes, I now know a lot more; I now know so much, in fact, I'm not sure what to think.
Combining archival news footage with interviews from people who knew Atwater and some who, interestingly, only knew him through the public ramifications of his work, Boogie Man paints a complex portrait of a complex figure: A race-baiting political operative (Atwater may or may not have been behind the infamous 'Willie Horton' ad that cost Michael Dukakis the election in '88) who nonetheless loved to listen to, and play blues music; a man who sprang from the South who helped elect Eastern elites like George H.W. Bush; a man whose pupils in the modern political art of war, Karl Rove and George W. Bush (who worked with Atwater on his father's campaign) turned their back on him as he lay dying.
And one of the many pleasures of Forbes's documentary that we hear from people who appreciated and understood all these contradictions. B.B. King, in archival footage, notes of Atwater's penchant for the Blues that "Regardless what the man do for a living, when he plays Blues, he's my man." Atwater loved African-American culture; he also came up the ladder under Strom Thurmond, the notoriously racist South Carolina Senator. Watching the footage of Atwater playing guitar -- and there's plenty of it here -- I was of course remained of one of the greatest Onion headlines ever: "Affluent White Man Enjoys, Causes Blues"
But there's more to Boogie Man than just simple irony. Journalists like Joe Conanson, Eric Alterman and Ishmel Reed put Atwater in context; political operatives like Ed Rollins and Terry McAuliffe mix outrage with admiration as they recount Atwater at work. And, confirming that history does repeat, Michael Dukakis is interviewed to compare the Willie Horton ad's disastrous effect on his candidacy with the Swift Boat-ing of John Kerry.
And we also glimpse, through Boogie Man, a secret history. Watching George W. Bush, in archival footage, working on his father's campaign -- clearly dumbfounded, obviously confused, crying out how their side is going to "kick some ass" -- we can clearly see the past 8 years as a natural, grim consequence of lessons Atwater taught and victories Atwater won. But while we learn that Atwater's life was more than just what we saw, we also glimpse that his death from cancer -- and recanting and regrets that came with it -- was more than just what we saw, as well.
Boogie Man: The Story of Lee Atwater may seem like another exhumation of the recent political past, another laundry list of bygone wrongs for Democrats to fume about; it's much more than that, though, not only in its portrait of one man's journey from the streets of South Carolina to the halls of power, but also in its portrait of the consultant-driven, dirty-trick laden mess that modern politics has become. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Forbes and Boogie Man is that how after seeing the film, I wanted to go back over the campaign photography from the 2008 primaries, on the off chance that someone in the background of those photos -- as Atwater was in the background of photos of Thurmond and Reagan and Bush -- might, like him, wind up shaping 16 years of American politics.