Sunday, October 05, 2008

Documentary "Boogie Man" tells the story of Lee Atwater's GOP hitman career, illness, and impact

Lee Atwater (Harvey Leroy Atwater), 1951-1991 was a controversial political operative in the Republican Party. He collapsed at a fundraising breakfast in early 1990 after having been made chairman of the Republican National Committee. The media covered the catastrophic and aggressive nature of his brain tumor, an astrocytoma, as he died a year later. Had he not been struck down, there George H.W. Bush might have run a much more effective campaign against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992, and Bill Clinton might not have been elected. History could have been very different. (For example, the whole “don’t ask don’t tell” policy would never have been attempted.) At the end, Atwater comes to feel that his cancer, which made him quite helpless, had become his just karma.

All of this is covered in the video documentary “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story”, from InterPositive Media, directed by Stefan Forbes. It was shown this week at Landmark E Street cinema with digital projection, with the picture slightly cropped into a trapezoidal format. (The movie has nothing to do with “Boogie Nights” with Mark Wahlberg.)

The medical story takes up about the last ten minutes of the film, and shows Atwater as bloated by steroids given in addition to radiation therapy. The rest of the film is a biography, tracing his origins in South Carolina, and his love of superficial political competition. In fact, his favorite sport was show wrestling, because it’s demonstrably dishonest. He worked for segregationist Strom Thurmond, and helped defeat Tom Turnipseed. He would manipulate words to say potentially mean things in a socially acceptable way.

The best known episode of his career would occur in 1988. George H W Bush was unsure of his leadership of his campaign at first, but when he started winning primaries, Atwood got entrenched. During the campaign against Michael Dukakis, he would pull off some dirty tricks, including an unsubstantiated flag burning charge against wife Kitty. Then the Willie Horton affair, with Dukasis’s supposedly unwise release of prisoners was exploited.

The movie shows him playing in a rock band. There is plenty of archival footage, and his face seems to age more rapidly than it should have. There are a couple of still photos of lynchings in the film.

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