Lee Atwater: The dark and dirty side of GOP politics

There is a tendency in this country to not want to look back. Once something positive happens, no matter how bad things have been, we want to turn the page.

Last week's election was certainly one of those hopeful moments of passage, and the danger is we will just move forward without learning any lessons from the past three decades about how it is that the nation came to be in the sorry shape it is today.


So, even if you think you have had all the TV politics you can stand, please watch Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story Tuesday night at 9 on PBS. I promise this is the the kind of first-rate history that can keep us from repeating tragic mistakes -- if only we take the time to learn it.

Atwater is the former campaign operative and Republican National Committee chairman who wrote the book on the dirtiest of dirty political tricks until his death in 1991 of a brain tumor. His tactics helped Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush get elected president. If you know about the infamous and racist Willie Horton ad used in the 1988 campaign to destroy Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, then you've seen the handiwork of the late Mr. Atwater.


But his sleazy tactics extend far beyond Horton.

"He mattered in American politics," Howard Fineman, of Newsweek, says in the film. "Because of the man he got elected, because of the party he shaped. He was very important not only to George H. W.'s victory, but to his son's victory."

And his proteges -- including Karl Rove -- are still on the case and very active in this nation's political and cultural life.

The 90-minute political biography traces Atwater's climb from small-time South Carolina politics to top of the Washington heap in 1989 after the Bush victory over Dukakis.

What a resume: College Republican leader for Richard Nixon in 1972. Internship under the racist Strom Thurmond. And then, a few state races in South Carolina where he falsely accused one candidate of having psychiatric problems and another of fathering illegitimate children. All lies, of course, and he was proud of it.

And then, on to bigger lies: helping Ronald Reagan win the South Carolina primary by planting a false story that one his opponents was "buying the black vote."

And in each instance of an Atwater dirty trick, producer Stefan Forbes tracks down and records testimony from the people involved with Atwater. One South Carolina "journalist" laughs about the way he was "used" by Atwater. Thankfully, one of the men who was destroyed by Atwater and the journalist bears witness with the pain in his voice today to how unfunny the evil wrought by Atwater and the politicians and journalists he worked with was.

Some of the most powerful testimony comes from Ed Rollins, the GOP operative who ran Reagan's campaign in 1984. He gave Atwater his first Washington job only to see Atwater turn on him -- that's the kind of low life Atwater was.


"Lee put a spear in my back, Rollins says in the film. "...It was just a two-year effort to destroy me."

And yet, at the end, as Atwater faced death, he begged Rollins to be his friend.

What a pack of thieves -- and this is the world of 1980s GOP politics from which Roger Ailes, the man who today runs the Fox News Channel, came. Yes, that one -- Mr. Fair and Balanced.

The darkness that Lee Atwater brought to American politics is alive and well. Sarah Palin embraced some his techniques when she took to the campaign trail and talked about Obama "palling around with terrorists." The GOP campaign worker in Pennsylvania who made up a story about being attacked by a black man was using a page out of the Atwater racist playbook -- as was Matt Drudge when he took the lie and ran with it on his Web site.

Sean Hannity was doing an Atwater when he asked question during an interview with Palin loaded with smears against Obama. You will even see a grassroots character that Atwater brought out of nowhere in a South Carolina election who will stunningly remind you of Joe The Plumber.

Forbes and Frontline have done this nation a great public service by making this film. Don't think the political war is over and be so foolish to believe that you can afford to miss it.


(Photo of Lee Atwater courtesy of Frontline)